Homework can be a headache – is it worth the pain?

Some elementary schools are greatly reducing or eliminating homework altogether



The worst part about homework isn’t the homework itself. Like many chores assigned to an elementary-school-aged child, if the child doesn’t want to do it—and let’s face it, most don’t—a task that should take no more than five to 10 minutes can easily take an hour or more.

The frustration factor could be excused if you believed the ends justified the means. But for younger kids, the time spent on homework often comes at the expense of developmentally important activities like playing with siblings or friends, bonding with parents, reading, being active outside, or sleeping. The benefits of that free play, social time and sleep can be far greater than time spent with flashcards or worksheets.

If a project’s due, a big test is coming up, or you know your child needs extra help to understand something, there’s no question it’s worth spending the time to coach your child through the tears and frustration that often comes with homework. Yet all too often, what’s sent home is simply busywork.

It’s why a growing number of Montreal-area elementary schools are rethinking their homework policies to focus on the aspects of homework that are proven to make a difference, like reading books for pleasure, both alone and with older family members.

At Elizabeth Ballantyne Elementary School in Montreal West, for example, administrators changed the homework policy this year to minimize the amount of time teachers were asking students to spend on homework. The school has stopped punishing children who do not complete homework, as well as grading homework. Instead, students are asked to read 10 to 30 minutes daily, depending on grade level.

By eliminating rote work, Principal Mike Brown said he hopes families would use the extra time to prioritize eating dinner and reading together, playing outside and ensuring kids get to bed early for a full night’s rest. 

Brown said the research is clear: homework has proven to be a major source of stress for kids and parents, yet there is no definitive evidence that it actually helps students learn better.

“These days, both parents are often working. And what’s healthy for mom and dad is to come home and disconnect from work and be with their families,” Brown said. “Go home. Have fun. Be with your family.”

The school has not banned homework entirely. Brown said there are some times when students still bring work home, such as when they’re struggling with specific subjects or concepts and need more practice, or when they’ve not completed the work assigned in class. Sometimes, he said, parents also request extra work for their children.

But even for struggling students, the focus has shifted from “homework” to “preparation.” Brown said the after-school homework program now offers kids a chance to work on key concepts related to things that will soon be coming up in class, so that they can understand the lesson the teacher is presenting.  Brown noted that often, a student who seems to be struggling may simply be missing fundamental concepts that the teacher may assume the kids already know.

While some parents have expressed concern that children need to practice doing homework to develop self-discipline and organizational skills, Brown believes these skills are already tested in class. If children are talking or goofing off instead of completing their assignments, he said, the natural consequence is that they have to complete the work at home. That provides motivation for kids to focus and stay on task so that they can enjoy free time at home.

“We want kids to have a positive feeling towards school,” he said. “What better way to learn discipline and be organized than getting your work done in class time. And is homework really the only way kids can learn to be organized? I find that idea a bit silly.”

For an overview of the research on homework, visit these sites:

The Centre for Public Education

The American Psychological Association

Survey of parents and teachers’ impressions of homework

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