Sunday, September 15, 2013

Talk to me about homework

I've stopped and started this post too many times to count. I think I'm having trouble sorting through my conflicting thoughts and putting everything down in writing. The post was born from a Facebook update I posted last weekend about my hatred for homework. It garnered some interesting and thought provoking comments that I've been mulling over ever since.

In many ways the Little Man is a typical seven year old boy. He loves to be outside, will play LEGO for hours on end, loves the movies, board games and generally being active. He's a good student, who is able to grasp new concepts fairly quickly and accurately, reads just above his grade level and doesn't struggle with any subjects at school. He likes recess, loves to be and feel helpful and sometimes gets over excited and spirited.

Like most kids, I imagine, he has his issues. His nerves get the better of him when watching TV shows or movies with a lot of suspense. He's not into war games, cops and robbers or superheroes. He craves routine (though not obsessively) and hates to fail. He has anxiety.

The beginning of a new school year is fraught with anxiety for a child like Jake. New teachers, new classmates, new routines. The unpredictable stresses him out. Watching him at school you probably won't see any of this. You'll see a happy kid, eager to learn and excited to be with his friends. You'll see a child who tries to be helpful, is respectful and polite.

You won't see it, but I will.

I'll see it in the form a child who essentially loses his mind when he walks through the door after school and daycare. A child who will ask a question, then shut down before waiting for the answer. A child who will offer to help, but seconds later can't remember what is you asked him to help with. A brother who is usually considerate and loving toward his sibling, who is now climbing and stepping all over him and thoughtlessly swinging toys in his face. I'll see in the form of a son who can't remember his manners, forgets basic household rules and cries or screams at the drop of a hat. I see it and you don't because his anxiety has driven him to hold it all in during the school day but when he gets home, he's got nothing left. He's exhausted beyond reason and just lets go.

More times than I can possibly count, we find ourselves evaluating and discerning these behaviours. Trying to figure out if this particular incident stemmed from anxiety, or a child simply being a child. This is never more true than when it comes to homework. And I've wrestled with it for over a year now . . . is Jake incapable of doing his homework today because it's too much, he's had a long day and deserves a break? Or is it because his anxiety kept him going all day and now he's crashing?

Here's what I've discovered:

The rule of thumb in these parts seems to be an average of 10 minutes of homework a night per school grade. First graders get 10 minutes, second graders get 20 minutes and so on. So far Jake's homework has consisted of reading, math worksheets, oral presentation preparation, language arts worksheets, spelling and special projects. Most of the work comes home on Mondays and is due on Thursday.

Two books come home that are to be read more than once throughout the week. Each book takes 15 to 20 minutes to read. Five to ten spelling words come home that need to be recognized by sight and learned to spell, sight unseen. Two worksheets come home on math and/or language arts. Each page takes about 10 minutes to complete. I think I'm being fair in my estimate of how long each task should take. This is based on my actual knowledge of the children in Jake's class, having spent the previous year volunteering in the classroom a few hours a week. So I have a decent idea of the average amount of time it takes a seven year old to get through each of those homework assignments.

If we follow the teacher's direction to read the books more than once, practice the spelling each night and complete the worksheets by Thursday, it actually works out to about 40 minutes of homework on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with no homework on Thursdays and the occasional special project or oral presentation preparation over the weekend.

Jake goes to bed at 8 pm on weeknights. He gets up at 6:45 am and leaves the house at 7:35 am. He's at school from 8:15 am to 2:45 pm, then he's at daycare from 3 pm to 5 pm. When we get home, he plays with his brother, sets the table and empties his backpack while we make supper. We're finished eating and cleaning up by 6:30 pm. Twelve hours after getting up in the morning we're sitting down to do homework. If we've all had a good day, Jake can get through his reading and spelling in about 35 minutes. On a different night, when we get to the math worksheet, if it's composed of numerical (as opposed to word) problems, he can finish that and read again or practice spelling in another 40-45 minutes.

Those are good nights. It's now 7:15 pm and Jake has 30 minutes to play before getting ready for bed himself. But it's also Noah's bedtime, so Mom and Dad are busy and it's too dark to play outside so he's on his own. He might watch TV (the only screen time he'll have that day), or play by himself.

