At this time of year, when the homework starts piling up, and motivation is at a low coming off of winter break, it’s pretty common to start questioning what the point of it all is:
Should kids have this much homework? Why is homework important even?
In fact it’s one of the most common questions I get asked at parent workshops. Something along the lines of:
“It’s taking my fourth grader two hours to complete his homework; is this right and how can I help?”
I’ll admit, it’s tough to send your kids off after dinner to spend hours each night, seemingly toiling away on something that brings out visible misery on their faces (especially when they’re struggling). Sometimes it’s as if they’re wearing this huge weight that you wish you could lift off of them.
But then… there’s that little voice in the back of your head that says: “This has to be good for them. They need to learn to work hard and take responsibility.” And you know there’s a kernel of truth in there too.
Bottom line: it’s hard to tell what’s right with homework when you’re a parent.
Thankfully, there are some well-informed answers out there, and actions you can take as a parent to make a positive difference, reduce frustration, and help your kids get their homework done.
And in this post, we walk through exactly why homework is important for students, and 8 ways you can make homework helpful and productive again (rather than a drag each night).
You can jump into our recommendations and best practices here:
Why is homework important?
The Verdict: The 10-Minute Rule of Thumb
Best Practice 1: Know thy child
Best Practice 2: Use the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb
Best Practice 3: Select courses wisely
Best Practice 4: Create a distraction-free environment
Best Practice 5: Nag no more
Best Practice 6: Check for completion, not quality
Best Practice 7: “Must Do, Should Do, Could Do”
Best Practice 8: Help the “right” way
Or start from the top by reading on.
The Problem With Homework
Whether it’s become an after-school battleground, or whether your son or daughter works diligently and are just simply overwhelmed, homework can quickly become a problem for both us and our children alike.
Unfortunately, when this happens it’s tempting to do one of two things:
(1) Jump to placing the blame on our children: Why won’t he just sit down and focus? Is there something wrong? She just doesn’t seem to care about school.
(2) Or, jump to placing the blame on their teachers and school: What’s with all of this ridiculous homework? This isn’t right – kids should not have this much to do at night.
The truth, much of the time, lives somewhere in the middle. And homework sparks such divisive emotions because it happens… well… at home – the central location where everything your family does comes together.
That being said, let’s take a look at some facts.
Why do my kids have so much schoolwork to do?
There’s no doubt that kids now have more homework than we ever did. But why the increase? There seem to be two main culprits.
First, the increase may be a reflection of school administrators responding to the requirements for their students to perform well on state-mandated tests. As these tests grow as barometers of success, so do the parents’ expectations to have their students be prepared through teacher mandated work.
Second, many argue that there is a trickle-down effect coming from colleges because it’s harder than ever to gain admission to a top tier school.
For example, in 2007, the average incoming freshman at the University of Virginia sported a grade point average of just over 3.7. In 2013, the average GPA was 4.21. Why?
Because more than ever before, students are taking college level high school courses while still in high school. In the DC area alone, the number of students taking AP (advanced placement) classes increased by 45% between 2010 and 2014. And along with AP and honors classes come lots of extra homework.
Stress and overwhelm: The new norm?
The added workload and pressure, while producing higher marks overall, has had some seriously negative side effects.
For example, in 2014, a Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found a strong correlation between the amount of homework high school students receive and physical ailments.
Over 4,000 students in ten schools were surveyed. They averaged three hours of homework per night (many reporting up to five hours) and had the migraines, ulcers, stomach problems, and sleep deprivation to prove it. Fifty-six percent of students reported that homework was the biggest stressor in their lives.
As Sara Bennett, co-author of The Case Against Homework, argues: situations like these to do not add value to a student’s academic progress. Students are constantly being given homework to complete outside of their abilities, and teachers put too much dependence on parents for assistance.
“That’s not real achievement. Real achievement is learning long-term skills, the ability to be a creative thinker and work with others. Those should be the goals of education.”
