What's the right amount of homework?

IS IT a bore for the kids, another layer of labour for frazzled mums — or a crucial route to academic success?




Children’s homework and the time it takes are problems for parents — homework is described as the “thorniest issue” at primary school, by a representative of the Irish National Teachers’ organisation.

Most schools have a homework policy, because parents are puzzled. One primary school, in Kildare, runs homework information meetings for parents, at their request, while one second-level school clarifies what’s expected of first years. When Jen Maher’s eldest, Olive, started at second level, Jen joined the Parents’ Council to become familiar with the homework system. Olive is now in transition year at Colaiste na Toirbhirte in Bandon, and her youngest sister, Alice, is in first year. Jen says a responsible attitude to homework is crucial. Her children are expected to be conscientious.

“It’s a leap from primary school to first year, with all the extra subjects and teachers and that can be difficult,” Jen says. Alice spends one to one-and-a-half hours on her homework, while, in Junior Cert, Olive “did three or more hours a night. I’m happy with what they’re doing,” Jen says. “I never went rooting to see what homework they had, but they knew they were expected to be responsible about it.”

By second-level, many students are less open about their lives, so it’s a good idea to join a network of other parents. “I joined the Parents’ Council to see how things operated,” says Maher. “I found it was a great help, because there were parents there whose children were ahead of mine in the school system, and that was a godsend.”

Carolyn O’Flaherty, deputy principal at the 540-pupil school, holds special information meetings. “Sometimes, parents would have queries about how much homework their children should be doing and how they should be doing it. We tend to be very conscious that it’s very different for first years coming from the primary school system. They could have between 10 to 12 different teachers here, and there may be anxiety around what different teachers expect of homework,” she says.

For the first few weeks of term, the teachers start the homework in class to familiarise students: “After a while, the first years work independently. We would, generally, feel they should have between one and one-and-a-half hours per night at first year. We emphasise the use of the journal, in organising homework, and stress to parents how important it is that they go through the journal and check on the homework — this facilitates communication between parent and student on homework.”

Second-years are expected to do between one-and-a-half to two hours, and Junior Certs two to three hours. In fifth and sixth year, three to four hours a night is the norm, she says. The quality of the homework is more important than the length of time it takes.

Students should not do homework in front of the TV or with a mobile phone nearby. “Homework develops good habits of the mind, takes the stress out of exams, is very good discipline and facilitates independent learning,” Ms O’Flaherty says.

In the evenings, second level students should go back over material they covered in class that day — even if they have been allocated no homework, says Bernie Judge, education officer with the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland.

Parents should not accept the excuse that their child doesn’t need to study because they have no tests coming up. “Consistent application is necessary. Don’t accept that they’re not getting any homework. If they have no writing to do, they should be going over notes,” she says.

Children should leave phones downstairs while they are studying upstairs. But the bedroom is not always the best place for study — it’s private and they may not be doing the work they claim to be doing.

Last September, a homework journal was introduced for the 340 pupils of headmistress Breda Fay’s school, Scoil Choca Naofa, in Kilcock. The school now also runs ‘homework information mornings’ for parents. A homework club has also been established. The journal shows parents what homework has been allocated and how long the child is taking to do it — thus facilitating a conversation with the teacher should homework need to be adjusted.

Fay says the majority of parents were happy with the time their children spent on homework — 10 minutes of paired reading or colouring at junior infant and senior infant level, 20 minutes in first class, half an hour in third and fourth class, and under 45 minutes in fifth and sixth class.

Homework is not a major issue in the Fitzgerald household, in Killahin, near Tralee, in Co Kerry, where mum Geraldine expects her daughters Linda (12) and Shauna (7) to do their best, but is relaxed: “I’m very lucky, because the girls go to a country school with only 30 pupils and they get great attention. The majority of their work is done at school,” she says, though Linda does an hour’s homework every night and Shauna does half an hour.

“They sit in the kitchen doing their homework, while I make the dinner. I’m very relaxed, I don’t push them, I tell them to do their best, but that, at the end of the day, there’s more to life than homework.

“I know of parents in other schools who spend two hours, or more, doing homework with primary level students — I think that’s way too much.”

If you’re worried that your child is not doing his or her homework or is not able for it, says Peter Mullan, of the INTO, contact the school. “Homework is one of the thorniest issues at primary level — it’s added stress and can be time-sapping. It can be resented by children and parents, so it’s very worthwhile for people to understand the value of it,” he says. Research shows that children who get maths homework three or four times a week score higher than children who don’t.

DON’T BE TOO FUSSY

Research has shown a positive relationship between homework and achievements, says Professor Kathy Hall, Professor of Education at UCC. “Time spent on homework yields results,” she says, cautioning homework should be relevant; ideally done independently and without parental support.

Hall believes the primary school years are a golden opportunity to help children develop good study habits. Regular homework is an excellent way to develop self-discipline, time management and a sense of responsibility towards work and study, she says.

If, however, homework takes away from personal time or family well-being, it generates a lot of anxiety, she warns: “Homework should be at a level of easy difficulty, it should not be about being stuck.”

Check your child’s homework journal and attend parent-teacher meetings, she counsels — but parents should avoid a rigid or regimented approach to homework or over-emphasis on perfection.


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