With all of us finally settled into the school season, I hear parents discussing the common and hotly debated topic of homework.  There seems to be a wide spectrum of what any child might expect to be required of them.  Homework policies vary not only based simply on whether the child is in public or a variety of private school methodologies, but also from state to state, district to district, and among individual schools of the same type, in the same city.  Even different teachers of the same grades in the same school often have vastly different approaches to what kind of homework, if any, or how much to assign.  If you are anything like me, while you certainly do not want your child to fall behind, having your child spend potentially hours doing more school work at home everyday can be challenging for both child and parent and may even be harmful?

Stanford Graduate School of Education studied the health effects of nearly 5,000 students from 10 different high performing high schools and found that over half of the students found their homework burden to be a significant source of stress, resulting in anxiety that impacted their health.  Most commonly reported were headaches, depression, sleep deprivation and exhaustion, gastro-intestinal disorders and weight loss.  These students reported that they felt more isolated from friends, family and other social activities.  Many students report their homework is simply “busywork”.  To make it worse, other studies have shown that, with the exception of math, all this extra homework really is not improving students overall test scores. Why?  What if we are asking the wrong question when we discuss homework.  We keep asking is it too much or is it too little, when maybe the real question is what is the quality of the homework.   Lucky for us parents, educators started asking this same question, and Kurt Fisher, Ph.D. founded what is known as Mind, Brain, Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In 2004, that had grown into formation of the International Mind Brain and Education Society (IMBES).  This is the first group focused strictly on relating biology and cognitive science with education.  They are the first to have a publication where neuroscientists and biologists could collaborate with educators to create quality research and publish good science that could then be implemented.  Schools have already started to utilize some of these evidence based techniques, such as “spaced repetition”, “retrieval practice”, and even “cognitive disfluency”.  These strategies often are not applied to homework however.

All of this may sound complicated and daunting.  So, what can you do at home, starting today, to ensure your child is optimizing their learning?  The answer is surprisingly simple.  In fact, you probably already do it, just maybe not as consistently or often as you should.  The answer: READ.   Read to your children, read with your children, have your children read to you and have them read to others –  siblings, dolls or stuffies and even just themselves.  Just spending 20 minutes a day, every day, reading with your child is enough to have huge positive impact. With all the debate around homework, this is the one thing I find educators, scientists and even parents usually agree on.  Reading is fundamental to development of all areas of learning.  It’s never too early to start either!  By 23 weeks, developing babies are starting to hear in utero.  They are hearing the heartbeat of their mother, her breathing, music and voices outside the womb.  We know that sound in utero is an essential part of the brain’s formation, later helping with development of the ability to reason.  Around this same time, the auditory cortex is starting to function, and once it does, the baby starts to learn and respond to the low frequency rhythms and tones of the voices around it.  Talking to, reading to, playing music and even incorporating soothing touch to the baby while in in utero have shown that they are born with language recognition.  As a bonus, they also exhibit a predictable pattern to soothing, especially when the same to the techniques used to communicate and touch before birth are continued after birth.  Infants who are read to show a much larger vocabulary acquisition.  Still, studies have yet to be done on whether reading to your unborn child confers an on-going and long-lasting academic edge.  The relationship between parent and child created by a practice of reading is certainly a positive one with long lasting benefits.

For your child that is preparing to enter school or is in school, some of the benefits of reading and stories include: building listening skills, fostering the imagination, understanding cause/effect, exercises reasoning skills, encouraging abstract thinking, creating social structural norms, helping children learn to distinguish fact from fantasy, improving concentration, and developing memory strength. The ability to read opens doors to obtaining information on limitless interests and themes.  Reading cultivates the ability for all of us to see the world through the story-teller’s eyes, deepening our empathy and effectively allowing self-education and development.  This is one reason that throughout history, literacy has been strongly linked to democracy.

Reading with your child will change not only their life and yours, but possibly the world.

“One book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.”  ~ Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Pakastani girl shot by the Taliban for promoting literacy for girls

Dr. Summer Beattie,ND was born and grew up in Southeawst Alaska – it will always be home.  A 2004 graduate of Bastyr University, she served two terms on the board of directors for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians, and has worked in a variety of primary and specialty care settings.  This has given her a broad wealth of experience that she now uses in a unique clinical practice with a focus on rejuvenative physical and aesthetic medicine. Dr. Beattie,ND offers comprehensive care as it relates to physical rehabilitation from a Naturopathic Orthopedic perspective. You can find her and on-line patient programs at www.onehealingmedical.com