At 7:45 pm he has a bedtime snack, gets his clothes ready for the next day, has a bath, tidies up the playroom and perhaps assists us with another chore. Lights out at 8:30 pm.

What I've discovered are three things. First, it's too much homework, plain and simple. It's decidedly more than twenty minutes. Second, if the homework requires any kind of creative thought on Jake's part (mathematical word problems, language arts, oral presentations or journaling), we're pretty much screwed. By that point in the evening he's beyond critical thought and physically and mentally tired. Even with our help, it will take him over an hour to get through that type of assignment on a weeknight. Third, this has nothing to do with his anxiety and everything to do with a full day spent on the move at home, school and daycare. I'm tired just thinking about his day. Heck, my day is essentially the same as his.

Sure part of the "problem" (though I'm shuddering just saying that aloud) is that Jake's parents work outside the home. We're not available when he finishes school at 3 pm to start on his homework right then and there. That reality isn't going to change soon and I imagine it's a similar reality for at least half, if not three quarters of the families at his school.

I find myself lamenting his childhood. He has hardly any down time in the evenings. No time for a family to spend some quality time together, with the exception of at the dinner table - and boy, am I profoundly grateful for that time. No time for sports or physical activity - something they're already doing less and less of at school. No time for playing outside in the fresh air with his neighbourhood friends. No evening bike rides to the park, or walks to the hill to go sledding.

Jake does one evening activity during the week and none on weekends. Because of the amount of homework and the timing of that activity, we actually need to cram three nights of work into two because we're out on Tuesday evenings at gymnastics.

One of the comments I received on my Facebook post was from my sister-in-law, a teacher in Alberta. In their school board, elementary students aren't assigned homework with the exception of daily reading. With the support of parents in their community, and in light of studies showing the ineffectiveness of homework, they've allowed families to take back their down time and engage in activities (organized or not) that help develop children develop into whole beings.

It's my fervent wish that our school board would do the same. I wouldn't even mind if my child came home with work he was given ample time to finish in school, but didn't, along with a daily reading assignment and the occasional weekend project.

I've the utmost respect for teachers and am all too aware of the challenges they face in throughout the school day and into the evenings and weekends. I'm grateful for the hard work and dedication they put into their profession and the amount of time they give my son. I just want my kid back. You teach him reading, writing and 'rithmetic, during regular school hours. I'll handle the rest.


  1. A great article, Carly! You should submit it to Huff Post (or somewhere). It is our first year with homework and so far, OK. But, I can see how what you are saying could happen. Nell's school sends home one page a night, Mon-Thu. It takes about 20 mins, but most of that is colouring (and is an expected part of the assignment). I am glad of the involvement, so far!, because Nell tends to do the least amount of work that she can possibly get away with... homework lets me address that and encourage her to do her best. But my opinion on this subject might change as Nell gets older and has more assignments! I agree that kids need lots of family time and down time... and that is being eroded. When I was teaching, I used to tell parents that if it was "one of those nights" they could excuse their son from HW and send me a note. Similar if they didn't understand what to do - send me a note and leave it until the weekend, or if it went over the 30 mins prescribed. It was really helpful for me (before I had kids) to see what they could get through in the 30 mins allowed - if all the parents had just pushed through and never told me, I wouldn't have known how long stuff was taking, at home, at night, after activities and after school club, etc. You have really addressed an important concern - I don't know of any research that supports the theory that homework reinforces or supports the learning that happens in the classroom. I wonder if there is any that suggests that it teaches time management? I think that Alfie Kohn (a SUPERB education writer) has a book that talks about HW. You should check it out and write to your school board! Thanks for sharing your message!

    1. Thanks Jill! I will speaking with Jake's teacher about all my thoughts/feelings. She does have children (who are slightly older now) and I do think some work is good and promotes good habits. But "some" work for me is reading and spelling and occasional special project/oral presentation.

