How Much Is Too Much When It Comes to Homework?

Filed under: Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Expert Advice: Big Kids, Expert Advice: Tweens, Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

My grade schooler has one to two hours of homework a night. When is a child supposed to play with friends or just relax? The media reports that children are overweight and aren't getting enough exercise, but isn't playing a great source of exercise and doesn't it help a child develop social skills? How much homework is too much?

Heavy with Homework

Dear Heavy,

Your question could have been written by the people who produced the recent film "Race to Nowhere," which focuses on the ever-increasing unhappiness and stress experienced by kids at younger and younger ages who complain of being overwhelmed by the work they have to do in the evenings after spending all day in the classroom.

The homework issue calls forth a wide range of opinions from parents, teachers, administrators and, of course, children. While the latter -- the kids -- enthusiastically agree that they need time to play and relax, those who keep track of test scores make a compelling case for the need for supplemental school work. Teachers argue that if their students are to perform well on standardized tests, there is simply no way to cover all the material in a typical school day.

Others, myself included, feel that "teaching to the test" is ridiculous. As passionate as I am about education, I see little correlation between test results and true learning. I've worked with children whose mastery in math, reading or science is well beyond their years, but do miserably on standardized tests. And I've seen kids who score impressively high on nationwide exams but do poorly in the classroom.

Of even greater importance, children -- as you rightly point out -- need to play. They need to interact with friends, draw, hop, skip, play tag, climb, dig in the dirt and scratch the dog while daydreaming. The constant pressure to be in the left, rational side of their brain so they can churn out endless worksheets is wearing out our children.

I don't think we'll get to a point where homework goes away, although there are proponents of that. But I do think we need to get off this train, racing to nowhere as the film is so aptly titled. Here are a few parting thoughts about your situation:

• Make sure your child doesn't have a learning issue that's making his homework take so long. Typically, we like to see kids having no more than 10 minutes of work per grade level, so a fourth grader might have 40 minutes. If his classmates are getting the work done much more quickly than your child, find out if he's struggling with the material.

• Ask the teacher if she would be willing to occasionally assign hands-on activities to reinforce learning. Some teachers have their kids do short videos, drawings, models or interviews to make homework more interesting.

• Have your son do his homework in half-hour segments, interspersed with playtime, rather than doing it straight through. By interrupting his focus on schoolwork, he may be fresher and therefore able to get through it more quickly.

Someday I hope we all realize that teaching to the test is not working, and childhood is short enough without requiring our kids to give up their afternoon and evening playtime. Meanwhile, I hope these ideas help. Best of luck!

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.