Education

My 5-Year-Old Grandson Hates Homework—And I Don't Blame Him

We are asking too much, too soon of our littlest learners.

My grandson is in kindergarten, and like many kindergartners today, he has homework. Not just a little homework, but a lotof it. Each week, he comes home with a homework packet that is due the next Monday—a good enough due date, I suppose, because like 64% of mothers with young kids, my daughter works. Having the packet due on Monday at least gives her the weekend to force him to do it, because of course he can’t do this homework on his own. Getting it done requires hands-on parental support and intervention. And predictably, getting it done has turned into a huge battle.

Why? Because he’s five, and like most five-year-olds he’d rather be spending time with his family than doing homework; he’d prefer to be building with Legos or going to the zoo, or happily playing at a park. But instead of being able to do those things, he spends 3-4 hours every weekend crying over his homework. He has become a homework-hater well before he can read the directions by himself.

To give you a sense of what his school is asking of him and his parents, here’s what a typical weekly homework packet looks like for this kindergartener.

Let’s start with the Reading Log. Reading to a five-year-old is great homework. And if this were the end of the assignment, it would be better still. But the actual reading is only the beginning of what’s required. The students are first asked to discuss the characters in the story. Then come the next, painful steps: The child and adult are asked to “echo read” the book twice. That means the adult reads the story in short phrases that the student must repeat (echo). Then, the student has to “choral read” the book twice. This means the adult and child say the words of the story together. 

At this point, you might rightfully think (hope?) the assignment is finished. Remember, many of these kids don’t really know how to read yet. But no. At this point, the student is expected to read the story to the adult, using the “finger reading” technique. I assume this means pointing to each word as he reads it. Given that our little guy turned five in June and only knows how to read the “sight words” he has memorized, this last step seems particularly ridiculous. He’s instructed to then read the story to himself—after which he’s told to “celebrate.” (My guess is the only thing being celebrated is that this part of the homework is done.)

Think he’s done now? Nope, not even close. The next set of tasks is focused on “reading comprehension.” Students are instructed to “visualize” in their minds what is happening in their story, draw a picture of what he or she visualized when reading that story, and then write a sentence about their “illustration.”

On a recent visit, my daughter thought it would be good fun for me, the former educator, to tackle this piece of the assignment with my grandson. He had already read a book with her about a garbage truck, and he and I were engaged in drawing pictures with some fun new tempura crayons I had brought him. He had already drawn a very detailed train and rocket ship; how hard could it be to get him to draw the garbage truck?

Very hard, it turns out. In fact, it was an epic fail. When I asked him to visualize the garbage truck, he said, “I wanted to draw a train valentine and a rocket ship. I can’t even visualize. My brain does not know how to visualize. But I can draw lots of pictures because I have so many ideas in my head.” So he drew picture after picture and told me stories about all of them, but he refused to draw the garbage truck. It wasn’t in his head. And he declined to write a sentence about any of his “illustrations” because, as he reminded me, he doesn’t really know how to write yet.

My kindergarten-age grandson can build amazing Lego constructions and count to 100 not just forward (which was also part of the homework to be initialed by his parent) but backward (not assigned and rather amazing to me). But the rest of his weekly reading homework was extremely frustrating because it assumed he could “write neatly in pencil.” Except he can’t. His fine motor skills for printing are not there yet. So writing his “high frequency words” 10 times, as required, is pure torture. After the first two renditions of the word “my,” the letters fell off the lines and ran into each other.

All of this, of course, is just the reading portion of his homework; there are math worksheets that must be completed, too. Although my grandson seems to have a gift for numbers and can add in his head, being asked to write the number “13” five times and then draw 13 squares is agony for him. On that sheet, after drawing 13 wobbly squares he added an unauthorized 14th illustration: a robot. My daughter had to write a note to his teacher explaining that he did indeed know how to make and count 13 squares; he just wanted to add his own personal touch to the assignment.

Thankfully, his teacher responded to the note with a smiley face. She’s a good teacher who understands my grandson is imaginative and creative. I imagine it must be terribly painful for her to have to assign this kind of homework, every week, to kids who should be playing in a sandbox.

