In 1995 Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a study which revealed a language gap that exists between families of different incomes, and shed light on a disparity of parent/child interactions that follow children through their lifetime. It seems the greatest gift that parents can give their children is free and readily available: quality and substantive interaction.
Dana Suskind of the Thirty Million Words Initiative and author of Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain explains: "Why is the effect of parent talk so profound? Because its results are not only predictive of academic success in general, but on reaching potentials in math, spatial reasoning, and literacy, the ability to self-regulate behavior, reaction to stress, and even perseverance."
Other studies have also shown that time children spend with parents engaged in positive, quality experiences have great benefits upon their future success. Things like family meal times, emotional involvement, and one-on-one interactions are proven means for student success. Studies have also shown that children need time for both unstructured play, and family game time, during which children build academic skills at the same time that family relationships and communication skills are strengthened.
Although the research is clear in describing the elements that will build children who are strong both academically and emotionally, the actuality of modern life seem to run increasingly contrary to what is best. Parents are busy with demanding jobs and schedules and children are involved in activities that are mostly passive (such as television shows and video/tablet games). While these activities have benefits, they are input activities, which do not generally require the unpredictable demands of interpersonal interactions. In other words, a game or television show is much easier to predict than a person, and far less demanding.
Fortunately, a 2015 study shows that it is not the amount of time that parents spend with their children that makes the difference, but the quality of the activities that occur during that time. Apparently, if we use the time we have with our children wisely, we can achieve great things.
Is it any wonder then, that homework has become a source of debate for both parents and teachers? With our time so limited, and so important, every activity counts, and that's where traditional homework fails. A worksheet of practice activities sent home only for the purpose of fulfilling an obligation of daily homework just isn't going to cut it.
There is compelling argument for doing away with homework altogether, especially in the younger grades, but I would argue for something more moderate. After all, homework can serve as a bridge between teacher and parent, a method of communication that can inform families about classroom academics, children's abilities, and teacher goals. Additionally, when teachers build homework that fits the oral and cognitive needs of children, it can become a tool for parents to use to help them have quality interactions with their children.
I've stopped thinking of homework as extra practice that students take home. Instead, I treat homework as my way of sharing activities that provide families with tools they can use to have quality time together. Instead of sending home a vocabulary page, I send home an activity where students talk to their parents. Instead of sending home a page of math facts to practice, I send home a math game that children can play with their siblings and parents. I ask children to practice reading skills with their parents, and I send them home with a paper book to practice with. I try to make my homework about playing, cooking, painting, making, building, sharing, experimenting, and experiencing; the time that familys have together is valuable, and I want to respect that. I also respect time by sending home my activities as a monthly packet, instead of daily or weekly. That way, parents can use the activities in a way that fits their needs and individual schedules.
The response from parents to this homework has been incredible. They enjoy the time they spend with their children, and their children enjoy the time they spend at home learning and practicing skills. When we use homework in a way that respects parents and their important role as the primary teacher of their children, we are using it in a way that is powerful for student achievement and empowering for families.
So maybe it's time to rethink our goals for homework, and what we're really trying to accomplish by sending it home. My goal is to add to family life, not to take away from it, and to give parents access to materials that help make the most of their time. I hope that's your goal too.
If you would like to see exactly what I mean, here are three homework packets at different levels, designed to teach important skills for March. They are on SALE until the end of March.