How to Handle Homework


Notes from the Backpack

Episode 107 │How to Handle Homework

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

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Steve Sheldon

Homework is a major source of stress for students and their parents, but it isn’t all bad. When effective, homework reinforces the concepts that students learn in school, and provides opportunities for families to be involved in their child’s learning. We speak with Steve Sheldon, a researcher at John Hopkins University, who offers the information and strategies you need to make homework time more successful in your household. We also hear from elementary school principal and PTA leader, Shaneeka Moore-Lawrence on the benefits of homework and what really is the “right” amount per night.


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Transcript (Disponible en Español)


Intro: Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents, and real educators, so families can get the real behind the scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack that tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast, just for you. Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast."

LaWanda: Welcome to Notes from the Backpack. Today's topic is "Homework." Homework is a controversial hot topic among families and educators, and it's a major source of stress for many students and their families. In fact, 56% of students consider homework a primary source of stress. That is why we've decided to tackle this topic and to help shed more light on homework and hopefully provide some tips and resources to help alleviate the stress of homework. Dr. Shaneeka Moore-Lawrence is the principal of Bethesda Elementary, and a member of the North Carolina PTA Board of Directors. She is also the mother to a teenage boy. We reached out to get her personal and professional perspective on homework.

Dr. Lawrence: I do believe that every night students should be engaged in active reading. That's either reading to a parent or guardian or an older sibling, or either being read to by a parent, guardian, an older sibling and also questions are being asked about details within the story. That should be non-negotiable in regards to homework. But then, as it relates to any additional tasks that may be given, my suggestions would be just probably 15 to 20 minutes depending on the grade level, and I'm seeking from elementary, to review skills that have been taught in the classroom.

My philosophy is that homework should be a reinforcement. It should not be learning of new materials, but it should be a reinforcement of what's already been taught. I definitely believe that quality homework is what's going to really accelerate student learning and it's going to be what makes homework move beyond just another mundane task into something that both students and families can feel good about, neither parties being frustrated, and it really makes an impact on our students being lifelong learners and global citizens.

My son is 15, and he's a junior here in Durham public schools and I have experienced the woes and growth of homework challenges. And one thing that I found was providing my son with some incentives and motivation to do the homework. And when he would come home from school, we would have some time for him to kind of grab a snack, kind of decompress, have a little brain break for about 20 to 30 minutes and then it was time for us to have our sit downtime with homework.

Oftentimes, I would try to sit beside him and, kind of, get him to tell me about what he was going to be doing in the homework assignment, how it related to what he had learned from that school day or that week, and then sending him to complete the assignment independently. I think the more positive families are about homework or tasks that teachers are sending home to reinforce the skills, the better experiences the students will have with doing those tasks.

Helen: Now, we turn to Dr. Steve Sheldon, who will discuss his research on homework and family engagement with us as we continue to explore this topic. Dr. Steven Sheldon is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and a Research Scientist with the Center for School, Family, and Community Partnerships. He is the co-author of several articles and books, and he most recently co-edited "The Wiley Handbook on Family, School, and Community Relationships in Education."

Dr. Sheldon's research focuses on the predictors and the effects of family involvement in children's education with a focus on the role of school and teacher outreach to families. He is also the Director of Research at the National Network of Partnership Schools, where he is leading an innovative student-led project to make homework more interactive with families. And finally, Dr. Sheldon is also a parent to a middle school and high school student. Follow him on Twitter @DrStevenSheldon.

LaWanda: We know families are not the only ones who have strong feelings about homework. That's why we wanted to hear directly from an educator. How much homework is too much homework and why do some educators decide to get rid of homework altogether?

Helen: Dr. Sheldon, let's dive into today's topic. I know you have so much to say and are eager to share about the homework landscape and how to help parents make the most of their homework experiences with their kids.

LaWanda: As a parent, can you tell us what has frustrated you about homework?

Dr. Sheldon: So, first of all, thank you for inviting me to this conversation. As a parent, there's lots of things that have been frustrating for homework for me, not the least of which is sometimes having to try and convince my children that yes, in fact, they should do their homework. It's not as fun as watching YouTube or going outside and playing. Oftentimes what I have to do is help them with the time management. So, "You can watch YouTube for 5 or 10 more minutes, but then we need to sit down and get your work done." So that's been one of the frustrations. I think maybe as a parent, one of the frustrations that I haven't been able to really understand is that I don't always see a good connection between the homework that my children are getting and what they're telling me they're doing in class or what they're learning in school.

