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Why Relying on Homework Alone Won't Teach Responsibility: Alternative Approaches

In any society, it is helpful if people exhibit responsibility. I don’t think anyone would disagree, but what is responsibility? How does one learn it? Are there levels of responsibility? Are we responsible for the same things at the same age?

Asking these questions will get you many different answers.

What is Responsibility?

Webster’s online dictionary defines responsibility as being able to answer for one's conduct and obligations: trustworthy (defined as worthy of confidence) OR

2b: able to choose for oneself between right and wrong

The Oxford Dictionary defines it this way: the state or fact of being accountable (as defined by Oxford Dictionary- a person, organization, or institution required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.) Notice how accountable is being responsible and responsible is being accountable? OR

The opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization.

Are there levels of responsibility?

The simple answer is, “Yes.” The real answer is much more complicated and depends on if you’re talking about child development of responsibility, education, work responsibilities, family responsibilities, etc.

How does one learn responsibility?

The Child Development Institute lists 8 ways in their article and Aha! Parenting lists 15 ways tagged here. Declutter Your Mind has 9 ways to take responsibility. WikiHow has several articles on being responsible with relationships, money, time, and in general with multiple tips in each article. These are just a few of the articles and papers I found with a Google search.

Are we all responsible at a certain age for the same things?

Again, the simple answer is, “Yes.” However, the real answer is incredibly complex and has lots of theories, emotions, and speculations involved. This is the area where my focus is today.

As an educator, it is my task to know the developmental stages and the average age of development of those stages in a child. I believe it is the task of every educator to know the stages for when certain skills are “typically” developed to provide an appropriate education for each student in their care. I must also remember that “average” and “typical” do not equal everyone. In learning about typically developing skills and the ages for which they are, on average, acquired I have discovered Executive Functioning(EF) skills development. At the core, EF skills are the skills that help us do everything. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. EF skills are the attention-regulation skills that make it possible to sustain attention, keep goals and information in mind, refrain from responding immediately, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, consider the consequences of different behaviors, reflect on past experiences, change from one task to another, and plan for the future.

Dr. Christine Purcell says, ”The development of executive functioning skills is a lifelong process. And it's important that adults have appropriate developmental expectations. So students don't develop executive functioning skills evenly. And many do not or, they may not develop some skills to the same degree as their peers.”

Many people equate being responsible with being able to exhibit most of the EF skills but they don’t recognize that as what they are doing. Take the example of homework. In the graph below it shows the “average” age for the development of EF skills.

Graph of the average age when executive functioning skills are developed that will help with homoework

The “average” person does not develop all the skills to complete all the processes of homework completely on their own until around age 15-16. Even then the skills aren’t fully developed. Yet all across the United States schools send homework home that will be graded at much younger ages. As Dr. Purcell mentions, students may not develop the skills to the same degree (or at the same age) as their peers. I could not find a definition of what percentage “average” equates. So, I’m going to use the percentages for kids with Autism and ADHD. I chose these two because they often exhibit EF deficits. In my research, most people with ADHD have many EF deficits. Approximately 2% of school-aged children have ever had a diagnosis of Autism and approximately 9% have ever had a diagnosis of ADHD.

We, as educators and parents, need to remember that “average” does not mean everyone and certainly doesn’t account for kids with learning differences, ADHD, and Autism when we are looking at homework. I’ve had parents and teachers tell me that by providing accommodations for homework in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) I am not teaching nor do I have high enough expectations for responsibility. I hear that responsibility is a learned skill and if I give assistance or make modifications to homework, I am doing a disservice to the child and society but not teaching responsibility. As if the ONLY way to teach responsibility is through homework and that everyone is responsible at a certain age for the same things. I have two problems with this line of thinking. 1)I shared several articles that each gave several ways to teach and expect responsibility from children. None of the ways were homework, but homework is mentioned in one article as an example under a category. 2)As adults, I don’t believe we hold ourselves to the same standards of responsibility as children are being held to with homework.

What isn’t being said, but done all the time, is the child is graded for the homework…as well as the EF skills that are associated with the homework. To me, that is saying that because some kids can be accountable for their homework, all kids can and should be held to the same standard. Their grade is based on this standard. If that is the case, most adults (including myself) are not living up to their responsibility to learn and speak 3 foreign languages. I know dozens of people who can converse in 3 or more foreign languages and if they can do it, the rest of us can and should be able to do it too. Also, if we can’t converse in at least 3 languages, our pay is going to be reduced or we will somehow be disciplined while and until we learn and are able to speak in those 3 foreign languages.

I am not against homework completely. It has its place, especially in upper middle school and high school, but not just to have homework, there has to be a purpose. I am all for teaching kids responsibility, accountability, time management, inhibitory control, planning, organizing, and transition skills alongside or separate from academic skills. I am against grading EF skills and home life and applying that grade to whether or not an academic skill or subject is mastered.

Shelley Kenow is not a lawyer and does not provide legal advice. This is her opinion based on years of experience and training in special education. To learn more about Shelley Kenow and her coaching business visit,

You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. You can find Shelley weekly on her Livestream #nolimits on YouTube.


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