Some parents take this sentiment to the other end of the spectrum, asserting that these skills can be learned in the home environment through chores and other responsibilities. The home is meant to be a place where parents and children can enjoy time together and not feel burdened by additional assignments away from work and school. It causes strain on family relationships and puts too much pressure on a student’s education.
But as we’ll see in a minute, this perspective isn’t quite right, according to the research.
Why is homework important for students?
Is it because it reinforces what students have learned in class, allowing them to practice their errors and figure out solutions on their own?
Does homework actually teach students responsibility and instill the proper organization and time management skills?
Here’s what we know:
Is homework actually effective, or is it just busywork?
The answer is, it depends.
On the one hand, there is such a thing as too much homework, as the Stanford study we mentioned demonstrated. But on the other hand, when given in the right context, homework has been shown to be beneficial.
From a great summary of the research on homework from The Center For Public Education:
“Homework appears to provide more academic benefits to older students than to younger students, for whom the benefits seem to lie in nonacademic realms, such as in improving study skills and learning structure and responsibility. The amount of homework provided to younger students may therefore be less important than simply assigning something to help them establish routines and learn personal responsibility.”
“The amount and type of homework seem to be more important factors for older students… Having teachers assign homework that prepares students for upcoming lessons or helps them review material that has not been covered recently may have more impact on student learning than assigning homework that simply continues the school day’s lessons into the evening hours.”
This gives us an idea of what we should be looking for.
The Verdict: A level-headed approach and the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb
Here’s our recommendation:
Homework and projects should be age appropriate, and allow the student to work independently and successfully, without too much aid from parents.
And to that end we’ve found the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb to be most helpful:
Students should receive 10 minutes of homework each night when they first start elementary school, and then 10 additional minutes for each year they progress.
That means a third grader should have about thirty minutes of homework, middle schoolers should have no more than 1.5 hours of homework, and high school students should have no more than two hours.
Homework Best Practices: How to make the most of homework (even when your child is overloaded)
In the end, regardless of how overloaded your child is right now with their homework, there are best practices you can follow to help improve the situation. Here are our top 8 recommendations:
1. Know thy child (a.k.a one size does not fit all)
If your child is bright but disorganized, and lacks organization and planning, you’ll need to set up structure in your home from the start of the school year. Identify a few places to do homework besides in their bedroom, and a general start time. Setting up routines now pay huge dividends later.
Alternatively, sometimes kids have subject struggles. They get just a tad bit behind, lose confidence, and can enter a downward spiral. If you catch it early enough and they know they have someone there to help them, they can overcome the hurdle. This is often true in cumulative subjects like math. Keep talking to your child so you can understand if they’re struggling early on.
Lastly, we see a growing number of kids that are stressed from studying. And without the right strategies, these conscientious kids can expend more time and energy than they might need. The key for these kids is not getting overwhelmed early on and always planning ahead.
2. Use the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb (and don’t let it go too long)
What should I do if it is taking my child a long time to finish his homework?
I always encourage parents to keep a log how much homework their child is actually doing. First, you may find that it’s simply an issue of productivity. If they’re spending time procrastinating or distracted, that’s a separate issue you can tackle.
If you find however, that your child is taking significantly more time to complete his homework daily than the recommended allotment, don’t be afraid to bring it to the teacher’s attention.
To open the dialogue about the amount of time it is taking your child to complete homework, try saying to the teacher, “I noticed that Jimmy is spending ___ minutes on homework a night. Is that normal?”
Reach out to the teacher to open the discussion. Often times, teachers aren’t aware that homework is taking so long.
But regardless what the cause ends up being, don’t let it wait too long because bad habits build, and if they’re overwhelmed by too much work your child will only continue to fall further behind.
3. Select courses wisely (and not just by capability)
There are also considerations for the beginning of the year, and one of the big ones is course selection. I’ve seen kids taking four or five college level classes in high school, and that’s just far too many.
So, when thinking about course selection, factor in the time your child is not only going to spend on homework, which is typically double that of a general course, but also the impact on their social and extracurricular life. Even if they’re capable of taking on more difficult courses, consider whether they will have enough time to handle the increased workload as well.
4. Create a distraction-free environment at home
Kids are typically far more focused in a classroom setting. They are in a structured environment and they also have peer pressure to some degree. They don’t want to look out of the norm by acting silly or not being focused when completing work in class.
But at home, it’s far less structured. So what may take one student a half hour in class might take them an hour at home because of the distractions from technology.
Thankfully, there are changes you can make, like where your child does their homework and when they do their homework that can help reduce the tendency towards distraction. You can also take advantage of apps designed to improve focus like Forest (phone) and SelfControl (desktop), which we’ve talked about in detail here.
5. Nag no more
Do you end up redirecting your child an endless amount of times to get her to simply finish one assignment and move on to the next? If you feel like the only way your child can focus and finish is with your constant reminders, try a different method.
Ask your child how many reminders she’ll need to stay on task in order to finish an assignment. For example, if she says she’ll need two reminders, then stick to that number. When she’s off track, state that you are giving a friendly reminder and then walk away.
At any point when you see that she’s doing the right thing, praise her diligence. By giving warnings and positively reinforcing on-task behavior, the constant reminders will be gone for good, and they’ll be much more likely to stay focused on their work.
6. Check for completion, not quality
Parents and children often don’t see eye-to-eye on the quality of homework, and this can lead to a big blow out or power struggle.
Rather than arguing with your child over the quality of the work he’s producing, only hold him accountable for completing the homework thoroughly. Leave the quality check up to the teacher.
While this can be very uncomfortable for most parents, it eliminates a power struggle and allows the teacher to be responsible for monitoring quality control. Often times, the teacher will intervene and provide your child with feedback. If you still feel that the work isn’t up to standard, contact the teacher directly and ask for her thoughts. Say, “I just want to make sure this work is in line with your standards and expectations.”
Ultimately this removes a potential roadblock between you and your child when it comes to getting their homework done, which can reduce the amount of time it takes each evening.
7. “Must Do, Should Do, Could Do”
A very effective tool that our educational coaches teach kids to categorize their work is a technique called: “Must Do, Should Do, Could Do”
The “Must Do” assignments are the ones that absolutely have to get done that day. A homework assignment for math class due the next morning.
The “Should Do” assignments don’t have to be done that day, but they’re still important. For example, if you have a test Friday and it’s a Tuesday, you should study for it, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to studying until Wednesday. You don’t absolutely have to do it that evening.
The “Could Do” assignments are the tasks that are nice to get done. These are things like recommended reading. Students really don’t have to do the reading, especially if they’re feeling overloaded.
Another example of assignments that get tagged as “Could Dos” is the amount of time spent studying. Instead of reviewing for two hours, perhaps an hour is just fine.
Categorizing schoolwork into these three categories really helps reduce the workload and feelings of overwhelm.
8. Help the “right” way (your language matters)
Another common question we get all the time is: How much should I help my child with homework?
Focus aside; it’s common for kids to get “stuck” from time to time. As parents, we have three choices when we realize that our children are struggling, for example, to understand how to solve a math problem:
Choice 1: Show your child exactly how to solve the problem.
Choice 2: Leave the struggle up to your child. After all, it’s his homework, not yours.
Choice 3: Ask if there are similar problems in his notes or if there’s an example in the book.
Long story short, choose Choice 3, because in doing so you’re encouraging good study skills. Whenever students can help themselves by using past examples to figure out a current problem, they’re practicing good homework habits. These skills don’t just help in the moment, but they’re the foundation for self-reliance in later years as well.
Next Steps: Making homework helpful again
As parents it’s our job to take a step back, assess the situation, and determine what the best path forward is for our kids. So to take control of your child’s homework situation, use the best practices above.
Step 1: Evaluate how much time your child is spending on their homework through observation.
Step 2: Evaluate how they are using their time and determine if there are any distractions, focus issues, or subject difficulties that may be contributing to their workload.
Step 3: Take the appropriate actions depending on what type of student they are. Use the best practices we’ve listed as a guide and choose what you think would work best for your situation and give it a go.
And finally, let us know your opinion:
When is homework appropriate? When is it too much? What do you think?
Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your perspective!