And so, understanding the relevance of homework is sometimes a challenge for me as a parent. So, oftentimes you're sitting there and you're trying to understand the directions, you're trying to figure out what it is your child's supposed to be learning, or practicing, or mastering, and the materials that you're given or what you have access to isn't always the most helpful. And it's frustrating for me on the one level as a parent, but on the other hand, I think to myself, "I went to school for a really long time. I get school. I did well enough in it to keep going." You know, for families, parents, and caregivers who didn't like school, who didn't maybe do well in school or who aren't from this country, homework can be really baffling. That's one of the frustrations. I mean, I can keep going. I also sometimes have frustrations, quite frankly, with the fact that my children don't get homework very much anymore.

And so, I can sit there and see that, you know, one of my children might be struggling with a concept, whether it's, you know, multiplication, or in math, or maybe it's something about writing. And what I think they need is a little bit more practice or some kind of structured way to help them think through this. And for me, I look at homework as an opportunity to help me help them. Again, I'm in a very fortunate position where I can do that and I feel confident enough to do that and that's a big part of all of this equation. But not having homework and not getting good messages from teachers or from the schools about what's going on in school or how my children are doing in school makes me even more disconnected from their educational experience than I might otherwise be.

LaWanda: You touched a little bit on the tension between, kind of, families and teachers. How do we alleviate some of that as it relates to homework?

Dr. Sheldon: Some of that comes from the fact that there are a lot of different sources of tension, right? So, there are some families that are upset about homework because there's too much of it. Too many things going on in their life, their children are involved in lots of activities, and they're getting too much homework. And so there's a tension there of, like, "How do we manage the time given that all of us live in a world where there are only 24 hours in a day, and that's not changing?" So that's one tension. I mean, I think the other tension is some parents want to be able to better monitor and help their children. So that's another source of tension. To your question of how do we navigate those tensions or how do navigate the tension?

I don't think it is the intention. I think it's really dependent upon the context of the life of the family, what's going on with the student, what's going on with the teacher. I mean, the teacher is a big part of this also. I wish I had an easy answer to that question, but I don't think there is an easy answer to that question. I think that the question is, it depends. I will say that from my perspective, one of the things that almost always makes things better is communication and transparency. Oftentimes what creates frustration is a lack of communication. If there's a way to improve that communication, whether there's homework or whether there's an absence of homework, I think that's one way to alleviate almost any kind of tension.

LaWanda: I'd love for you to give an example, just personally. You talked about some of the tensions, sometimes the kids don't tell you exactly what's going on at school, so then when you see the homework, it's kind of a disconnect. How do you deal with it? How do you go into the schools or talk to the teachers about some different homework, lack of a better word, crisis?

Dr. Sheldon: The school district in which my children are in recently started a no-homework policy. And so it's been particularly challenging. I know that my children have skills that they need to improve upon. I mean, my children are humans and so they're not perfect and we all have skills that we can get better at. But for my wife and I, one of the things that we do is, you know, we try to figure things out on our own. We try to ask probing questions of our kids, like, "What are you doing in math? Is it multiplication? Is it division? Are you working with fractions?"

But we also try to take advantage of the resources that the schools do give us. So, things like online textbooks. But there, again, it's not always easy to find that information and it's not always easy to navigate those systems. I mean, the truth is it's been oftentimes really frustrating. So, how do we navigate it? Usually, what happens is at some point we end up sending an email to the teacher and saying, "This is what's going on. Can you help us understand what you're seeing in the classroom, how you're understanding my child? And if they are things that we can do to be helpful, we would love that." So, oftentimes it's us taking the initiative, which usually happens after we've gotten pretty frustrated and haven't figured out how to problem solve it ourselves.

Helen: I think that's such an interesting point because there are a lot of teachers and schools and districts that are going to this no-homework or much-reduced homework. And for many parents, we know that that's one of their primary indicators to know at home how their kid's doing. Are they struggling with their homework? Are they doing it? So, what do they do in the absence of having those, like, papers in front of them, aside from maybe it is push on the school or advocate that, like, something's got to fill that void for families if they're not getting that information from homework?

Dr. Sheldon: I totally agree. I'm not a big fan of the no-homework policy. Rationally I see where it comes from. I can follow the line of thinking and why people get there. I think there are downsides and I think one of them is, is that it puts parents in the dark far more than they already are. And so, for parents that want to be helpful, let's say your child has a test coming up there. Well, if you don't have homework, how do you help your child learn what needs to get learned for that test? I have no idea what you're being tested on. I don't see any papers coming home. Maybe, you know, you might say, "Oh, well, look in the folder and there's all this classwork that we've done." I mean, usually what happens is they do classwork and the classwork that you don't finish is "homework."

