The brain of an early elementary school student is not ready for homework

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Founder of

Montreal, Canada

There is an ongoing debate regarding whether homework contributes to student’s academic achievement. Here in Montreal, some schools are “banning” homework, following in the footsteps of world leaders in education such as Finland, whose students also have very little homework. Homework gets a lot of heat online, with some headlines reading “Is homework bad for kids?”, “Kids get 3 times too much homework” and “Does homework help or hinder learning?”.

After reading articles in education and peeking into some topics in neuroscience (brain science), I realized that perhaps we were misplacing our attention. What we really need to focus on is helping young children build their learning-related skills (brain-related skills/cognitive skills) in order to better prepare them for homework.

Homework helps students get better grades only as of late elementary school.

The majority of research studies suggest that doing homework regularly can help a student get better grades (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005). However, it appears that homework given to younger children in lower elementary school levels may not be as beneficial (Cooper et al. 2006, Review of Educational Research). It seems that certain brain-related skills are often not developed enough in these younger students. This can hinder a child’s ability to successfully do homework and prevent them from developing positive behaviour towards homework as well. Underdeveloped skills in early elementary can lead to some students having to spend too much time doing homework, and this can lead to a risky path such as a child losing academic confidence, feeling that they “are not smart enough” or consequently losing motivation in school.

Parental involvement during early elementary is also crucial in helping children build a positive relationship with homework. With younger children, researchers found that parents tend to pay more attention to whether their child is advanced or lagging on a specific subject (i.e. math). This is in comparison to older students who are more independent during homework and a parent’s role is to review homework or help when their child requests it. Research has shown that when a child perceives a parent as being positively involved in their homework, they develop stronger internal motivation, which also promotes school success.

It is recommend that parents try to be aware of the following 4 qualities when doing homework with their child (Pomerantz et al. 2005, 2007):

1.     Autonomy support vs. control: Are you supporting your child in developing their own schedules for doing homework vs. are you making decisions without your child’s input.

2.     Process vs. person focus: Are you helping your child focus on the process of mastering the school work vs. are you emphasizing achievement.

3.     Positive vs. negative affect: Are you establishing a sense of connectedness with your child by maintaining positive affect (positive emotions and expression such as cheerfulness and enthusiasm) and intrinsic motivation (not using external rewards such as offering a gift or a candy if they complete their homework) vs. are you being hostile and critical when checking your child’s homework.

4.     Positive vs. negative beliefs about children’s potential: Are you trusting your child’s capabilities to do well vs. are you focusing on them avoiding complete failure.

The environment also plays a large role in helping a child succeed with homework. Distractions such as television, siblings, or parents talking or arguing around them can have a negative impact. Create a peaceful environment when your young child is doing homework (as much as possible!). Include them in creating a homework schedule. Ask them when they prefer doing homework and which assignment they would prefer to start with. Also, don’t forget to let them take breaks! A child’s ability to stay focused is about their age in minutes (for more information on this click here to read an article). If you are doing homework with a 7 year old and you notice they are not as focused after 10 minutes, let them get up and move around. You also don’t have to stay seated to do homework. They can stand at the table or sit on an exercise ball.

Learning-related skills that are still developing in early elementary school.

Homework, requires certain learning-related skills; skills that neuroscience research suggest are often weaker in early elementary school students since they are still being developed. Children are not born with these skills. The environment we create for them will encourage the development of these cognitive skills. Skills such as executive functions, self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and metacognitive skills.

Without taking the time to develop these skills, their can be consequences in their academic success later on. For instance, between the ages of 7 and 14 years old, those who scored more poorly on working memory tests (part of executive functions) scored below average on English, mathematics and Science national exams (Jarvis and Gathercole, 2003).

Here are the descriptions of brain related skills that are often under-developed in young elementary school students:

1.     Self-regulation is a skill that allows a child to regulate their emotions and behaviour during challenging situations.

2.     Executive functions are mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking and self-control. According to the Harvard University Center for Child Development, each are defined as:

·      Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

·      Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

·      Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

3.     Intrinsic motivation is when a child is driven by internal reward rather than external rewards. This skill can help a student perform well with their homework and succeed in school since they have the drive to so.

4.     Delayed-gratification is when a child delays or resists temptation for an immediate reward or for a later reward. In essence, it is about self-control and being patient and this is a skill that some argue is the most important trait a child can have that in turn, will help them throughout their academic and personal life.

If you are interested in learning how to help your child develop these skills, stay tuned for an upcoming article!

Kindergarten to grade 3 is the perfect time for students to work on building learning-related skills

Between kindergarten and grade 3, children should focus on practicing reading during evenings as well as spending quality time with their family with the intention of building important learning-related skills. Parents should receive guidance (stay tuned for our upcoming article on this topic) in terms of what to do in order to help their child develop these learning-related skills. For example, instead of doing homework for 20-30 min every night, families with younger children should play games, such as checkers, Go Fish, memory, Dr. Eureka or Uno, which can help children develop skills such as: longer attention spans, planning, critical thinking, learning to wait for their turn, motivation and more. Not to mention that spending quality time as a family helps a child build a stronger bond and can help develop their self-confidence.

While working privately with young children, I became aware of their struggle with homework , especially in early elementary. These young students are tired from long days at school, their attention spans are shorter during the evening, they want to play since they have been in school all day and their parents are tired from their work day as well. When a child begins school, we should be nurturing their curiosity, their love for learning and helping them develop the right learning-related skills that will contribute to their success as students!