Handling homework

Published 7:06 pm Friday, January 15, 2016

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times to give a “professional opinion” about homework, but the truth is, I don’t have a good answer. It’s not that I’m wishy-washy — it’s just that even experts can’t agree on whether homework is a good thing.



Obviously, there must be some merit to it because it’s been around since the dawn of formal education. Several large studies have shown that homework is associated with higher levels of academic achievement overall. Educators say it reinforces skills. Some parents use it to stay involved. In my professional experience, parents who monitor homework have a much clearer understanding of their child’s academic needs.

Despite the positives, even researchers who like homework recommend we be careful using it.

First of all, many of the studies don’t look at influences, such as socioeconomic status, when they draw conclusions about homework’s benefits. Also, poorly designed homework can confuse and frustrate kids, while too much homework robs kids of the time they need for other important activities.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that there isn’t much research describing what a good assignment looks like. Some researchers even discovered that teacher-training programs often lack instruction in homework design, while many schools have no clear homework policies. In other words, sometimes teachers have to wing it, and we just keep doing homework because that’s what we’ve always done.

Since homework isn’t going away anytime soon, let’s consider how families can cope when it creates stress at home. How much is too much? The generally accepted rule is 10 minutes per grade level each night — a second-grader should have about 20 minutes, while a ninth-grader should have about 90 minutes. Going over two hours per night for high school students appears counterproductive. As kids progress to multiple classes, teachers may be unaware how much homework the child has in each class. Kids can’t learn if they don’t have time for meals, exercise and sleep. If you think your child is doing too much, say so.

Children’s natural disorganization is another cause of homework stress.  Unfortunately, kids aren’t always taught organizational skills before they need them.  Teach these skills at home by considering how you would organize a big project at work, or assign a job, such as cleaning out for a big yard sale. Get your child a planner and insist that he (or she) writes everything down; you can ask the teacher to check it until he develops the habit.

Next, write due dates in a calendar along with all of your other family obligations, so your child has a visual display of his life. Help him figure out how many days he has to read that novel, then break it down into a daily page requirement. If kids have a big test coming up, help them plan to review a little every day. If you aren’t naturally organized yourself, this might be hard, but there are plenty of organizing books and websites out there to give you tips.

When you try to plan ahead for homework, you might need more advance notice than teachers ordinarily give. Fortunately, more teachers are working in teams so that all classes move at the same pace. In these schools, teachers might have a regularly scheduled planning meeting to choose assignments and dates. Even if your school doesn’t do that, most individual teachers have a plan. You might be able to ask for the next week’s assignments to come home on Friday, and then help your child work ahead during weekend downtime. If you have an exceptionally busy evening coming up, feel free to ask teachers how you can work around it so your child can still get the assignments done.

Believe it or not, teachers want the same things we parents want — happy, well-rounded, well-educated kids. Therefore, most of them are willing to work with you when you make a good case. As much as we dislike homework, kids have to learn that we all have to do things we’d rather not. That being said, kids also need to learn how to take care of their physical and emotional health. So, your assignment is this:  plan ahead for what you can, help kids learn how to organize and pace themselves and then teach them the appropriate way to speak up when they’ve had too much.


Tamara Stevens, MA is a child psychologist at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 252-946-4134.