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Homework: How it helps, and how parents can help kids get it right

by David J. Marks, PhD and CSC Staff

Smiling girl ready to do homework

Most days, Matthew arrives home from school at 4 p.m. and relaxes for half an hour. Then he gets out his homework book, reviews his assignments and begins his homework.

Haley comes home ready to start her homework but can't remember what assignments she has to complete. Sometimes she doesn't have all of the materials she needs. Often her mom has to take her back to school to get a book in order to complete the assignment.

Nicholas can finish some assignments quickly but writing assignments take him a long time and he is often up late doing his homework.

As the above examples illustrate, some children seem to complete homework effortlessly, while others have difficulty managing the academic demands and organizational challenges it presents.

Why homework?

The purpose of homework is to review class material and practice skills. As children complete their assignments, they become more invested in and responsible for their learning. Homework places demands on children that help them develop mental skills. It demands that a child concentrates, follows directions, organizes materials, solves problems and works independently. Homework offers a way to show a growing sense of competence and independence. Additionally, homework helps forge a connection between school and home.

What do researchers tell us about homework?

Studies comparing students who completed homework versus those who did not indicate that homework can help improve performance on unit tests. Findings were observed for students in grades 2-5 as well as in high school students. In looking at results across several studies, the average homework completer had higher unit test scores than 73 percent of non-completers (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Thus, there is good evidence that doing homework not only reinforces concepts introduced in class; it may bolster academic achievement as well.

Research has challenged the myth that America's students are overburdened with homework. According to national studies children actually do not do enough homework. The Brookings Institute has found that on average, daily time spent on homework in the U.S. increased from 16 minutes in 1981 to slightly more than 19 minutes in 1997. However, the amount of homework assigned to children ages 6 to 9 has increased from about 44 minutes per week to more than two hours per week.

Additionally, homework for kids ages 9 to 11 increased from about 2 hours and 50 minutes to more than 3-and-a-half hours per week. A poll conducted in 2000 by the Public Agenda Foundation showed that most parents feel homework is about right. However, as both parents and children are busier than ever, it is no surprise that some parents perceive an increased homework load, in part because there are competing options for children including sports, music, part-time jobs, and family responsibilities. Sometimes it's difficult to imagine where homework will fit in.

What do master teachers tell us about homework?

Homework should be geared towards the work of the classroom and, when possible, to the interest of the child. It should be reflective of the child's ability and be developmentally appropriate. Teachers should try to make homework stimulating rather than a repetition of the day's in-class work. Giving choices for how homework is to be completed, sending home a list to parents of expectations and goals, and using a reward and tracking system for homework completion are helpful ways to ensure participation. It is important that teachers monitor homework progress and communicate with the family regularly.

Teachers can prepare children for homework because it is a teachable skill. Children need to know that there are good reasons for homework. Some teachers don't assign any homework in the first several weeks of school. Instead, they spend that time teaching children how to do homework. Along with discussions about how to manage time, they teach, model and practice how to do each of the possible choice activities. They provide all the necessary materials, which the children take home, and the class talks about and practices how to use and care for the materials.

Developmentally, how much homework is appropriate per grade?

The amount of homework assigned increases as children grow older. In Grades K through 1, 10 to 20 minutes or less per day is usual. From Grades 2-3, 20 minutes per day plus 15 minutes of reading is expected. When children reach Grade 4-6, 20- 40 minutes per day plus 30 minutes of reading is the norm. In Grades 7-9, homework can span as long as 2 hours per day or more.

Once children reach middle school, with each new school year, the complexity and quantity of assignments increases along with the assumption that students should know how to do homework.

How much help with homework is appropriate?

The most useful stance a parent can take is to be somewhat but not overly involved. The emphasis should be on helping your child, not on doing homework for them. Some useful strategies for becoming involved in your child's schoolwork include the following:

Communicate: It is a good idea to get an understanding of what teachers expect of your child. Meet with the teacher early in the year to set a good precedent for facilitating communication later in the semester, if need be.

Monitor: Talk about the assignment so your child can figure out what needs to be done. Reviewing a completed assignment is helpful. For younger children, it is appropriate to help them with their homework and closely monitor their progress. For children age 12 and over, you may want to leave it up to your child's discretion whether he or she wants help.

If your older child does not ask for help with homework but you notice that he or she is having difficulty, you will want to intervene and help your child get outside supports (i.e., extra-help sessions with a teacher, after-school study sessions, individualized student homework contacts, or a tutor).

Encourage: Regardless of your child's age, never underestimate the importance and impact of your praise and encouragement. Talking about an assignment and showing interest in your child's schoolwork may also help your child maintain his or her motivation and interest.  Be sure to reinforce effort and small achievements (including the "process" - e.g., organizational skills and being prepared), not just the finished product or outcome.

Model behavior: Parents' beliefs and practices are very important influences on children's success. Show that you think homework is important by providing a consistent time and place for it. Try and help your child see homework as an opportunity, not a threat. Never use homework as a punishment and don't exempt kids from homework as a reward. Both actions imply that homework is not fun and not part of the routine and send a message that can backfire on students, teachers and parents.

How can I help my child be ready for homework?

By focusing on certain skill areas you can help your child complete his or her homework with less stress and frustration.

Choose a specified space and time set aside for homework. Though recent studies suggest that studying in different locations can be beneficial for memory, it can be helpful to have a designated "go-to" quiet space. Remove distractions. Help your child concentrate by turning off the television and limiting personal phone use. You may also want to remind him or her that there is no such thing as true multitasking; if he's listening to music and chatting online with friends while doing homework, he's not giving his full attention to any of those activities. Lastly, set a good example by reading and writing yourself.

Make sure that your child has all the tools and supplies needed to complete work. It is a good idea to accompany your child to an office supply store at the start of each semester to purchase new school supplies as necessary.

When your child sits down to tackle the evening's assignments, it can be helpful to alternate subject areas in which she is strong with those she finds more challenging. For children with attentional difficulties or struggles in a particular academic area, consider sequencing assignments in such a way so as to improve engagement and minimize frustration. Youngsters who are strong in math but weaker in reading, for example, may be well-served by completing a handful of math problems, reading several pages, and then returning to math.

Help your child set realistic goals regarding how long each assignment may take so that he or she knows that they will also have free time.  

For long-term assignments or those that require multiple steps, help your child dismantle the activity into small, manageable components; starting the process early will help to circumvent last-minute scrambling and panic and will inevitably result in a better, more polished final product, and greater satisfaction when it's time to turn in their homework.

Updated August 2011 by David Marks, Ph.D., Director of Educational Outreach, Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement, NYU Child Study Center