The Truth About Homework

As a grandparent and an educator, looking through my grandson’s homework journal breaks my heart. He and his peers are being given too much, too soon, and what they are being asked to do is rote and of generally low quality. I don’t remember my children receiving math pages and spelling lists until third grade, but the current, unofficial rule of thumb has become 10 minutes per night per grade level. But who does such a model serve? And what, exactly, is the point of homework at this stage, anyway?

What most schools seem to ignore is that there is absolutely no evidence that homework—beyond reading for pleasure—makes any difference in educational attainment before middle school. Nancy Kalish, co-author with Sara Bennett of The Case Against Homework, writes, “I'd always assumed homework was essential…But when I finally looked into the research about it, I was floored to find there's little to support homework—especially in vast quantities.”

Meaningful homework that reinforces what was taught in the classroom may make sense when children are old enough to do it with minimal support. But when parents must necessarily be deeply involved in the homework completion process, as is the case with most young students, what is it that homework is actually meant to achieve?

Alfie Kohn, who has written many articles about the negative effects of homework, points out that homework for our youngest learners is not merely useless, it is actually harmful. Completing homework assignments is stressful for children and their parents, and causes unnecessary conflicts over getting it done. It robs kids of time with their families and of opportunities to do other activities like play outside or draw. He writes,

“No research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement.” 

In The Homework Myth, Kohn cites numerous studies showing homework to be of little value for young children. In fact, he believes it usually has the opposite effect, making them feel negative about their schooling and less inclined to do things that will enhance their education, like reading for pleasure. In addition to limiting the sheer volume of homework, especially in elementary school, Kohn believes it is also important to consider the quality of what is assigned to children. If children are asked to complete assignments at home, at least that work should be interesting, fun and doable by the child.

Like Kalish and Kohn, I am no fan of worksheet-type homework. But even if I bought into its educational value as children age, I still fail to see how it is useful in kindergarten. The only answer I ever get when I ask others to justify kindergarten homework is that it prepares kids for getting homework the next year; the argument being that kids need to get into the habit of doing homework as soon as they can grip a pencil. To me, it’s typical of the backward-thinking educational reform movement that has gripped our country since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002. Rather than promoting developmentally appropriate sequences for educating children (which would build forward from the beginning of learning), we have instead been starting with the end goal and pushing expectations backward, regardless of what kids are capable of learning or understanding.

My grandson is not alone in his dislike of homework full of developmentally inappropriate expectations. Educational experts speak often of the misguided use of worksheets and workbooks with young children. They also acknowledge that, while some children in kindergarten learn to read, it is in fact normal for reading to take hold in first, or even second grade. Kindergarteners may be able to learn sight words and have some phonemic awareness, but many remain unable to read a book with true comprehension.

According to a report by early childhood experts Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Joan Wolfsheimer Almon, many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten, and forcing them to do so is to their detriment. “Teacher-led instruction in kindergartens has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based, experiential learning that we know children need from decades of research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience,” their report states. And yet we press on, asking children to do things their brains simply aren’t ready to do.

On developmental checklists, the skills my grandson’s homework packets expects him to have mastered are listed under rubrics for children ages 6-10. In contrast, the CDC expects five-year-olds to be able to count at least 10 things, print a few letters or numbers, and copy a triangle. The gap between the curriculum’s expectations and the medical community’s understanding of how young children develop is no less than stunning.

Before my grandson started kindergarten, I wrote a piece called 10 Ways Kindergarten Can Stop Failing Our Kids. I voiced my hope that he would develop a deep love of learning, and that joy would accompany him as he began his formal education, because those are the very best things that we can wish for our youngest learners. I still hold those wishes out for him, but now they are accompanied by real trepidation. I simply never dreamed I would have to add a wish that homework not come knocking at his door so soon.

Laurie Levy blogs regularly for ChicagoNow and her work has been published in Huffington Post and the Forward. She was the founder and executive director of Cherry PreschoolJoin her Facebook community and subscribe to her newsletter.

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