Many parents are surprised to see a flood of projects and homework sent home with their kids starting as early as Kindergarten. And a nasty surprise it is. Combine a snack-hungry 5-year-old with a math worksheet and you’ve got a parental nightmare. Still, that angst would — one could at least argue — be worthwhile if it meant greater scholastic achievement. The problem? There is very little evidence to suggest that homework is anything more than a hassle when it’s assigned to young children.
Dr. Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs has spent much of her career researching the research about homework. The findings, she told Fatherly, are unambiguous. “They really can’t prove any benefit in elementary school,” she says.
What is, however, a bit harder to understand is the nature of the “they.” Who wants to give young children homework and why? The answer has a lot to do with ideas about education that don’t make any sense if recontextualized within the body of research on developmental psychology.
“Teachers and possibly schools confuse homework with rigor,” Vatterott says. She notes this is particularly true in private schools and high-income school districts that pride themselves on awards and college placement. These institutions lean into homework, conflating student achievement with evidence of homework efficacy. In reality, the teachers (and by extension their students) are victims of educational superstition.
“There are teachers out there who see things are going really well,” Vatterott says. “And they think, ‘We better keep doing what we’re doing or all hell is going to break loose.’”
In truth, data indicates that homework for the youngest students in the elementary grades has, at best, has no bearing on achievement. And the studies that do suggest homework has positive effects can only prove correlation, not causation. That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to control for all of the other variables that can lead to better academic outcomes, including factors like teacher quality, parental involvement, amount of sleep a child receives, proper nutrition, and — here comes the big one — socio-economic status. And, yes, there is research that suggests homework can have negative effects.
“There’s a lot of evidence that it’s putting too much stress on families,” Vatterott explains. “And that it’s contributing to whether kids like school or not. We certainly don’t want kids to hate school.”
Temple University professor, early learning researcher, and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek places an even finer point on the damage homework can do. “All this homework is also changing the dynamic of parent-child relationships,” she tells Fatherly. “It certainly isn’t making learning fun, and learning doesn’t just happen at school.”
Hirsh-Pasek acknowledges that practice is necessary for learning, but she rejects the idea that said practice must be completed through worksheets and homework packets. The play that kids naturally engage in, she points out, helps them practice the skills they develop in the classroom.
“Believe it or not, you learn about math when you’re playing different board games,” Hirsh-Pasek explains. “And you learn about space when you put together train tracks and play with Legos. You learn important skills, like how to get along with other people when you play with other people. They’re learning way more important skills when they’re not doing their homework.”
That said, there is one activity that researchers feel that parents and children should be doing at home: reading.
“There is practically nothing that will be more important than reading time,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “It’s a time when kids learn integrated narrative. It’s a time when they learn about relationships and hear vocabulary that they don’t hear anywhere else.”
Vatterott explains that a similar sentiment about reading seems to be gaining ground nationally. “Trend-wise, what’s happening across the country, is that we’ve started to see an increase in elementary schools eliminating homework, or saying that homework is just to read or be read to,” she says, though she notes that achievement-obsessed schools are obstinate holdouts. And it could be that some parents are holdouts too. After all, doesn’t homework teach grit and responsibility to kids that desperately need it? Shouldn’t they stop whining and knuckle down?
Yes and no. There is virtue to struggle and to responsibility, but homework is really more of an obligation than anything.
“A struggle is good when there is a success at the end of the struggle,” suggests Vatterott. “But it’s a very simplistic view to suggest that homework teaches them responsibility and to delay gratification. It’s a really weak argument.”
Hirsh-Pasek agrees. “The truth is that everything has to be put in balance,” she says. “If you want your child to learn perseverance give them some chores at home. The worst thing that you can do today is to have people sit when they should be standing and stand when they should be moving.”