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

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

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!

5 Strategies for Academic Success

Written by Carrie Carson, MA in Counselling Psychology, co

Student learning.jpg

Helping students stay focused in school is no easy task for teachers or for parents. We try so hard to give them the skills they need to be successful, but with all of the other things going on in their life sometimes it’s just too much. So what are some easy strategies that we can implement to help alleviate their stress (which also alleviates our stress!) that also promotes their academic success?

1. Write everything down

Although this may seem like common sense, it’s not always for our children. Even though they receive an agenda at the beginning of the year, most don’t use it unless their teachers or parents request that they do so, and even at that we struggle with how often they have it with them. So how can we encourage our children to write things down? Well, we will need to find creative ways to engage them, child/age-dependent of course. An example can be to show them how to make their agenda interesting by having them color coordinate their classes or highlight important dates. Doing this, will make the agenda’s appearance more appealing and inevitably make the use of an agenda more fun! Greater use of their agenda will also make them more aware of what is to come, which certainly helps with time management (and helps build their executive function skills which are important for academic success). Sometimes, however, we have to consider that not all students know how to write their homework in their agenda and this is where we as parents and teachers come in. Show your children how to write their homework down, help them practice fast and efficient ways to document in their agenda (ie., acronyms, shortened names for classes, etc.). Guidance and practice will help them to master these skills and make the use of their agenda much more natural.   Here is a link to help you get started. 

2. Set goals

Every child has a goal, whether distant future or at the moment. Help them identify what their goal is and how they can make it a SMART goal. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Having goals is often great motivation, therefore helping them set goals and showing them how to make them SMART will inevitably create success, and we all know “success breeds success”. Take for example a goal of Honor Roll, while this is a great start we need to break it down even further than that. We will need to start by recognizing that in order to obtain this goal we must receive an overall average of 80% in each class. For a student who typically receives 80’s but is just under in one of their classes, this goal can be revised to address the one class that is just under the 80%. However, for the child who typically gets 60%, this goal is not necessarily attainable. As such, we could make it more attainable by suggesting an increase in their overall grade in one or two classes by a manageable amount. The idea of setting SMART goals is that the student, with additional effort, should be able to reach them, and each success increases motivation to continue.

3. Time management

Children see due dates and deadlines but don’t always understand how to make the best use of their time, in order to complete the work. Help your children organize their agenda to include all elements of their day. For instance, have them write in activities they have in the evenings during the school week as well as on the weekend so that they can see which time slots are unavailable. You can have them add as much or as little as you want (this depends on their current level of organization). By having a visual of available time, parents/teachers can help students break down their work into the available time slots leaving students with a concrete plan to complete their work. Hopefully, with practice, students will then learn the skills to do this on their own. Since time management is greatly associated with executive functioning, you may notice that children who have difficulty with this task will also have difficulty in their everyday life. If your child seems to forget about appointments, this may be because they have a hard time keeping track of time and obligations. If they consistently miss deadlines, this may be because they are unable to adequately predict the amount of time a project may take. If your child needs constant reminders to accomplish tasks, this may also be because they have difficulty with multi-step tasks. Recognizing their area(s) of difficulty and implementing strategies to aid them, will certainly improve their overall success. Whether or not your child has learning difficulties, ADD or ADHD, here is a link to some additional strategies that can be adapted to all students.

4. Self-Care

It is always motivating when there are perks attached to good work, but no need to buy them gifts or bribe them. Using appropriate time management skills should create more space for them to do the things they like. Have them identify a list of activities they enjoy and show them that the more organized they are the more time there will be for these activities. When they see the proof of your “suggestion”, the motivation to continue will increase. Be sure to use their list, as showing them there will be more time for doing the dishes or washing the floor may not get them too excited! Research has also shown that including them in the process by giving them choices, increases both learning and interest (Cordova and Lepper, 1996; Lyengar and Lepper,1999).

5. Study Method

Help your child find a study method that is right for them as this is a key factor in academic success. Not everyone learns the same way. Some students are more visual, some more auditory, and others more kinesthetic. Each type of learner has specific needs and as such study methods need to be adapted. For instance, if your child is an auditory learner, have them record their voice practicing their vocabulary words. Listening to it over and over will certainly help with the memorization process. If they are a visual learner, have them write things down in colorful or artistic ways. For example, they can make PowerPoint presentations or cue cards that are color coordinated. Anything that is appealing to the eye will help a visual learner be more successful. Finally, if your child is a kinesthetic learner, you will want to incorporate a physical component where they can get involved and be part of the learning process. For instance, instead of just reading their novel for English class, have them act out some of the important parts. Don’t forget to be creative, having fun is a sure way to reduce the resistance from your children when it comes to completing their work. Here are some more tips on teaching good study habits

Why it's important for students to take breaks during homework

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada


Both parents and students are always surprised when I tell them just how often students need to take breaks. We tend to have the mindset of, "sit down and stay their until you finish your homework", however, this is not necessarily the best practice for students. There are different types of attention, one known as  "sustained attention", which is the ability to maintain control of your attention for longer periods of time. Sustained attention is fundamental to learning and memory (Lee et al. 2015, Journal of Environmental Psychology). The average adult can remain focused for about 20 min. Meaning if they are in a 1 hour meeting, odds are only the information during the first 20 minutes are retained. Are we actually surprised about this?!!!

Ditch the "sit down until your homework is finished" rule!

In children, their sustained attention is much less than this, so we can't expect them to sit down for an hour during class or homework. I have a vivid memory of this little boy (let's call him Jacob) from a grade 4 class I was giving a presentation in. I gave the students this information and told them to tell their parents that Ms. Cindy, the neuroscientist told them to take breaks every 10-15 min. When I returned to teach their class the following month, we discussed how these breaks had helped their attention. Many students were elated to tell me that they were enjoying homework more and that they felt more focused during those short periods of time. However, Jacob raised his hand and told us that his father refused that he take "too many breaks" during homework and that "rules are rules". This saddened me immensely. I thought I would share some information with you with the hopes that more parents can see the importance of taking breaks. 

How can we help students focus during homework?

On average, the attention span of a child is about their age, give or take a few minutes. Through activities and games they can  build a longer attention span (quiet time activities for preschoolers and board games in children....stay tuned for this post!). In the meantime, we need to respect a child's brain and their attention. Gauge how focused they are during homework. If they start looking around and you need to repeat what you said, ask them to stand up and move around for about 1-2 minutes. Help them take their mind off homework by grabbing a bite of their snack, taking a drink of water, doing some jumping jacks, walking backwards while trying to also say the alphabet backwards (this will get a good laugh out of them!).....anything to take a short break (even looking at pictures of nature...see research study info below). Then have them come back to the table. Some kids might want to stay standing to do their homework and this is fine too. As long as they are focused.  

What have we learned from research studies?

An interesting study in 2013 (Lee et al. 2015, Journal of Environmental Psychology), demonstrated that breaks, or micro-breaks as they called them, lasting only 40 seconds can boost attention. They used images of nature to help their participants relax during an attention test. They concluded that these micro-breaks are important for productivity. 

This post focused on homework, however in one of our upcoming posts, I will discuss sustained attention in the classroom and give some tips on how teachers can help their students maintain their attention.