Is Homework Really That Important?
If you were to poll elementary and middle school students, most of them would agree that homework is not their favorite afterschool activity. I didn't care much for it either. It quickly got old and boring. The easier it was, the more boring it seemed and the more I dragged my feet. The harder it was, the more I avoided it because, like most gifted students, I was used to knowledge coming easily. I didn't want to work at it.
Then I grew up. I had kids. And one of them, at least, hates homework twice as much as I ever did. "Do I really have to do my homework?" she'll ask, and "Seriously? I'm just supposed to color this butterfly..." I look at the work she's brought home, much of it mastered a year ago, and am tempted to give in. I hear other mothers confess that they stay up late filling in word searches or even solving simple rote math sheets. (Although, most parents stick to non-academics like word searches and coloring)
But I don't. I've learned that homework, while it can feel frustrating, repetitive and useless actually does have a place in your child's schooling. Believe it or not, that 'color by number' worksheet your first grader brought home is helping him or her to develop important study habits. And no, I don't mean learning the names of every single crayon in the coloring box.
How Much is Too Much?
The rule of thumb is that kids should have no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade in school. From a developmental standpoint, this time limit is appropriate for their attention span each year. So a first grader can be expected to focus on spelling words and worksheets for 10 minutes or so, a second grader can sit still for up to 20 minutes and a sixth grader is ready to concentrate for up to an hour a day.
That doesn't mean they should be stuck sitting still for the full time frame, just that this is an appropriate guideline for homework time. If the homework is frustrating and they are consistently going over the 'rule of thumb' you should bring it up with their teacher. The teacher won't know how much struggle is going on at home unless you tell her.
However, there should be an expectation that they actually are working on the assignment in that time frame. A kid who spends 20 minutes screaming that they don't want to write in their homework journal hasn't even started in on their homework time yet.
While us grown ups look at a coloring sheet and think 'art' and 'c reativity' and 'fun'; a good teacher knows that coloring is not simply 'fun'. When a child practices coloring, they are learning a lot more than just how to keep the crayon between the lines.
- How to hold a pencil: This is an important skill that adults don't tend to think about. But the child who doesn't learn how to hold a writing implement will struggle to form letters correctly. Coloring is an easy, underwhelming project that helps them practice holding a writing tool.
- Spacial awareness: Yes, this is a fancy word for keeping it in between the lines. But it also encompasses the way a child learns to fill space, to center things on a page. It also teaches them to moderate their coloring strokes, which in turn builds writing skills.
- Hand and Eye coordination: This goes along with spacial awareness, but deserves it's own mention. Coloring is a tangible representation of th child's hand movement. They can see how straigh their lines are, practice making circles, and learn how to get the image in their heads onto paper. It's a skill required by athletes, musicians and just about everyone else.
- Fine motor skills: The act of coloring, believe it or not, actually does build fine motor skills. Holding a crayon and dragging it across the page in a controlled manner exercises those writing muscles, preparing children for the handwritten reports they'll be expected to turn in when they're a year or two older.
- Color recognition: Color recognition is a kindergarten requirement. Through coloring, kids not only learn to recognize colors but to categorize them. Green is for grass. Blue is for water and sky. And in the process, they also learn a little bit about mixing colors, and about aesthetics. They learn how to make a project 'presentable'.
- Reinforcements: Beyond the coloring sheet, those boring and repetitive math sheets and penmanship sheets are reinforcing the lesson learned during the day. The problems may not be riveting, but the act of doing them over and over helps cement the lesson into your child's brain. They won't just learn how to add 2 and 2. They'll learn to see "4" every time two is added to two.
For young kids, regular homework assignments also give them the opportunity for regular positive feedback. The little "Good Job!" and smiley faces or stars that accompany the returned worksheets make them light up inside. This triggers a desire to do better, or at least to do well, in school and motivates them to continue turning homework in regularly. By middle school, when there are no jaunty little notes and few stars to be found, the act of turning in homework will hopefully be habit. They may also continue to do their best out of a learned hope for recognition.
It's Not Just About the Coloring
The worksheets your elementary school aged child brings home may look like 'busy work'; designed to create an illusion of 'work' and 'being busy' without really expending any effort to teach or expand skills. They aren't.
In the early years, a child is not only building their foundation of basic skills in subjects like math, reading and writing, they are also developing study skills that will follow them throughout their school career. When your kindergartener comes home with coloring sheets that earn them a star and a 'great job!' whether they stay inside the lines or not, they are learning the important fun skills outlined above. But they are also learning something much more important, and much less tangible. The practice of filling in worksheets and coloring by number teaches them two important workplace skills that will follow them for a lifetime. The first is how to follow directions. The second is responsibility.
You may know that your kid knows how to color. In fact, your fridge and even your walls may be covered with artwork. Your child's teacher knows this, too. When a kindergartener or first grader turns in a coloring sheet, the teacher isn't grading it for creativity. They want to know if the student can follow directions, even outside of the classroom setting. They're looking to see if all requested elements are present.
Your child's teacher also wants to know if your child managed their time wisely. Did they take their time and make sure the work got done? Or did they rush through, scribble scrabbling their work just to get 'finished'? One value they want to impart is that it's important to take your time and get your homework done well. They don't expect the little kids to have the time and patience to double check all their work, but they want to introduce that concept.
Speaking of conceptual learning, early elementary school homework is also a good way to teach responsibility. By middle school, when homework almost always is an extension of the day's lesson, many kids struggle to remember to move their homework pages from their backpack or binder into the in-box. They also struggle to remember what was assigned. Early elementary school assignments aren't always about the assignment itself. They're designed to teach a student how to be a lifelong learner. They learn to develop a homework 'area'. They learn to build an afterschool routine that involves sitting down and plodding through an assignment, whether they think it's worthwhile or not, and they learn to do it without parental nagging.
Believe it or not, daily homework assignments instill a sense of responsibility in your child. Homework teaches kids how to manage their papers and their assignments in a timely manner. It's a lesson that can serve them well for the rest of their lives.