How Much is Too Much Homework?

Some schools are canceling homework while others keep piling it on. What's the right balance and how do you know if your child is struggling?

boy with too much homework

A district-wide homework ban? Yeah, right, in your child's dreams.

During the summer of 2011, Galloway, NJ decided they might make this fantasy a reality, which as you can imagine created a new frenzy around the "too much homework"-debate.

After receiving some calls from parents concerned with the amount of time their children were spending on homework, the Galloway school district decided to review its current approach. The board ended up drafting a new homework policy that limits weeknight work to an accumulating ten minutes for each grade passed -- so that a first-grader has ten minutes of work, a second-grader, twenty, and so on. Weekends are devoted to larger projects, reading, and studying.

So, let your kids down gently! Galloway did not actually ban homework.

Ann Dolin, M.Ed, author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions to Stress-Free Homework, agrees with the guidelines proposed in Galloway. As a parent and parenting consultant, Dolin herself uses the ten-minute rule -- but with the caveat that the rule does not account for reading time.

And yet, the ten-minute rule seems to be a suspiciously tidy solution to the messy, century-old debate on the definition of "too much homework." Educators and government officials shoot between stances and policies like pinballs, forcing many parents to wonder, Why bother? And even, What is the point of homework?

The Point of Homework
Watching your child struggling to stay awake in an attempt to finish his fiftieth math problem of the evening, you might begin to wonder whether homework even has a point beyond sadism. According to James Smith, a middle school teacher at a private school in Manhattan, homework is actually rather helpful.

Here is his take on the 'point' of homework:

  • Reinforcement. First and foremost, homework is designed to shore up the new neural pathways your child built that day in class. They are new and fragile and need practice so that strange new concepts like commas and multiplication can eventually become second nature.
  • Incentive to pay attention in class. Think: if your child (especially a young one), didn't need class information to complete his homework, he might not even bother pay attention in the first place -- much less take notes.
  • Encourages independent thinking. In school, worksheets and other problems are often completed in groups. While this valuable in its own way, homework allows kids an opportunity to tackle a problem on their own and helps teach them to trust their own minds.
  • Teaches time management. Adult life requires organization. Homework will give your child her first taste of the importance of planning ahead.
  • Supplies teachers with feedback. Educators need homework in order to determine whether their teaching is effective or flawed. It shows them where students are still struggling so that they can review tricky material in class.

Okay. So maybe homework is not entirely useless. But as a parent, what's your role in all of this?

Helping with Homework
"The problem is that parents take homework so personally and act like it's almost their homework. They fix all the wrong answers, and that's really not appropriate. Mistakes are important teaching tools," observes Dolin.

Phew. It's not your homework. But it is your child's work, and of course, you want him to succeed. Just remember that he needs to learn to succeed on his own -- and he can't learn that, or math, if you're doing all the work for him.

Here are some guidelines from Dolin to help you determine whether you're offering too much support, based on your child's grade level:

  • For grades K-3: Young kids have yet to develop an internal structure, which means they lack time management skills. So you definitely need to supervise them while they're working. Do a few problems together to help her get started and then sit nearby to insure that she stays focused and to explain concepts or spell words as needed.
  • For grades 4-6: Once your child reaches fourth or fifth grade, begin to step back more often. Watch your child get started and then go run an errand or read a magazine in the other room. Check back in half an hour to see whether he's finished and help him transition to another subject.
  • For grades 7 and up: Since kids mature at very different rates, their need for supervision becomes increasingly variable. Some seventh graders might essentially still be children who need support and structure from their parents, while others might resent any parental involvement. So be aware of where your child stands -- talk to his teachers, watch him work, listen to your intuition. These age brackets are guidelines, not hard and fast rules.

In the ideal world, you or your spouse is around to help with the homework. But more often than not, the ideal doesn't match the real. Gauge what your nanny or sitter is capable of doing. Even simply overseeing the process without correcting the product can be helpful. Regardless of your sitter's capacities, ask your child to do his easiest assignment with the babysitter or in after-school care.
Read Homework 101 for Your Sitter

Signs Your Child is Really Struggling and How to Respond
Though you try to following guidelines similar to those above, your child consistently requires more than simple supervision to complete his homework. Is the school assigning too much homework? Or is it just to much for your child?

According to Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy. D. and Care.com's Parenting Expert, your child might be personally struggling with the workload, if:

  • He can't do homework independently. Check the age brackets above for what this might mean. Does your 6th grader only ever do his homework afterschool with a friend? Does your 3rd grader rely on you to explain every concept learned in class that day?
  • You're correcting -- a lot. She is reliant on you to check over -- and correct -- her work.
  • Double-time. It takes him twice as long as teachers say it should.
  • It's a battle. She frequently shows extreme frustration -- such as crying and meltdowns -- when doing homework.
  • Stalling. He constantly procrastinates and finds excuses for why he's putting it off.
  • Sick of it. She develops somatic symptoms, like headaches and colds. These can be a sign that your child is overly stressed.

As for those big projects and papers, Mr. Smith noted that he, and other teachers, often field many complaints about the volume of homework the day after a long-term assignment, like a paper, is due. "Students see it as something to do the night before it's due. When we determine how much homework to give, we factor in time for students to work on these projects. They need to learn to use that time." So while in the face of such an assignment, your child might have showed all of these signs, this does not necessarily reflect on your his ability to do work, but on his as-yet undeveloped ability to plan ahead.

Mr. Smith advised that parents take this stressful moment as an opportunity to talk to your child about time management. Next time, he'll know better.

Ok, so you think there's too much homework or that the homework is simply too hard for your child. What next? Dolin suggests the following tips on how to proceed with children from grades five and up:

  • Check his notes. If the class notes aren't thorough enough, your child might not be focused enough in class to absorb new material. This means he needs to learn it for the first time at home - without adequate notes. If the notes are thorough, you may have a larger homework problem.
  • Keep a log. Track how long your child takes to do his homework each night for at least a week. You can then bring this to discuss with his teacher.
  • Don't blame the teacher. It is true that homework often piles up because of poor communication among teachers. This doesn't mean they're negligent - just busy, like you.
  • But do talk to him. Approach the teacher not as an adversary, but as a friend. She chose to be a teacher, so trust that she too wants your child to succeed.
  • Find a tutor. If your teacher has also noticed your child stumbling over material, and she finds herself unable to give him the necessary personal attention, then start looking for a tutor. Tutoring centers can also provide you with private lessons.
  • Really -- find a tutor. When faced with such a situation, Dolin strongly advises parents to find outside help. "The last thing you want is for your relationship with your child to be defined by academics. The last thing you want to do is fight over homework." Not all tutors can be expensive. Look into whether your school trains older students as peer tutors -- they work either for free or at very low rates.

Read The Tutor Guide to get you started on choosing the right tutor for your child.

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Comments (1)
Huoda
We moved to US since three months, my daughter feel depressed in school because of inability to understand English.
I need to give her more support in private tuition to faster English learning.
Posted: January 07, 2012 at 9:46 PM
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