But, at least in the experiences that I have had, my children seem to always finish the work in class. And so, when it comes time to, "Well, can I see your homework?" Well, "I don't have any homework." "Well, can I see what you're doing in class?" And then you look in their folder and, you know, they're normal children, their folder is a mess. "So what are you being tested on?" "I don't know, chapter 2, chapter 5.1." "Chapter 5.1? What is that?" "I don't know." I think right now one of the biggest benefits of homework is that it serves as a form of communication with families.

And it really is in many cases, the only way that family members know what is going on in the classroom and what's being covered there. And so, I think that's a tremendous value to homework that is often overlooked. You know, maybe I'm jumping the gun here, but I think too often we think of homework as just practice, right? It's just a practice of skills. But the reality is, is that is a very old way of thinking about what homework is. And if we try to, like, rethink homework, homework can be a form of communication. It can be a facilitator of interactions between parents and children in a way that's positive.

But the truth is, is that if we design homework in a way that can facilitate really good, positive, interesting interactions and communications, it really can be supportive of the parent-child relationship and can really, sort of, build and develop that relationship in a way that I think really does make sense and can contribute to children's development and academic achievement.

Helen: You've done a lot of research, Dr. Sheldon, on how families and educators and kids can work together better to complete homework and what good homework assignments look like. If you were to recap for a parent to know, are you getting good homework or bad homework, what would be on your list to sort of know if you're getting good homework, these are ones for bad homework?

Dr. Sheldon: I think the best homework that I've seen are the assignments where the student is leading that interaction and where it is involving a conversation that the student is having with a parent, another family member, relating the information in some way to life off the page. I think a lot of us, when we think of homework, we think of our math skills and drills, the sheet of equations that we're trying to fill out, and there's definitely a place for that kind of homework. There's definitely a place for that kind of work, especially in mathematics, where sometimes you really need to just know how to solve an equation. You need to know which processes go first. You need to know what your multiplication is. And the truth of the matter is, is like if you're learning your multiplication tables, there's not always a creative, interesting, fascinating way of learning your multiplication tables.

It just comes down to rote memorization at some point, and practice, practice, practice, and it comes to some more easily than others. I think we underestimate, actually, the fact that some kids don't get their multiplication tables. We think a lot of, "Well, some kids are strong readers and they pick up reading really early and some kids struggle and it takes longer for them to develop their reading skills." It seems to me, like, that's also true in math and that for some kids, it just takes a little bit longer for those math skills and the memorization of, like, multiplication tables to click. And that's a real challenge because, like I said, it's not very interesting.

Those kinds of issues aside, science is filled with interesting topics that are happening around us all the time, every day. My son who's in high school was taking a government class in 2016 where politics was front and center in our house. We think and talk politics a lot, to begin with. But in 2016, politics was everywhere. There was no escaping it. We were having conversations about what is the role of Senate versus the House and the Executive branch? What does it mean, you know, this Supreme Court ruling about free speech in the New York Times? You have somebody going around yelling, "Fake news." Well, I mean that's an opportunity for a discussion.

Helen: Was that homework or was that just a conversation you had?

Dr. Sheldon: That was a conversation that we had as a result of him studying at home. So, technically, doing homework. You know, we would talk about this stuff over the dinner table between ourselves anyway. And now all of a sudden we've got a child who is coming to this place where he's able to start entering into this conversation. So, for us, it was pretty exciting.

LaWanda: Does homework bring your family together?

Dr. Sheldon: Not always. I have been known on occasion to tell my kids that they sometimes just have to suck it up and do their homework. There are things that we do and we suck it up and we do what we have to do because it's just part of our job. And what we tell our children is like, you know, look, right now our kids are in middle and high school and their job or their primary job is to study and do well in school. And maybe that is a luxury that we have to be able to make that choice. But I feel like in middle school, for example, I'm not sure what else I want my daughter to be more focused on than school.

Like I said, I went to school for a very long time. And so, obviously, I place value on that. And so, that's going to be one of those things that unconsciously or even consciously, I'm socializing my children to think that, you know, school matters and education matters and those sorts of things. But at the same time, what I want in the homework that we get is a way for them to take that knowledge and use it to think about the world that they're living in. Because I think that's the whole purpose of education is, you know, not to understand discrete facts or abstract ideas, but to think about how they work in the world we live in.

And that's math, that's science, that's politics, that's, you know, language and writing. One of the greatest things our schools can do is create curious people. Right now, homework isn't designed to, sort of, create curiosity, but I think it would be great if we could figure out how to do that. And if we could do that more and more.

