This guest post is by Jane Kim, a writer and mom of a nine-year-old with autism. She works in the field of immigration and lives with her family in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The subject of homework is way more controversial than when I grew up, when it was a given. These days, not every expert agrees it's necessary or even always beneficial. As is always the case, it can depend on your child's needs. Max is in his fourth year of high school and still benefits from having some, since he learns by repetition. Read on for Jane's take.
My son is in third grade and is at a new school for children with learning differences. Homework is optional. Should I embrace that?
At curriculum night, when his teacher first announced that homework was optional, my body and mind had different reactions. My shoulders dropped and I let out a long exhale. My jaw suddenly felt more relaxed. One less thing to stress about! Within nanoseconds, though, my mind caught up. No homework? How absurd! As a law school graduate and person with a career, all I’d ever known was homework. Opting for no homework felt a bit like a betrayal of my past, a nonrecognition of the countless hours spent as a child and young adult that shaped me and helped me become the best version of myself…right?
Way before my son, T, understood the concept of homework, I was given homework by his therapists and physicians. As a baby, he was very quiet, and met most milestones shakily. To encourage receptive and expressive language, the speech therapist recommended I narrate my actions. At the grocery store, I’d point out the different fruits and vegetables and chat about ingredients needed for dinner. For OT, I was to promote bilateral coordination activities such as cutting with scissors and catching a ball with both hands. T also struggled with typical play, so we hired a play therapist to join his team. She would send home a large plastic bin of manipulatives and various games to play which were swapped out for new games when he got the hang of certain ones.
He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was around 3 years old, and his already tight schedule ramped-up with Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. When your child has an ASD diagnosis, parents are given oppressive amounts of things to do (i.e. medical evaluations, obtaining services, identifying the best ABA program for your child’s needs, finding providers, the list goes on) well before homework from school begins. For ABA to be the most effective, parents and caregivers need to be trained on ABA techniques and be actively involved in determining and tweaking goals for their child. I often felt as if I was racing against time, and losing badly.
In first grade, when T started getting homework, it felt incredibly haphazard and disjointed. My expectation of his homework was an opportunity for him to recall what he learned at school that day, do it (mostly) on his own and build some sense of pride and a love of learning. Boy was I wrong! Often, it was as if he was seeing the material for the first time. Other times, he could partially complete the homework, but needed my assistance to complete the rest. I began to dread homework time, as did T. It was stressful for the both of us, and over a two-year period, we never got into a rhythm.
T grew to resent and fear homework. At the time, for a child that was not at all vocal about his preferences, he would ask, “Friday we have no homework, right?” When I answered yes, he’d respond with “Yay!” With T starting a new school as a third grader, I wanted to look at homework with fresh eyes and see if it made sense for him now that it was optional.
After doing some research, it turns out–unsurprisingly–there are two camps when it comes to the quantity and the type of homework. The first camp endorses 10 minutes per grade level, and up to 2 hours a night for high-school students, which correlates with good, standardized test scores. The second camp believes homework doesn’t help (at least the homework typically given in our schools). It also questions standardized testing as an accurate measure of achievement. Do good test scores equate to intelligence, and therefore professional and personal success?
As an average test taker, I wasn’t convinced. But it’s incredibly hard to deviate from your own personal experiences. I filled my older sister in on my dilemma, a person I share the most common history with, hoping she would have a deep conviction that would sway me. She didn’t, which surprised me. Instead, she told me different kids had different needs. I spoke with T’s teacher about it. She pointed out that he’s in a small class and is getting as much individualized attention as he can - with the benefits of a group setting. The kids work hard during the day and can’t get away with much, due to the small class size. That’s when I decided against homework in the typical sense.
These days, we rarely do worksheets (with the exception of writing practice) as T benefits from repetition in this area. There are always opportunities to learn, whether it’s preparing a simple recipe or measuring ingredients, setting up a board game to play, reading poems and/or listening to songs and then interpreting the meaning.
Generally, I follow his lead when it comes to his interests and find an activity that engages him. Sometimes there are neighborhood scavenger hunts. Math is challenging for T, so his teacher sends home individualized math activities of concepts they are working on. And if all else fails, there’s 20 minutes of reading anything, incorporated into a reading log. With winter break here, we plan on playing card games, reading a book on Martin Luther King Jr., making holiday snacks and writing a wish list on places to visit in 2022 (and then perhaps explore them by video).
In making this decision (for now), I asked myself the following questions: Who is my child? How does he learn best? What’s the worst that can happen? I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of no homework. And in that process, I learned a bit about myself: As a parent, what has worked for me may not be the best for him—and it’s my job to learn what’s best for his social, emotional and academic well-being. With every passing year, he teaches me more and more.
Find Jane on Twitter @JKimRites.