SergiyN/Shutterstock
Source: SergiyN/Shutterstock

Confidence, intelligence, creativity, and happy productivity depend on ample time for unstructured play and imagination. This is true throughout childhood, but especially critical in the early years, until about the age of seven.

The National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association both recommend that children be asked to do no more than 10 minutes a day of homework in Grade One, then move up incrementally from there, with second graders doing a maximum of twenty minutes a day, third graders thirty minutes, and so on. For younger ones (Kindergarten and below) just lasting through a structured day of school or daycare is demanding enough.

In too many schools, the ten-minute rule is being broken, not by a little, but by a lot. Too many children are showing signs of stress, and too many parents are finding precious family time eaten away by homework demands.

Recently, I heard from a mother of a four-year-old. She said that one week into Junior Kindergarten (for four-year-olds), her little boy had already been assigned five different kinds of homework. She had no problem with the weekly reading session. “That’s good for all kids,” she said. But she wondered whether it was okay that her son’s teacher had also told him to (1) prepare for a show-and-tell presentation, (2) participate in a daily home program of reading games, (3) have a conversation at home every day about what he’d read at school that day, and (4) learn and memorize the background to his name. I told the mom that that sounded like way too much.

In addition to using the ten-minute rule as a guideline (clearly violated in this case), how do you decide if your young child is getting too much homework?

  1. Enough time for play? Just getting to school on time, spending all day there, knowing and following all the rules, then getting back home again, is a lot of structure and demand for a young child. Adding homework to the mix can leave insufficient time and energy for important developmental demands like running, playing outside, chatting, dreaming, imagining, and inventing.
  2. Signs of Stress? Look for changes in appetite, sleep, temperament, interest, patience, neediness, emotional responsivity.  If there are signs your little one is feeling worried, think about homework demands. They may be causing the problem, or adding to the burden.
  3. Family time? When homework interferes with pleasurable family activities, it’s almost certainly time to push back.

It’s important to your child’s education that you support the teacher, but if your child’s time is being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices, if they don’t have enough time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, it’s your job to push back. How do you do that?

  1. Balance. Before pushing back against homework, look at the other activities in your child’s life. Electronic devices and extracurricular enrichments—lessons, sports, and other scheduled activities—can provide great learning experiences, but are most beneficial in moderation.
  2. Talk to other parents. Talk to parents of some of your child’s classmates. Find out what they think about the homework situation. Talk also to parents of children in other classrooms, other schools, with other teachers. See what their experience is.
  3. Meet with the teacher. Listen and learn. Make an appointment. If other parents agree with you, ask one or two of them to attend the meeting with you (okaying that with the teacher ahead of time). Use the first meeting as an opportunity to find out the teacher’s perspective. Let the teacher know your concerns, calmly and respectfully. Quite often, this is all it takes to make the changes you need.
  4. Resist passively. Don’t insist your child do any homework you think unnecessary or excessive. If your child is worried about not completing assignments, explain your concerns in child-friendly terms (you want to make sure they have all the time they need for playing, relaxing, and spending time with the family) and let them know you’ve spoken to the teacher about it, and will sort it out if needed.
  5. Wait and watch. Give the teacher a week or two to change their practice. If they lighten up sufficiently on the homework, then your advocacy work is over for now.
  6. Regroup. If the troubling situation persists, get together with like-minded parents to define simple goals and a reasonable timeline. If you have trouble finding allies, proceed to the next step.
  7. Gather your evidence. Over the past few years, a lot of research has accumulated on the benefits of the ten-minute rule, and the evils of homework for little kids. I’ve included links below to some of the evidence, and you can find lots more by googling ‘Homework.’
  8. Prepare carefully. Put your ideas in writing, as briefly and simply as possible. Whether you’ve found allies at your school or not, discuss your ideas with others. Make sure your requests are specific, practical, and clear.
  9. Set another meeting with the teacher. Ask the teacher to include the principal this time. As before, go into the meeting respectfully and calmly, in a small group if possible. Communicate your concerns, and ask for the changes you want. Provide some supporting documentation (see #7 above, about gathering evidence).
  10. Take it to the top. If you meet with resistance at the school level, and if you think the situation calls for it (if there’s a damaging amount of homework, and children’s health and happiness are at stake) take it up a notch, to the board of education, the school’s governing board, the school trustee, as high as you need to go to get the necessary action.
  11. Blog, write, or talk to the media about your generic concerns. You’ll be an expert now on the impact of homework on little kids. Your story might help others. If you choose to do this, do your best to protect your child from any adverse effects. That almost certainly means avoiding naming names—teacher, school, etc.
  12. Talk to the media about your specific concerns. This is a last resort, and not one I’d recommend unless the circumstances are egregious. Before taking something like this public, make sure you have a back-up plan—another school where your child can go and not be punished for their parent’s noisy advocacy.

Effective advocacy is built on patient, thoughtful respect for all the players. It can take a long time (or not), but it's worth doing. I’ve seen many examples of one parent’s concerns for a child’s welfare leading to changes in practice, and eventually, to changes in policy.

Homework isn’t always a problem. Some little kids love it, as long as the demands are reasonable. But in other cases, homework interferes with more important activities like playing, daydreaming, sleeping, and spending time with family and friends. When that happens, parents should think about acting for healthy change in their child’s life.

Resources

1. Homework for Young Children

2. Parents Advocating for Change

3. Children’s Development: What Matters Most in Early Childhood?

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