Homework Stresses Me Out

I remember the first time I really started questioning whether homework the way we knew it from our childhood was relevant today. The September 15th, 2006 cover story of MacLean’s Magazine was staring at me, Homework Is Killing Our Kids with the dramatic picture of a girl hunched over her books. I nodded, “Yes, it is.”

Why Did This Quebec School Scrap Homework?

Back in my teaching days, I taught junior and senior high school for ten years both in private and public schools. I saw first-hand the harm of too much irrelevant homework. Kids were bursting into tears and telling me how they were going to bed at 1am because that was when they finished their homework.

I also saw how teachers would create an assignment and continue to use it year after year without evolving along with technological advances and new information about learning. I heard two weeks ago that a child was sent home with an assignment revolving around the phone book. I wonder when the teacher first created that assignment!

Recently, at a presentation I did at Canyon Ranch Lenox, the mother of a teenager in a “prestigious prep school” was at her wit’s end about her son’s stress level because of the homework volume. The doctor also shared his concern, citing that the teen had drastically dropped off his growth curve. The mom was wondering how to still get her son into Harvard without harming his health along the way.

How You Can Help Your Kids Deal With School Stress

Now as a psychotherapist and parenting educator, I get pleas for help to “manage the stress of homework.” Parents are battling with their kids to get the work done, help with projects, and improve understanding, all while still getting to activities and some food in. Many families are over the breaking point.

The research on homework is very clear: homework in elementary grades has little or no impact on later success. Several studies showed that homework, especially assigned in lower grades or improperly, was useless.

I can hear teachers and administrators waving their hands saying, “But homework provides a content link between school and home.” Sure, maybe. But, this isn’t a necessary method for this link. Most schools have websites now, and many teachers are tweeting out content links. Communication is essential, but homework does not need to be a communication tool.

The other comment I hear from teachers is, “Homework gives the parent and child an opportunity to spend time together.” This makes my shoulders go in a knot. Do not tell me how to spend quality time with my kids! Homework is not quality time in my book.

The flip-side of this is that some parents expect homework or feel more satisfied seeing it because that improves their feeling of “getting their money’s worth” if it is a private school, or “proof that learning is happening.” I wish parents could feel school was “working” without requiring this evidence through homework.

Many schools are still using the “ten-minutes a day rule” (my kids’ whole school division still uses this), which is that the amount of homework should be ten minutes per grade, per day. So in grade five, according to this rule, each child should be doing fifty minutes of homework per day. The problem is, this rule has NO GROUNDING IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH. Yes, I’m yelling. Actually, according to Dr. Linda Cameron and Dr. Lee Bartel, as kids move to higher grades, if homework increases, their enthusiasm for it decreases. They found that by grade four, many kids have a negative attitude toward homework.

Dr. Cameron said, “The findings are that homework is completely inappropriate for the younger child for lots of reasons. School is enough, and they need time to play and relax.” Amen! (This quote was pulled from The end of homework as we know it? written by Tim Johnson and published in September 2013 edition of Canadian Family Magazine)

When homework decreases a child’s love of school or learning, more harm is done than good. Children have a natural love of learning, curiosity and inquiry. Homework needs to get out of the way of these natural states.

Here are my recommendations to thrive in school without homework stress:

Speak up.

No study has proven that homework for elementary kids is necessary for future success. This means that as a parent, you can talk to the teacher about any assignment you feel is outdated, irrelevant, or too long. You have the power to graciously decline your child’s homework. I do. Rather than let a school's often outdated homework policy negatively affect us, we have created a family homework policy. I am going to provide a list of resources at the end of this post for you to read and pass along to your child's teachers.

Form a strong connection with your child’s teacher.

As with any relationship, taking the time to know and care for someone helps smooth out any challenges. As much as you are able, offer to help the teacher, and smile and chat with him or her when you can. 

Use worksheets as fire-fuel or paper airplanes.

Most worksheets are called, “skill and drill” assignments. These are generally not useful. 

