The Elementary School Dilemna: How much homework is too much?

I can't blame my children for not always wanting to do their homework.  Growing up is hard work.  The intensity with which they play, climb, run, bike, interact and think can be overwhelming and what parent has not been privy to the meltdown effects of over-tiredness?

In the early years, learning - as it relates to chidren - is nothing short of stratospheric.  The day to day information childen unconsciously absorb as a result of the television, at school, in the playground, at home, on billboards, etc. is a testiment to the complexity of the human mind.  Forming patterns, assessing relationships, understanding behavioural cues, developing awareness, the tasks the mind is constantly processing is endless. So, with so much learning taking place outside of the classroom, how do we introduce homework without overloading children?

In the elementary years, homework is a touchy subject. The cross section of opinions varies so greatly that it is nigh on impossible to come to an agreement about the 'right' level of homework that will satisfy everyone. While some parents believe little or no homework should be given in the primary years, there are those that will argue their children are not getting enough.  Homework overload and the effects it has on different types of families can be rewarding to some and stressful to others. Ultimately, it is the school or school board who will set the formal guidelines regarding homework policy and then the responsibility will shift onto the parents to try and enforce it (however rightly or wrongly they believe the policy to be.) But how much homework is too much? 

It goes without saying that there are equally valid arguments to both sides of the homework debate.  As a qualified teacher, I understand the need for homework. As a mother of four, I think children cannot always be on 'perform' mode.  There is a lot to be said for productivity.  At a very young age (by this I mean children between the ages of 4-5,) there shouldn't be any 'homework' in the traditional sense of the word.  At this age, children are audio-visual learners, which means that they rely on picture books or people talking to make sense of what is going on around them or happening in a book.  Answering their questions in a car on route to the supermarket or spending time reading with them at night is sufficient learning for this age group; engaging and interacting is key here.   

For the early learners (children between the ages of 6 to 11,) some will argue that homework should be introduced gradually and accordingly. Those individuals that are in this pro-homework camp, will give the following reasons for why afterschool work should be a compulsory task in every household:

  • Children need to establish a routine.  If a child fails to develop a habit for doing their homework from an early age, they will be unable to cope with the sheer volume of homework they receive once they reach high school.
  • Children from other schools regularly have homework. Some parents feel their children are at a disadvantage if they are not receiving the same or similar work load as other children at neighbouring schools.  While I understand this form of reasoning, it must be said that competitive parenting can be a dangerous thing - especially when you don't have all of the information needed to make an educated decision about what is being taught at other schools.  Running comparisons between schools is like stepping through a land mine.  You don't know what you could set off unintentionally.  Adhere to your child's school policy and trust that they have your child's best interest at heart.  If you truly don't feel they do, you would be wise to move them to another school.  Then abide by that school's policy.
  • It gives parents an idea of how their children are doing at school.  Using homework to measure where your child is academically can be beneficial but homework is not the greatest measure of aptitude.  Speaking to your child’s teacher and looking at formal reports is what you really want to be doing in this instance. 

On the flip side, there are a large percentage of parents who are in the firm opinion that 'children should be allowed to be children for as long as possible;' and this philosophy spills over into the homework debate.  For those individuals in the anti-homework camp, the following points are sometimes made to defend their position:

  • Children learn enough at school without having to take work home.  If your child has had a full day of learning at school, there is no need for further work.  
  • By the time children get to high school, they are older and can handle a greater volume of work than they did in elementary.  Their ability to process information will have expanded and they will catch up accordingly.
  • If there was a problem and a child needed further work to be sent home, parents would know. Until such time, school work is best worked on in school. 

Regardless of what camp you belong to (indeed some of you may belong to a little of both,) how much homework is too much comes down to nothing more than personal opinion.  Some parents, even with a sufficient homework load for their children, will supplement learning with additional material while some parents will neither acknowledge nor enforce it in their household.  Therein lies the homework conundrum. What is right for some, is not for others - that goes for both parents' beliefs regarding how much afterschool work should be given and children's natural ability and drive to deal with additional work.  Eventually, it is the children themselves who will determine how much effort and importance they will allocate to homework.  Until then, where younger school children are concerned, the debate over the quantity of and need for homework will continue to rage in the academic arena for years to come with both sides of the debate vigorously defending their corner.