Paula DeMarco dreads one time of day the most: weekday evenings at 5:30. It’s the time she has set aside for her children begin their homework. That means no screen time, music or other distractions.
“When my son entered fifth grade last year it was like running into a brick wall,” she said. “We were in shock by how much more homework he had than when he was in the lower grades. It was stressful and there were a lot of tears shed — both mine and his.”
For many parents and students, homework can be anxiety inducing, especially when there’s a lot of it, when it’s intense, when there’s pressure to succeed and when it’s used as a measure of accomplishment.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education in 2014 found that students in high-achieving communities who spend excessive amounts of time on homework are more prone to more stress, physical health problems and a lack of balance than students who have moderate amounts of homework. Researchers found that students felt obligated to choose homework over other interests. As a result, they didn’t know how to find balance in their lives.
Homework in a competitive environment that doesn’t leave time for hobbies or sports can also put a strain on family relationships.
“Homework becomes stressful because parents take on the role of homework police,” said Ann Dolin, president, Educational Connections Tutoring in Fairfax and Bethesda. “It’s a role they never envisioned and they don’t want, but before they know it, their relationships with their children become defined by academics.”
Dolin points to the “Ten-Minute Homework Rule,” guidelines approved by the National Education Association, which recommend 10 minutes of homework per grade level. A first grade student, for example, would have 10 minutes of homework each night, while a fourth grade student would have 40. Any more than this would be counterproductive.
“I have known first graders who’ve had an hour or and hour-and-a-half of homework,” said Dolin. “That is unrealistic.”
Locally, Margaret Andreadis, lower school principal at Bullis School in Potomac, Md., says administrators and teachers at her school have restructured the way they assign homework to focus on quality over quantity.
“We’ve scaled back to emphasize our purpose for homework: teaching students goal setting and time management,” she said. “We’re not using homework as busy work. Our philosophy has been to create a balance between academics, life at home with family and activities like sports.”
Students at Bullis often have choices over their homework assignments, and their tasks are designed to foster a feeling of success, confidence and independence.
“The emphasis is on small successes. We want students to feel good about themselves,” said Andreadis. “If a parent is having to interact with their child over homework, it’s not an independent assignment.”
This homework structure can actually create balance in the lives of students, she said. “I think the stress comes from kids wanting to get things perfect and parents wanting their children to be successful,” said Andreadis. “Kids need time that is unscheduled so that they can be creative, find new passions and be kids.”
Researchers say unstructured play, reading, and other child-initiated activities have as many benefits for children as academics. “Children learn conflict management skills, develop imagination and creativity, self-regulation of time and interest, and independence,” said Shannon N. Davis, associate professor of sociology at George Mason University in Fairfax. “Research has shown that children who are given time to play in an unstructured manner, read or otherwise determine how they spend their time are much less likely to say, ‘I'm bored’ when they have free time. They know how to entertain themselves rather than needing an adult to structure their time for them.”
Navigating that course, deciding how much independence to give children when it comes to managing free time and their homework, while at the same time making sure they have the support they need to succeed can be challenging, parents and educators agree.
“I don’t think these two areas are mutually exclusive. We want our kids to take ownership of their priorities, but they need some foundational knowledge in order to make these choices from an informed perspective,” said Sean Aiken, head of school at BASIS Independent in McLean. “We need to empower our students to make some of these decisions early on and then allow them to experience the consequences.”
Parents’ roles should be setting students up for success, recommends Andreadis: “Giving them a quiet place to study, checking in with them, asking, ‘What’s your plan for homework tonight?’ Helping the child make the decision but letting the child actually make it. Be hands off as much as possible.”
Some educators acknowledge that a relaxed approach might push parents, particularly those in high-achieving communities, outside their comfort zones. “This involves some risk taking on the part of us as parents and educators, but I think the benefits are worth it,” said Aiken. “We need to pair that with a lot of support and discussion about why academic achievement matters, specifically that we are learning things in order to make connections and ask questions about the world around us.”