  2. Don't get me started on this topic Carly! But I agree with you completely. I bring it up every year, for the past 15 years I guess. I am ignored every time. Kids need downtime and "extra work" homework for the sake of homework makes me crazy.

  3. wow well said, it's sad to me there is not more time for play and family time at the end of the day, where is the work life balance and he is 7 . wow and as you said working parents is the reality of most children these days. Bring back play, cut out the homework...

  4. You should give his teachers a copy of your blog - very well said!!!

  5. Our mutual friend Jill Bates sent this to me. I have been talking about homework and giving parents the challenge to present research info and ask their teachers to abide by it. Your story shows exactly why. You're right—20 min. of homework for one child is an hour of frustrated and upset wasted time for another. Here is the link to my blog on homework including some informed things you can say to your child's teacher.
    I will repost this blog on my facebook page Bonnie Harris Connective Parenting.

  6. School work at school and play at home... not the other way around

  7. I feel the same way Carly...We don't do half of what they "expect" us to be doing...we don't have the time and I don't want Ryan to be so frustrated that he ends up hating school.

  8. So many thoughts and my kid isn't even at this stage yet! I can see how *some* extra work would be necessary for some kids who struggle, in order to reinforce concepts. But really, THAT much work across the board is way too much. Period. Heck, even for the families who DO have a parent home to start it at 3:15! When Norah comes home after a long, busy, stimulating day at school, she needs down time, Mommy time, and play time. In the board my cousins attend back home, homework is banned before grade six or seven. I don't think that is necessarily the answer either, because building good habits is easier done earlier. But a kid should never be overwhelmed like that.

    1. I agree. If your child is having a hard time with something, "some" extra work would be helpful. If my child is goofing off in school and doesn't finish his work in the allotted time (and most of the class does), then by all means, PLEASE send it home.

      I will happily read for 20 minutes (or more) every evening, and review spelling/word wall words as well. I'll even so special projects and help him prepare for show n' tell (oral presentations) as long as we're given ample time to practice/prepare.

      But I'm over the busy work that only frustrates my kid. Sometimes because he's genuinely bored by it and often because he's tired and "done" at the end of the day. I've decided that I'm okay with sending back incomplete work and will be speaking with his teacher about it in the coming days.

  9. You could have been describing my third-grade son. My son and our evenings sound exactly like yours. However, I am a stay-at-home parent, and even being able to get started earlier doesn't help. My son goes to bed earlier and so therefore is left with about the same amount of downtime at home. It's not enough for him. I am a former teacher and I feel that some daily reading and spelling words would be more than enough at this point, and the rest of his homework is busywork. My heart breaks for my sweet boy.

  10. Fantastic post, Carly, and I saw my own kids in your description of your son. I used to think that homework was great, and taught my kids a good work ethic. Now I find that it is just so stressful for them, and too much work in one day, especially for the really young ones.

    My kids always took much longer than the "allotted" time to do this work. When I asked around to other parents, I was pretty surprised to find that it seemed my kids were the only ones drowning - maybe one or two others, but many thought it was a reasonable amount and were getting it done with plenty of time to spare. It make *me* stressed out, and I pushed them to do more, and faster, when they just were not mentally prepared for that at the end of the day.

    Last year I was talking to another mom about homework and she blew my mind when she said that her daughter just didn't do it. She was in the same boat as us - her daughter was too tired/stressed at the end of the day, and was taking ages, with no apparent benefit - so she politely informed the teacher that they would continue to do spelling practice and some reading, but that was all. And it was totally okay! The teacher understood, the child was happier, and I don't think it affected her marks one bit. BLEW MY MIND. Just not doing it never seemed like an option before. But it is now!

    1. Thanks Lynn! I'm with you - I never thought simply not doing the work was an option, but we're trying it this week. I just wrote "completed" on the top of one of the worksheets (because really we ended up doing the work required orally before I'd even seen the sheet, through the course of our spontaneous conversation about one of his required readings) and will simply wait and see what his teacher says.

      I do hope it doesn't affect Jake's marks and I stand firm on the belief that anything not completed in class (when given sufficient time) and anything he's struggling with should be sent home as homework. We will aways do eading and spelling daily.