Do Kids Really Need Homework?

If you are the parent of a school-age child, you definitely have some feelings on the topic. It's too much! It's stressful! No, it's essential! It teaches time management! So who's right? Well, in a sense, everyone. (Sorry, trick question.) Here's a primer on the debate.


Homework isn't necessary in elementary school.

Photo by Evgeniya Tiplyashina/Getty Images

"For elementary-school kids, there is really no correlation between homework and achievement," says Denise Pope, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a coauthor of Overloaded and Underprepared. "In our research, we couldn't find any studies that said for certain that giving homework taught elementary-age children discipline or organizational strategies or kept them out of trouble." What younger kids need, says Pope, is free play and reading time. "They are learning collaboration and communication," she says. "Homework doesn't necessarily help with that. Even at after-school soccer, an adult is telling your child what to do, just like in school. Children need to be able to freely select what to do with their time—that leads to further innovation in the brain." And, she adds, "if you're fighting with your second grader about a worksheet, if it's a source of tension, that can turn a child off from learning."


Wait—what? Why do we still have it then?

Well, a lot of parents want it. It's what they expect "school" to entail, says Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, a clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology and a coauthor of The Learning Habit. Also, "it teaches students how to work independently, and it's an important link between home and school, parents and teachers," says Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association (NEA).


Here's what's appropriate.

"Homework in kindergarten is appalling. No one agrees with that," says Donaldson- Pressman. (The NEA doesn't, either, says Eskelsen García.) "But I don't think there's a problem with it in first, second, or third grades. Kids can pick up time-management skills and learn to prioritize and focus," says Donaldson-Pressman. She believes in the often cited 10- minute rule: 10 minutes of work per grade level. But that might not look like studying. "It can be sitting and reading a book with you or drawing a picture," says Donaldson-Pressman. "You set a timer. It's part of the routine. Then, by the time the child is in fifth or sixth grade, she is used to sitting for a specific period of time."


It gets more challenging in middle and high school.

"From middle school on up, we start to see a correlation between homework and achievement," says Pope. But there's a limit. The correlation fades after 90 minutes for middle school and two hours for high school. "Our research showed that after the 3½-hour mark, you start to see negative ramifications and health issues," says Pope, much of it from sleep deprivation. This, combined with anxiety and stress, can also lead to depression, according to Pope's research. Why is the work taking so long? "Homework should reinforce and extend topics covered in class," says Eskelsen García. "Ask teachers, and they will tell you that too much classroom time is being spent on testing, not enough on learning." Homework is often used to catch up. What's more, overscheduled kids are starting homework late (and exhausted), so it takes longer to do.


Can we come to some resolution?

Probably not entirely. The battle over homework isn't a new one. "Policies aren't always spelled out crystal clear at every school," says Pope. "You have parents and kids saying there's a homework problem, and some schools are saying, "Really?" " Here are some tips for avoiding battles at home—and talking to your child's teacher.

  • Make a time wheel. Especially for teenagers, "who think they can do anything," says Pope.
  • Have a 24-hour wheel. Cross out how much sleep they need (she says nine hours), school hours, commuting time, activities, and downtime. Add it up. If there isn't room for homework, you need to rethink.
  • Sign a contract. Decide when and where homework will happen (at 4:30, after one video game, at the kitchen table). "When everyone signs it and there's a plan, arguing tends to stop," says Pope.
  • Brainstorm. "There are teachers who give out a packet. Kids have a certain number of days to do it," so there can be days off, says Pope. "Talk to the teacher—just be respectful. "Here's what's going on in our house. It's causing a lot of stress. Can you help us with some strategies?""
  • Don't help! If your fifth grader focused for 50 minutes and could not finish the assignment, or there are tears, write a note saying so. "If the parent helps without telling the teacher, she'll never know there's an issue," says Donaldson-Pressman.