It was pretty darn adorable the first time my Kindergartner showed me her homework. She was happy to sit down like a big kid to complete the ten-minute assignment in her designated black-and-white composition book. And I was thrilled to see her excited about school.
Not so fast.
Since that blissful start, it has taken anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes of refocusing, nagging and pleading to complete homework assignments. If she just sat down and did the darn thing, it would be over in two seconds flat. But it takes time to find the right pencil, sharpen it to precisely the right length, steal an LOL doll from her sister, find a pair of socks that are “less itchy,” use the potty, set up her stuffies so they can do their own homework, beg to play Uno, go to the potty again, ask Alexa to play the “strong girl” song from Encanto, find a safe hiding spot for the stolen LOL doll, lose the pencil in the process and find a new pencil that is sharpened to precisely the right length.
By this point, I am slouched over the kitchen table with my head in my hands wondering how on earth I can get her to finish this one measly assignment without vomiting mom rage all over the place.
You see…I was a model student. I loved school. I loved homework. I loved making my parents and teachers proud. I loved getting As and stars and check-pluses. But I also remember receiving my first homework assignment–in third grade. Yep, my daughter is now getting homework literal years before our generation did.
Back in the early 1900s, homework prioritized memorization and facts. Toward the middle of the century, progressive educators began to value learning experiences, eliminating homework at the elementary level. The pendulum began to swing back to homework drills in the mid-1980s though, as schools started implementing high-stakes testing and Common Core standards.
Today, the general rule is 10 minutes of homework per grade level. So first graders would have 10 minutes of homework, second graders would have 20 minutes, and so on. But kindergarten is often left out of the discussion altogether, with some educators advocating for full-on reading drills and others maintaining it’s simply too early to demand that of children. So, do I need to force my daughter to do work that seems so hard for her (and for me)?
“A lot of kids don't do parts of their homework because it feels hard for them and they don't know how to express that. They want to look smart in front of their parents, to show off a little and be the experts in something,” said Talia Kovacs, a literacy specialist, former classroom teacher and founder of the Resilient Reader program. Additionally, Kovacs maintains that many parents are stressed about their kids doing their best and kids are stressed about impressing their parents, “and this cycle loops and loops until just picking up your kid from school can leave you with a sense of dread for what's coming.”
In other words, why am I torturing myself? And perhaps more to the point, is kindergarten homework even necessary?
Monica Burns, an educational technology and curriculum consultant, said instead of answering yes or no to that question, we should instead ask why homework might be assigned. Has the school run out of time to cover the curriculum? Do students need more time to practice a new skill? Are teachers trying to find out if students have mastered a concept?
Compounding the problem is the fact that the choice of whether to assign homework is rarely given to teachers. It is often a district-wide mandate. Because teachers are already overworked and stressed—especially these days—each and every night of homework might not have been thoughtfully assigned. Kovacs said that as a teacher, she would sometimes assign extremely purposeful homework…but if she was pressed for time, she might make a copy of whatever came next in her planning book. “The trouble with this,” Kovacs said, “is that parents aren’t always told which parts of the homework are super important for their kids’ growth and which are just to fill a need.” In short, homework at the younger elementary level is helpful in some cases but tedious in others.
Her advice? If you’re not sure which assignments are the important ones…ask!
Burns urges teachers to be transparent with parents about the “why” behind homework assignments. And Kovacs said that it might be a good idea to chat with the teacher about which elements of homework are the most impactful so you can focus on those first. For instance, maybe your child really needs to spend more time on writing, but doesn’t need to do every damn math game that’s send home. That’s good intel.
There are a number of strategies for making homework time less onerous, as well. Burns suggested having a dedicated space for homework with pencils, paper and homework supplies within easy reach, or using an app like Brain.fm to play music to signal homework time and improve focus. Susan G. Groner, founder of The Parenting Mentor and author of Parenting with Sanity & Joy, advises parents not to hover while their kids are doing homework. “It’s ‘best practice’ to get your kids into the routine of doing their own work. Your presence communicates that the work has to be done ‘right,’ which isn’t the point of homework,” she said. “The bonus is that while your kids are working, it’s a little break for you.”
Groener and Kovacs even stress that homework at this age *gasp* doesn’t have to be perfect and *double gasp* doesn’t even have to be complete. Groener said that homework often “helps the teacher discern what they need to work on for each individual student, or for the whole class.” If the assignment turns into an endless slog, Kovacs recommends ending the homework session with something your child does well and then letting the teacher know that the rest of the assignment was too hard.
The experts also reminded me that play has just as many educational opportunities—if not more—than homework. Sometimes just playing in the park may be more valuable than writing each sight word three times in a row. In other words, at this age, it’s probably OK to make your own decisions about which afterschool activities are best for your family, and simply communicate them to your teacher.
Bottom line: You know your kid best. As Kovacs maintains, “Learning to learn takes many forms. And to build resilience, your child needs to feel a sense of love, trust and optimism at home. If homework isn't helping you build that, it isn't helping your child.”