Ask, “What is the purpose of this assignment?”

If the answer to this question is not clear or beneficial, or if you get a vague answer from the teacher, you are allowed to veto the assignment.

Do not take on the role of your child’s grade-school teacher.

It is very clear that new school learning should not happen at home at the hands of the parents. If a new concept is sent home, gently remind your child’s teacher that new content is her responsibility, not yours.

Resist the temptation to do your child’s work for her.

I know, you need to get to soccer practice and it is just easier to finish the ninety multiplication questions for your child. It is better to make the time to talk to the teacher about the assignment’s appropriateness, the teacher’s ability to prepare the child to do the work, and the amount of time it takes to complete. You many only need to speak with the teacher a few times until things start to move more smoothly.

Make sure each and every part of a project can be done with your child’s hands.

I have seen school projects completed by parents. Adopt a rule that your child’s hands will be the only ones to touch a project. Teachers need to design the projects so this is possible. By all means help your child if she asks to have a picture printed out or a piece of Bristol board purchased, but let your child make all the decisions and creative touches.

Support well thought out assignments.

These kinds of homework are super!

  • Reading
  • Anything that promotes discussion
  • Things that peek curiosity or interest
  • Interviewing a person
  • Traveling
  • Family outings
  • Individualized assignments that allow creative flexibility
  • “Flipped” classrooms. This is where the teacher provides a learning unit via some form of video and then the students spend time in class handling the problem solving component. The kids can pause or replay the videos to learn at their own pace. (http://www.flippedclassroom.com)

Want more information?

Here is a list of awesome homework resources:

The end of homework as we know it? by Tim Johnson – September 2013 issue of Canadian Family Magazine. I couldn't find a web link to this story so here is a link to the magazine's website www.canadianfamily.ca.

The end of homework? by Shanda Deziel – September 2013 issue of Today’s Parent Magazine

Should I Stop Assigning Homework? – by Jessica Lahey published on September 20, 2013 in The Atlantic. I love this article! Lahey, a middle-school teacher in a prep school, carefully considers the answer to this question.

Parents: Hands Off The Homework– by KJ Dell’Antonia published on May 10, 2012 in The New York Times Motherlode

Alfie Kohn’s website – www.alfiekohn.com. Kohn has an exhaustive list of articles and resources for parents. You can find printable handouts for help speaking with teachers and administrators about homework. 

Do you know about Khan Academy? This is a free educational resource, funded partly by the Bill Gates Foundation, which has wonderful videos to explain academic concepts. I strongly encourage each parent and teacher to look through this website. The "I am terrible at math" excuse is no more!

If your child is losing his or her love of learning and checking out of school, there could be factors beyond homework stress in play. I encourage you to book an appointment with your child's teacher early before waiting for the trouble to grow larger. If you have any questions or comments, I invite you to post them below or over on my Facebook page. 

Photo -- flickr creative commons Crystal L Davis

From kindergarten to the final years of high school, recent research suggests that some students are getting excessive amounts of homework.

In turn, when students are pushed to handle a workload that’s out of sync with their development level, it can lead to significant stress — for children and their parents.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National PTA (NPTA) support a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” and setting a general limit on after-school studying.

For kids in first grade, that means 10 minutes a night, while high school seniors could get two hours of work per night.

But the most recent study to examine the issue found that kids in early elementary school received about three times the amount of recommended homework.

Published in The American Journal of Family Therapy, the 2015 study surveyed more than 1,100 parents in Rhode Island with school-age children.

The researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night.

Kindergarteners received 25 minutes of homework per night, on average. But according to the standards set by the NEA and NPTA, they shouldn’t receive any at all.

A contributing editor of the study, Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, told CNN that she found it “absolutely shocking” to learn that kindergarteners had that much homework.

And all those extra assignments may lead to family stress, especially when parents with limited education aren’t confident in their ability to help kids with the work.

The researchers reported that family fights about homework were 200 percent more likely when parents didn’t have a college degree.