Helen: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier about the quality of homework and how sometimes there are skill and drill things you have to do. I mean, where I grew up, we were doing the dittos and all that at home and you mentioned math. I have heard some parents say that the math homework is actually the hardest because the way it's being taught now and the way kids are being asked to respond to questions at home is super outside how parents learned math themselves. You're regrouping and there's special terminology. What is your advice to parents and schools in those instances where kids know such a specific way of accomplishing a problem that their parents don't know and then you end up with this "do it my way, do it your way" dynamic going on at home?

Dr. Sheldon: So, I've been in that position. I will tell you how I have approached it and I think it's not a bad way to approach it. So, if you're focused on getting the right answer, then I think you're more likely to get to the, "Well, when I was growing up, we did it this way." "Well, the teacher didn't teach it that way. The teacher wants us to draw figures and make blocks and do what looks like art as opposed to just calculating it." And so, if you're focused on the right answer, then it becomes, you know, "Here's my way and there's your way, and which is the right way."

And I think what we need to understand is that there are multiple ways to attack math problems. A situation like that actually invites a really great opportunity for parents to step back and say, "Can you teach it to me?" If your child can explain to you how they're doing math in this new way, the act of teaching to somebody else is a powerful way of learning. And so, you sort of get that, like, two for one kind of moment there. Sometimes, as a parent, we have to be okay with not always being the absolute expert on that.

And if your child gets to a place where they're not sure what to do next, then I think as a parent, if we don't understand how to solve the problem in that way, we can then step forward and write the teacher a note and say, you know, "We were going over this and my child doesn't seem to understand it and I asked them to explain it to me and there was just a lot of confusion. If you could go back over this so that my child can get it." All of a sudden, homework's doing a lot of things. It's helping teach you how the math is being taught, it's helping reinforce what they're learning. It's exposing places where there's misunderstandings and it's created for communication, parent to teacher in this case. What the research says is that parents that monitor their child's homework is related to their children doing better in school. Just checking to make sure that your child has done his or her homework or has attempted to do his or her homework is the important role that parents have in homework. Checking the homework and making sure things get turned in has a huge impact on how they do in that class.

LaWanda: You talked a little bit about more meaningful homework and bringing out the curiosity in children. How do you advocate for that? When you are looking at your child's homework, you're looking at it, it's like, this is more a busy work or just to say that they received some work to do at home. How do you communicate without creating frustration between the teacher and the parent?

Dr. Sheldon: I think what I would advocate in that situation is that there probably needs to be a larger discussion at the school around what homework is and why. I actually think this is one of those areas where the PTA can be immensely helpful and powerful in its role at the school. I think in PTA's you have a collective group of families that probably don't agree on everything because we're human. But I think you do have a group of families that all want their children to succeed, they want to be helpful, they want to see the school succeed. It's not just their children, but they're interested in seeing the school be successful.

And I think it is perfectly appropriate for PTA to open up a conversation and say, "Can we have a conversation about what homework looks like?" Because I think otherwise you get people griping in the hallways or in the corners or, you know, around the corner from the school. And I don't think that's particularly constructive. And I think with a collective voice, principals, teachers, department chairs are probably more likely to hear and listen. It's a conversation worth having. And I think this is a place where the PTA should really consider how their voice can have a meaningful role in all this.

Helen: So, let's say that they have that conversation and decide, "We want to have a more meaningful, interactive, curiosity-driven approach." I think sometimes it's so hard for folks both inside school and parents to be like, "Okay, well, what does that look like?"

Dr. Sheldon: When I think of meaningful and creative, I think the extent to which it's creative really depends on the teachers themselves being able to think about, "What is the meaning or the broader implications of what I'm teaching for the lives of my students?" And I think a lot of people want, sort of, plug and play kind of things, right? "Just give me a packet of homework and I can just Xerox them off and pass them all out and that's great."

But the truth of it is if you want meaningful creative homework or homework that's developed to build creativity, the teachers are going to have to get in there and do this work themselves and I think most of them probably want to do that. This is now just sort of talking off the top of my head, but I think it would be really interesting if you had teachers and parents together co-designing something like this. You could probably get some pretty interesting ideas and you'd probably get some really great homework developed that would be meaningful to the teachers, meaningful to the parents, probably more likely to be meaningful to the students if you had those on board. And I think you could look around your community and, you know, if you could fix one problem in your community, what would that problem be?

I think the more we ask students and the more we ask families to look at their lives and do schoolwork within the context of the worlds we live, I think that's how it gets meaningful and how we can get creative. Because then you can ask kids in this homework, "Think creatively or think outside of the box. What is the wildest change you would make in our world that would solve traffic congestion?" or something like that.

