by Suzanne Koup-Larsen
The idea that kids are overloaded with homework and that homework invades family life and leisure time is not new. But with today’s busy student schedules, and with kids as young as kindergarteners bringing home nightly homework assignments, the issue has gained urgency for some families.
Cathleen Spinelli, PhD, director of the special education program at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, finds that homework often becomes a source of stress for families. “Homework is a good thing, a useful beneficial part of the school experience, but it can easily become a bad thing,” she says. So it is important to find the right balance of homework and other activities.
Parents Want It
According to Theresa Bennett, a language arts resource teacher in the Caesar Rodney School District in Wyoming, DE, students have more homework today than they did 20 years ago, especially elementary school students.
Parents are the reason, says Delia Turner, English department chair at the Haverford School in Haverford, PA. “Parents want to see evidence that kids are working hard,” she says. As a result, homework has trickled down from the secondary grades into elementary schools.
Most educators agree on a simple rule of thumb for homework: Students should do about ten minutes of homework per night per grade. So a 4th grader should do about 40 minutes of homework per night, and a half hour of homework for a 1st grader is too much.
Most teachers and parents agree that homework is a crucial part of any child’s educational experience. Barbara Kapinus, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, says that especially for younger students, “practice in reading and math is critical.”
“Homework becomes more important in high school,” she adds. Older students not only learn through homework, but also practice time management skills they will need in college and later, in their jobs.
Too Much Homework, but Why?
If your child’s homework seems to take a long time, take a closer look. “I know my students spend less time on their homework than their parents think they do,” says Haverford’s Delia Turner. For example, if kids are given ten minutes in class to work on homework, they get it done. But the same assignment at home may take much longer.
TV, the Internet, music, and video games can be distractions, but other things also contribute to how long it takes to complete assignments.
Some kids work slowly and leisurely at home, while others daydream. Some take extra time to get set up and comfortable, spending time sharpening pencils and fluffing pillows before they get down to work.
Rather than too much homework, the issue could be too many extracurricular commitments. Many kids have busy after-school schedules, including sports and classes. “To families on the Main Line, these things are a priority,” says Turner. Fitting it all in can be difficult.
Over-scheduling “leaves little time for strong academic dedication,” says Roberta Braverman, a teacher at the Hartford School in Mt. Laurel, NJ.
Should you help your child do homework? “There’s a way of helping and there’s a way of interfering, and there’s a very fine line,” says Braverman. Help explain concepts, but don’t do the homework or too much organizing. Sometimes, though, younger kids do need help with time management.
When kids seem overwhelmed by a big project or multiple assignments, Braverman suggests that parents “chunk it for them.” That is, break the work down into pieces, and help the child organize them by difficulty. The pieces are then completed from easiest to hardest or hardest to easiest. The child takes a short break after completing each piece as a small reward.
Good homework routines include a regular time and location, free of distractions such as TV or video games.
Your child might have just the right amount of homework but be carrying too many heavy books. Doctors and physical therapists recommend that students carry no more than 15 percent of their body weight in their backpacks. If needed, review what your child carries in the backpack and remove extraneous items.
If you determine that books are the real culprit in overloading your child’s backpack, seek help from his school.
Talking to the Teacher
If you think your child has too much homework, talk to the teacher. The teacher might be unaware that the assignments are taking so long. “If you’re going to be true partners, a parent and a teacher, you have to have communication,” says Caesar Rodney’s Theresa Bennett.
Before meeting with the teacher, assess your child’s situation. Is he concentrating on the homework each night or are there distractions? Be prepared to list how much time he has spent on each assignment nightly 20 minutes on science, 30 minutes on math and 30 minutes on reading assignments, for example.
When you talk to the teacher, offer specific facts and try not to be emotional, threatening or defensive. “Communicating with the school in a factual and non-emotional way is most effective,” says Braverman.
Spinelli reminds parents that “teachers and parents are working for the same goal: To get the child to be productive.”If the problem is not solved after talking to the teacher, a meeting with a guidance counselor, building administrator or the principal is the next step. Most schools have teams in place to help students who struggle with assignments.
“Excessive homework is not a good idea,” says Spinelli. Kids need some time to be kids: time to play, time to chat with friends and family, time to go to bed early, time to relax and do nothing.
The NEA’s Kapinus says that in addition to homework after school, “It’s just as important that children have a chance to run around and to play.” Younger kids especially can develop their minds through activities besides homework.
If your child is having trouble balancing homework and activities, see if her teacher can help.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a local freelance writer.