Homework for Young Kids: 4 Questions for Parents to Ask Teachers

The homework crisis won't be solved without crucial parent-teacher communication.

Young student is desperate while doing homework at school
Photo Credit: Markus Mainka

After two weeks of school, the dreaded notice arrived: homework was on its way. Beginning in a few days, my friend’s first-grade son would receive daily math assignments. She turned to Facebook to ask her friends what they thought of this expectation that she knew would turn into a daily battle with her child. 

The outlier comments suggested, on one side, that she should to force the child to do all of the homework for his own good. On the other, there were suggestions she should refuse to participate in homework altogether, and risk incurring the teacher’s disapproval and punishment for the child. 

The consensus among most who responded, however, was that a first-grade child should work on the assignment — but for no more than 10 minutes. At that point, most of these parents felt, the adult should attach a note for the teacher, explaining that this was as much as the child was able to complete in that period of time. 

The post inspired a long and intense debate. Clearly, it had touched a nerve with parents struggling to understand why homework is essential to their children’s learning, and how to manage it in the context of busy home lives and children’s unique abilities and responses to having it assigned to them. 

I was surprised to find that several parents believed homework, even for such young children, was important to forming good habits. “Studies show that homework does not improve grades,” said one respondent, “BUT it's a must these days and I know it's not right for me to just let them get out of it.” Another parent advised, “First grade is a great time to learn math and more societal norms. Homework, and the schooling experience, allows us to succeed in a world that is not all about us. “

While the majority of parents who responded to my friend’s post recognized that research shows early-grade homework doesn't add much learning, they still made sure their children completed the assigned work. One parent stated, “There's not a single study I know of indicting that schoolwork outside of class hours is helpful until HIGH SCHOOL.” Another parent pointed out that a child’s ability to focus on homework at such a young age has more to do with development (which is all over the map in the early learning years) than discipline or intelligence. And yet, most helped their children with homework on a nightly basis.

Homework does have the benefit of providing parents who are able to do it with their children a window into what is being taught and how well their children have mastered the material. But what parents really need to be asking is, what does our child’s teacher learn from the homework — and how does it impact her teaching strategy? And even more importantly, what do younger students learn from doing it?

We tend to forget that it hasn’t always been a given that young children, especially children who are not yet skilled readers, should have homework assigned. When my own kids were in school, I’ll admit I was pretty involved. But here’s the thing: they didn’t start bringing assignments home until third grade. As a former English teacher, I did read their essays and suggest changes. I made sure they learned, in this order, how to write a proper sentence, a well-written paragraph, and finally, a five-paragraph essay. My husband was the math specialist. 

But our help was not the same as doing the work with them or for them. They were old enough to read the directions and attempt to complete the assignments themselves. As parents, we served as resources, helping them when they were stuck after they had tried to do the work on their own. 

Fast-forward to my grandkids’ generation, and homework has become a huge disruptor of family life as well as a widener of the gap between students who have parents available and able to help and everyone else. Because when you are five or six years old and a non-reader, you can’t possibly go to your room and complete your homework. My grandkids need to wait until a parent is home from work to sit beside them, explain what needs to be done, and check to see if they have mastered the concept. And all of this often has to be squeezed in between dinner and bedtime, resulting in a tired and non-compliant child.

I’m not advocating a return to the 1950s when parents like mine viewed homework as the child’s responsibility and were loath to get involved. Nor do I suggest we should regard homework the same way I did with my own children back in the 1980s. But there is something wrong with the picture when parents are distressed by the demands made on their young children, and having to assume the role of math tutor for their six-year-olds.

Which brings me back to my friend’s post. As a former educator, it was interesting for me to see that none of the many commenters on this particular homework dilemma suggested asking the teacher what the true purpose of assigning homework to six-year-olds was meant to be. No one suggested asking whether the teacher intended to use the homework to gauge what the children had mastered, and to determine where more help was needed. But those questions are, in fact, essential to making any decision about whether a child should participate in such assignments or not. 

It seems to me that before embarking on any approach to homework — and whether it should be done or not — parents need to engage with their child’s teacher and ask some questions.

1. Does the teacher actually read the homework, every assignment for every child? If yes, is it best to leave mistakes without correction, let the child complete as much as he can in a reasonable amount of time, and add notes explaining what was difficult for the child? To allow the work to be turned in with errors or incomplete is only helpful if the teacher actually looks at all of the homework. 

2. Does the teacher spot-check random homework assignments and occasionally look at each child’s work? If yes, again, does she want parents to correct mistakes? To do so means the parent is now the teacher, with the potential of teaching the skill incorrectly. And the teacher is also left with no idea if a given child is missing a skill or misunderstands a concept. 

3. Does the teacher simply check to see if homework is turned in? If yes, parents definitely need to make sure their children understand the material. Particularly with math worksheets, probably the most common homework assigned, allowing a student to practice the wrong solutions to problems can have devastating results when the child misunderstands the concept. In addition, there is a good chance the parent will teach the child math differently from what she is learning in school.

4. Does the teacher think it makes sense to assign homework before children can read and follow directions themselves? If yes, why? Assigning homework to pre-readers requires parental participation. This creates a lifelong involvement in some households. In other households, there is no one available to sit with a child to explain a homework assignment, a factor that further widens the gap between children with differing home circumstances.

When I mentioned these four questions to my friend, she realized that regardless of what advice she got from her friends regarding her son’s homework dilemma, she had no idea of his teacher’s position on the matter. So she decided to ask. The response she received was that the teacher hoped parents would indeed be involved in the homework process so they knew what their children were learning and what they didn’t understand. This teacher liked that my friend sent in notes explaining what things were difficult for her child.

It’s good that my friend took the step of finding out what her teacher’s aim was in assigning homework. And while I appreciate this teacher’s desire to involve parents in homework, I can’t say I’m convinced it’s the right approach. My friend also shared that completed homework comes back with either a checkmark (done), or a smiley face (done correctly). So the question remains: how hard will some parents work to ensure their kids bring home all smiley faces? And what is the point of an exercise that has the potential to mask all errors, impeding the ability of the teacher to know how to help each individual student? 

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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