LaWanda: So you mentioned that your kids don't go to a school that does homework anymore. Do you create homework for your kids at home?

Dr. Sheldon: I don't. In high school, my son gets homework. So this is I think an unfortunate equity issue. Right? My son is in some advanced courses and he's in some courses that are standard, doesn't get homework in standard courses. He gets homework in his advanced courses because the advanced courses are trying to cover a lot more and they understand that they can't if they don't get the kids to do extra work and so they need to do homework. Is there an actual benefit for homework? The research says it depends.

In the younger grades, there's really been no relationship found between the amount of time you spend on homework and how well children do in school. But that as children get older there is a relationship and the more time you spend on homework the better-off kids are doing. The cautionary tale to that is that, you know, if you are studying homework in terms of minutes, you run into a problem because what happens is, and especially in the early grades, it's who get things quickly, spend less time on their homework because they get it quickly.

And kids who are struggling to learn it are spending more time because they're struggling to learn it. So now which one came first? Are you not doing well because you're spending more time on homework or are you spending more time on homework because maybe you need to spend that extra time to get the concepts because you didn't get them the first time?

The causality there, it's a correlation, and so people are jumping to say, "Look, homework doesn't matter." But the truth is, is that if you need to spend more time on homework to understand a concept, then you need to spend more time on homework to understand the concept. I think we're learning a lot more foundational things in elementary school and as we get older, concepts become more abstract. Students are expected to write better, write more. There's a lot more layers to it.

Helen: For the teachers who might be listening, what would you tell them? Like, what should they be asking of parents or doing to look at how they're assigning homework to really make the most of it for kids?

Dr. Sheldon: For teachers? Think about what you're trying to accomplish with your homework. Try to give families opportunities to give you feedback on how their kids are doing. A lot of times we think, "Oh, well, you know, I tell them all the time that they can email me." Anything we can do, I think, to facilitate communication between families and educators, I think is really helpful for kids.

LaWanda: We've kind of talked about the tips for the teachers and we've talked a lot about resources for parents. I kind of want to leave with the three things that parents can do if they're running into homework stress and challenges.

Dr. Sheldon: I think one of the biggest challenges, and I'm speaking now as a parent, is time management. There are times when, you know, I've been a little thankful that there hasn't been homework because we've been going from one thing to the next or, you know, we just spent two hours at this practice and, oh, my God, we're all tired and we want to go home and etc., etc. But I think having some kind of schedule at home, if when you come home from work, one of the first questions you ask is, "Hey, how was school? What'd you do? Is your homework done?" day in and day out, and your child knows that that question is coming, then that does reinforce that expectation that this is something that I want you to value.

Two other, sort of, pieces of advice, for a lot of places there are online portals that let the parent see whether or not assignments have been turned in, how their child is doing. I think parent portals are often overlooked resource. I think there's a lot of help that parents need in terms of understanding how to use them in a way that doesn't make you neurotic and crazy. You can get into a cycle where you're checking it every day and that's not very helpful. I think one of the best things that school said to us on one of our open house nights was, "So, parents, check the portal about twice a week. Don't go crazy. Don't be neurotic."

That kind of advice of like, "We have a parent portal where you can check whether or not your children are doing their homework. You don't need to check it every day. If you check it twice a week, then you're doing well by your kid." That concrete advice was so helpful. And I guess I would say look for opportunities to have a conversation, a two-way conversation, with your child. Know that the teacher's a resource for you and a support for you, but get to know your child and try to see if there's a way where what your child is learning in class or bringing home from school is a place to open up a conversation and get to know your child.

Helen: Thank you, Dr. Sheldon, for coming in today and sharing all of your insights and ideas about homework and what we can do as parents to make it a good experience. So, for those tuning in, don't forget to follow Dr. Sheldon on Twitter @DrStevenSheldon. Thanks, again, for coming in. You also have a resource for educators out there, a book. So, if folks want to go and learn more about best practices in homework design, where should they go?

Dr. Sheldon: TIPS Interactive Homework. That's teachers involved, parents and schoolwork. Then you can go to the National Network of Partnership School's website, which is partnershipschools.org, and there should be a link for Tips right there and it'll let you learn more about it and give you some samples to look at.

LaWanda: Thank you again, everyone, for tuning in for another episode of "Notes from the Backpack." Let's keep the conversation going by using the hashtag #backpacknotes on social media to share your thoughts. And we'll talk to you next time.

Outro: Thank you for tuning into "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." Be sure to follow us on social media @NationalPTA and online at pta.org/backpacknotes.




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