Some parents, in fact, have decided to opt out of the whole thing. The Washington Post reported in 2016 that some parents have just instructed their younger children not to do their homework assignments.

They report the no-homework policy has taken the stress out of their afternoons and evenings. In addition, it's been easier for their children to participate in after-school activities.

This new parental directive may be healthier for children, too.

Experts say there may be real downsides for young kids who are pushed to do more homework than the “10 minutes per grade” standard.

“The data shows that homework over this level is not only not beneficial to children’s grades or GPA, but there’s really a plethora of evidence that it’s detrimental to their attitude about school, their grades, their self-confidence, their social skills, and their quality of life,” Donaldson-Pressman told CNN.

Read more: Less math and science homework beneficial to middle school students »

Consequences for high school students

Other studies have found that high school students may also be overburdened with homework — so much that it’s taking a toll on their health.

In 2013, research conducted at Stanford University found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance in their lives, and alienation from society.

That study, published in The Journal of Experimental Education, suggested that any more than two hours of homework per night is counterproductive.

However, students who participated in the study reported doing slightly more than three hours of homework each night, on average.

To conduct the study, researchers surveyed more than 4,300 students at 10 high-performing high schools in upper middle-class California communities. They also interviewed students about their views on homework.

When it came to stress, more than 70 percent of students said they were “often or always stressed over schoolwork,” with 56 percent listing homework as a primary stressor. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

The researchers asked students whether they experienced physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss, and stomach problems.

More than 80 percent of students reported having at least one stress-related symptom in the past month, and 44 percent said they had experienced three or more symptoms.

The researchers also found that spending too much time on homework meant that students were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills. Students were more likely to forgo activities, stop seeing friends or family, and not participate in hobbies.

Many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.

"Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good," said Denise Pope, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education, and a co-author of a study.

Read more: Should schools screen children for mental health problems? »

Working as hard as adults

A smaller New York University study published last year noted similar findings.

It focused more broadly on how students at elite private high schools cope with the combined pressures of school work, college applications, extracurricular activities, and parents’ expectations.

That study, which appeared in Frontiers in Psychology, noted serious health effects for high schoolers, such as chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, and alcohol and drug use.

The research involved a series of interviews with students, teachers, and administrators, as well as a survey of a total of 128 juniors from two private high schools.

About half of the students said they received at least three hours of homework per night. They also faced pressure to take college-level classes and excel in activities outside of school.

Many students felt they were being asked to work as hard as adults, and noted that their workload seemed inappropriate for their development level. They reported having little time for relaxing or creative activities.

More than two-thirds of students said they used alcohol and drugs, primarily marijuana, to cope with stress.

The researchers expressed concern that students at high-pressure high schools can get burned out before they even get to college.

“School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat — that’s what it can be for some of these students,” said Noelle Leonard, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing, and lead study author, in a press release.

Read more: Lack of mental healthcare for children reaches ‘crisis’ level »

What can be done?

Experts continue to debate the benefits and drawbacks of homework.

But according to an article published this year in Monitor on Psychology, there’s one thing they agree on: the quality of homework assignments matters.

In the Stanford study, many students said that they often did homework they saw as "pointless" or "mindless."

Pope, who co-authored that study, argued that homework assignments should have a purpose and benefit, and should be designed to cultivate learning and development.

It’s also important for schools and teachers to stick to the 10-minutes per grade standard.

In an interview with Monitor on Psychology, Pope pointed out that students can learn challenging skills even when less homework is assigned.

Pope described one teacher she worked with who taught advanced placement biology, and experimented by dramatically cutting down homework assignments. First the teacher cut homework by a third, and then cut the assignments in half.

The students’ test scores didn’t change.

“You can have a rigorous course and not have a crazy homework load,” Pope said.

Editor’s Note: The story was originally published on March 11, 2014. It was updated by Jenna Flannigan on August 11, 2016 and then updated again on April 11, 2017 by David Mills.

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