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The Homework Challenge: Too Much? Too Young?

Bonnie Harris

Development & Learning

How is homework going in your house? Are you facing daily homework battles or school resistance? Often we get mired down in the minutia of day-to-day struggles and fears and fail to see the big picture of our children’s lives.

What do you most want for your child? To be happy, respectful, kind, responsible, confident, independent, successful are attributes I usually hear. But what parents often focus their energy on is a good report card, a 3.5 GPA, high SAT scores, and climbing the corporate ladder.

Certainly a good education is important to gaining happiness and confidence. The question is, does a good education require hours of homework each night. Or is a better education achieved by a child who loves to learn?

A child who loves to learn has spent the better part of his early childhood learning through plenty of self-directed play and who enjoys school—where the school and the child fit. Our current public school system seems to be undermining this process. Competition in the science and math world has trickled down to “No Child Left Behind” requiring standardized testing, grading school performance, and competition for federal dollars. Many teachers’ hands are tied by administrators focused on the success of the school. Teachers are under pressure to teach a curriculum that requires more hours in the day than they have.

All of this puts pressure on worried parents who try to give their child a head start with Baby Mozart, flash cards and extra curricular activities. Homework is being given in Kindergarten and even preschool. Left in the dust is play.

The case against homework is outlined in three books, (Kralovec and Buell, Bennett and Kalish, and Kohn), touting it as detrimental to a child’s academic success. But even research in support of homework (Cooper, Robinson, and Patall, 2006) shows that it gives no achievement gain for the child before grade 4, and the gains in grades 4-6 are minimal.

Researchers have offered recommendations. Cooper, et. al (2006) agree with Good and Brophy (2003) who have “…cautioned that teachers must take care not to assign too much homework. They suggested that homework must be realistic in length and difficulty given the students’ abilities to work independently. Thus, 5 to 10 minutes per subject might be appropriate for 4th graders, whereas 30 to 60 minutes might be appropriate for college-bound high school students.” Cooper (2007) suggested that research findings support the “10-minute rule”: “All daily homework assignments combined should take about as long to complete as 10 minutes multiplied by the student’s grade level.” 15 minutes when reading is included.

Why do our schools proceed with earlier and more homework ignoring the research? Do we really want our children to hate school for the sake of gaining points on the Chinese? Better that we look to the Finnish.

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000, a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, showed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries in science. In the 2009 PISA scores, Finland came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. The US hovers around the midpoint of all countries.

Finland’s school system:

  • gives minimal homework only to high schoolers
  • gives only one standardized test at age 16. A Helsinki principal with 24 years teaching experience said, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”
  • averages 75 minutes of playtime a day
  • has a student/teacher ratio of 1-12 (NYC: 1-24)
  • requires a masters degree for all teachers
  • gives teachers independence in their lesson plans and text books

Some reasons for their success:

  • teachers have the highest vocational status followed by physicians. The masters degree in education is sought after by 25% of college students.
  • day care, preschool and college are free
  • preschools (before 1st grade) focus on social skills, emotional awareness, and play. Finnish children don’t approach reading until age seven.
  • parents receive 3 years maternity leave and approx. 150 euros per month per child until age 17.
  • educational competition is downplayed.

My challenge to you—especially parents of third graders and younger—is to talk to your children’s teachers and tell them your educated knowledge of the research on homework and it’s detrimental effects on play and family time. Tell them you want something different for your child.

I have included some approaches that you can use to create your own. You might use these guidelines when talking to your child’s K-3 teachers and use “The 10-minute rule” for your older kids:

~ Based on research done on homework and the benefits of play to her development, I will be forgoing homework this year so she has ample time for play.

~ I’m not going to require my child to do homework until 2nd or 3rd grade since there is no evidence that it benefits learning at this point and in fact detracts from what he will get from the same amount of playtime and family connection.

~ I’ve learned through the research of Harris Cooper and his colleagues out of Duke University and the National PTA recommendations on play that there is no beneficial gain to homework in the early elementary years until grade 4. So unless the homework assignments are fun for my child, involve us doing something enjoyable together and do not last more than 10-15 minutes, I respectfully request that my child not be required to do homework assignments.

~ Our family is working on creating a slower pace and more relaxed down-time with plenty of time for play, family connection, and outdoor time since we want our kids to value the enjoyment of being with us and being outdoors over being on the internet, playing video games of engaging in homework battles. With that end, we are making sure homework time is never more than a few minutes. I hope you can agree with me based on the research.

~ I would like to follow Harris Cooper’s “10-minute rule” for homework—He is the main homework researcher from Duke—to insure that my child not have more than 10 minutes times his grade.

Much of the push for earlier academics comes from parents. All parents must be educated about the research. The only way school practices will turn around is by parent pressure. Use these statistics and read more on these links and talk to other parents and get a movement going.


Links (check google for more):

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook