The Homework Blues

If getting your child to complete assignments is a daily battle, we'll help you evaluate whether her workload is appropriate--and ease the ordeal of getting it done.
Girl counting while doing homework

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On the last day of school this past June, another mom warned me at pickup: "Next year is hard-core."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The homework. It's brutal," she confided. Flushed with panic, I stared at my daughter Blair, who'd just graduated into second grade.

Maybe I should have expected it. Almost every night during first grade, Blair had to read two beginner books, complete at least one math worksheet, and practice her spelling words. It took up to 90 minutes, depending on how hard the math was and how long she cried about how hard it was. Often, she barely had any time left to play.

I complained regularly to other parents until my friend Beth Hofmann, whose kids are in a neighboring school district, shared her tale. When her son was sick for four days, his teacher sent home 24 pages of make-up homework. I remember something like that happening to me in high school. Except that her kid was in kindergarten.

We're hardly the only ones who are concerned that schoolwork is taking over our kids' lives and crowding out extracurriculars like playing sports and learning an instrument. It seems as if every single time I turn on my computer--like when I had to Google "median" so Blair could do her math homework--I come across another article, blog post, or book that bemoans the volume of homework kids are being assigned these days.

"There's been a bump up in the early grades," says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. A study from the University of Michigan found that homework among K-2 students has more than tripled since 1981 to 29 minutes per weeknight, well above the National Education Association's (NEA) recommendation of ten to 20 minutes per night in first grade plus ten minutes for each grade level thereafter.

The upswing began in 1983 when the U.S. Department of Education published A Nation at Risk, a report calling for sweeping education reform to help us keep up with other countries, including an increase in homework. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has also had an impact; its emphasis on standardized tests as a means of evaluating teachers and schools has led many districts to add test-prep practice on top of regular assignments.

Another reason for the heavier workload might surprise you: "Many parents request more homework because they want their kids to be achievers, even in the earliest grades," says Dr. Cooper. Vinita Khanna, a mom of two in Haddonfield, New Jersey, is a perfect example. Even though her daughter Ria had daily math, spelling, and reading assignments in second grade, Khanna felt she wasn't being challenged enough. So she asked the teacher to send home extra math problems. "Now Ria's ahead of the other kids in her class," Khanna says.

Seattle mom Melissa Baldauf has a similar outlook. When she learned last spring that her kindergartner (who had been doing an hour of homework every day) would have no more assignments for the rest of the year, Baldauf sought out worksheets so that he wouldn't forget what he'd learned.

But how much does homework actually benefit kids in elementary school? Denise Pope, Ph.D., cofounder of Stanford University's Challenge Success program, which published an analysis of the most influential homework studies from the past two decades, found that it offers little academic advantage until middle school. Completing assignments independently in the early grades helps kids develop self-discipline, but there is a potentially serious downside. "An excessive workload, as well as the battles over getting it done, can cause kids to develop a dislike of learning," says Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D., author of The Homework Trap. Other experts say the same is true for "busywork"--activities such as retracing spelling words with different-color crayons--and assignments that introduce new concepts rather than reviewing what was taught in class.

When Lisa Morguess's first-grader, Lilah, broke down in tears over her homework, saying, "I'm tired, Mommy; I can't do this after being at school all day," and started complaining of stomachaches, the Fullerton, California, mom contacted the school. She discovered that the district lacked clear parameters on the amount of homework teachers should assign. Morguess spoke to the superintendent in an effort to change the policy. She then told the teacher that she wouldn't push Lilah to complete assignments. "I didn't care if she got an unsatisfactory on her report card under 'completes homework,'" says Morguess (whose daughter nonetheless received a "satisfactory" on that measure). "It's first grade. It's not going to affect her college applications."

That's certainly true, but like it or not, homework is, or will be, a big part of your child's life. Your objective is to enable her to reap the benefits while minimizing her stress level.

Best Practices for Homework
Best Practices for Homework

How You Can Help

Agree on Timing

Girl reading on the floor

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If you've been encouraging your kid to get started as soon as he walks in the door from school, you might want to reconsider. He'll likely do a better job if you let him run around the park or ride his scooter first. Play helps young kids focus, according to a study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Since your child probably has a busy weekly schedule--piano on Monday, baseball on Wednesday, karate on Friday--some days he may not be able to get started until after dinner. So come up with a plan together. "It can change every marking period or whenever his activities change, but you need a plan," says Dr. Pope. She suggests writing it down and having your child sign it, so it feels like an official agreement.

Have Her Pick the Spot

Your child might prefer having her own desk, but some kids work better lying on the floor or sitting at the kitchen table. As long as she gets it done, and electronic devices stay off, let her decide, says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who runs the advice site HomeworkLady.com.

At the start of the school year, have your kid fill a shoe box with all the stuff she'll need: pencils, markers, a ruler, a calculator, and so forth. Not only will this make homework a portable task (in case she decides to switch her workspace), but it also cuts down on potential wasted time. A second-grade student shouldn't spend ten minutes each night hunting for an eraser.

Let Him Fly Solo...

You're not going to teach self-sufficiency by hovering over your child. So have him work independently. On the other hand, it's fine to model homework-like tasks. Pay bills while your child solves equations. Write out your shopping list while he studies spelling words. This lets him see that what he's learning in school is relevant in the real world, according to Dr. Cooper. When your child is done, make sure he has completed his work but don't point out mistakes. "Let the teacher tell him whether it's right or wrong," says Nancy Kalish, coauthor of The Case Against Homework.

...But Be Ready to Consult When Asked

Knowing when to request assistance is a lesson in itself. "Kids are often embarrassed to ask for help because they think it means they've failed, so let your child know that it's okay to reach out if she gets stuck," says Janine Bempechat, Ed.D., professor of psychology and human development at Wheelock College, in Boston. This doesn't mean you should give her the answer. Rather, ask some leading questions ("Remind me, where is the tens' place again?") or give some hints ("Does 'where' mean a place or something you put on?"). If she still can't figure it out, write a note to the teacher along these lines: "My child doesn't understand this. Can you please review it with her?" Trying to explain a concept yourself can backfire, especially in mathematics. The methods used in school today are often very different from the ones you learned when you were a student. Many first-graders are taught to use a number line for addition and subtraction, for instance, so showing your child how to carry numbers in a vertical equation will only confuse her.

Deal With the Drama

If your child has a meltdown while doing a tough assignment, have him take a break, suggests Charles Fay, Ph.D., author of From Bad Grades to a Great Life! If he wants to give up, don't push him (or yell, or tell him that he won't get to play Minecraft tonight if he doesn't finish). Calmly say, "You might want to think about what you're going to tell your teacher when she asks why you didn't do it," and then offer to help.

If he freaks out about homework routinely, establish a rule for how long you expect him to spend on it each day based on what the teacher tells you on curriculum night. When he reaches the limit, let him stop. Then gently explain to the teacher that the assignment took longer than the time guidelines she set. "From my experience, when a child knows there's an end point, he'll be more cooperative," says Dr. Goldberg.

How To Lighten the Load

Child doing math homework

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In The Case Against Homework, authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish offer suggestions about how to address your concerns about the workload at your child's school. See how other moms fared when they tried the book's tactics.

Contact the teacher. When her second-grader came home with a daily reading log to complete as part of his homework, Danna Young, of Westmont, New Jersey, explained at a conference with the teacher that she didn't want Baxter to fill it out because he loved reading and she didn't want him to start viewing it as a chore. "Now, whenever the teacher wants an update, she sends home the log and I list some of the books he's been reading," says Young.

Meet with the principal. Vicki Abeles noticed her son Zak's anxiety about homework growing by third grade. Finally, when Zak was in middle school, the San Francisco mom told his teachers and administrators, "I don't want to see a heavy homework load turn Zak off to learning. I want the flexibility to opt him out when I feel it's appropriate." Abeles says the school was supportive of their decision. She turned her experiences with schoolwork pressure into the documentary Race to Nowhere.

Work to change the school policy. After noticing that her first-grader was down on school because of homework, Donna Somerville, of Oakland, California, recruited concerned parents to form a homework committee. They presented recommendations to the principal, who was very supportive of tweaking the approach toward assignments. Within a year, the school had eliminated homework on weekends and during vacations. "It all started with a conversation," Somerville says.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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