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Problem: How School Troubles Come Home

A 2006 study by Curt Dudley-Marling, Professor, Boston College Lynch, courtesy of LearningRx
Homework is the focus of many versions of educational reform; yet research on the efficacy of homework as a means of raising student achievement is mixed at best. Even less certain is the impact of homework on the lives of families. This study used interviews to examine how a diverse group of parents whose children struggled academically perceived the effects of homework on their families. In general, the presence of homework had a disruptive effect, reducing the time available for family activities and diminishing the qualityof family interactions. In these families, homework was a carrier for school troubles, a means by which "school troubles" were transformed into "family troubles."

The parents interviewed for this study indicated that homework was a significant presence in their homes occupying the time of children and parents who monitored and supported children's homework. Overall, the demands of homework disrupted their lives, frequently upsetting family relationships and denying parents and children many pleasures of family life.

The demands of supporting their children's homework left many parents, especially mothers, with little time for themselves or for other family members. Edna Bunker, mother of an eighth-grade boy who struggled in school, commented, "[My son] spends hours and hours and hours on homework. All weekend long, all night long. It's dreadful. Just dreadful." She frequently admonished him to "hurry up so that we can do something else" but homework rarely left time for "something else." Sheila McIsaac commented on her son's first fewyears in school: "There was always homework…hours of homework. In the evening sitting at the kitchen table just doing it over and over and over again. It was quite stressful." The "hours" of homework Timmy Blake brought home each night was mostly work he had not completed in school because he spent so much time attending to "what was going on around him." Betty Blake indicated, "I understand that I have to help with homework, but the depth in which I have to help him with his homework is what frustrates me. Like, I don't understand how come he is not picking this up at school. He should be able to just come home and do the work." But, since Timmy could not "just come home and do the work," his homework was also his mother's homework.

Most parents feel the importance of helping children with their homework. Diane Riggs shared, "I have to make sure that Roger's got his homework done…If he can keep up and at least have his homework done, then he's all right. It's when he gets behind that he gets panicky and starts feeling badly about himself." Maria Scott recalled, "I'd say, Tiffany, "Okay, let's read. I'll read one page and you read a page." So I'd read a page and she'd listen to me read and then, when it's time for her to read, she'd get frustrated when she got stuck on a word…She just sat there and got so upset. And sometimes she would make me upset and I would say, "Tiffany, you know this word. Start with the first letter and sound it out." And she'd get upset so we're both sitting there trying to figure out this word. I'd get so frustrated. [Sometimes] I would yell, "Well just go! Just leave me alone!" And she'd get upset and started to cry."

Edna Bunker spoke of her thirteen-year-old son Mike's need for her to "be there" while he did his homework. "Mike wants someone to sit one-on-one with him [while he does his homework]. And so I'll do that for a while. But I get frustrated too because it goes on and on and on. It's not like he can just sit there and get the stuff done quickly—it's frustrating." Betty Blake worried that fights over homework harmed her relationship with her son. "I try not to yell, but I don't know what else to do…I get so frustrated. I don't even know what to say any more. I'll spend half a day showing him how to do something and he'll know how to do it as long as I'm sitting here. But if I move and say do it on your own, all of a sudden it's like, "What?" He gets very upset when I yell at him to the point where he cries."

Molly Reeves said, "It was some of his spelling words: fast-faster, tall-taller. Just add "-er," you know. And there was a little story he had to read that had some of his spelling words. And "fast," he got it, but every time we got to "faster," he didn't get it. And there was no difference, except the ending. We just kept arguing over it. And finally I said, "All right, just let it go, forget it. Go on." And he went into his room." Fussing, fighting, and arguing over homework was a theme common to most of my interviews.

Like Betty Blake, parents believed that "education was important" which meant that homework was important, too. "Working with" their children was also a way to help their children do better in school or, at least, keep from falling further behind. Perhaps this is why parents of children who receive average or below average grades may be especially likely to desire more homework for their children. Still, the parents interviewed for this study also acknowledged that the costs of getting children to complete their homework—monitoring, encouraging, nagging, driving back to school to retrieve materials, and "fighting, fussing, and arguing"—was also high.

Curt Dudley-Marling is a Professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He has written nine books and was the winner of the James N. Britton Award for Inquiry in the English Language Arts. Excerpted with permission from: Dudley-Marling, C. (2003, March 7). How school troubles come home: The impact of homework on families of struggling learners. Current Issues in Education [On-line], 6(4). Available: .

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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