From kindergarten to the final years of high school, recent research suggests that some students are getting excessive amounts of homework.
In turn, when students are pushed to handle a workload that’s out of sync with their development level, it can lead to significant stress — for children and their parents.
Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National PTA (NPTA) support a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” and setting a general limit on after-school studying.
For kids in first grade, that means 10 minutes a night, while high school seniors could get two hours of work per night.
But the most recent study to examine the issue found that kids in early elementary school received about three times the amount of recommended homework.
Published in The American Journal of Family Therapy, the 2015 study surveyed more than 1,100 parents in Rhode Island with school-age children.
The researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night.
Kindergarteners received 25 minutes of homework per night, on average. But according to the standards set by the NEA and NPTA, they shouldn’t receive any at all.
A contributing editor of the study, Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, told CNN that she found it “absolutely shocking” to learn that kindergarteners had that much homework.
And all those extra assignments may lead to family stress, especially when parents with limited education aren’t confident in their ability to help kids with the work.
The researchers reported that family fights about homework were 200 percent more likely when parents didn’t have a college degree.
Some parents, in fact, have decided to opt out of the whole thing. The Washington Post reported in 2016 that some parents have just instructed their younger children not to do their homework assignments.
They report the no-homework policy has taken the stress out of their afternoons and evenings. In addition, it's been easier for their children to participate in after-school activities.
This new parental directive may be healthier for children, too.
Experts say there may be real downsides for young kids who are pushed to do more homework than the “10 minutes per grade” standard.
“The data shows that homework over this level is not only not beneficial to children’s grades or GPA, but there’s really a plethora of evidence that it’s detrimental to their attitude about school, their grades, their self-confidence, their social skills, and their quality of life,” Donaldson-Pressman told CNN.
Read more: Less math and science homework beneficial to middle school students »
Consequences for high school students
Other studies have found that high school students may also be overburdened with homework — so much that it’s taking a toll on their health.
In 2013, research conducted at Stanford University found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance in their lives, and alienation from society.
That study, published in The Journal of Experimental Education, suggested that any more than two hours of homework per night is counterproductive.
However, students who participated in the study reported doing slightly more than three hours of homework each night, on average.
To conduct the study, researchers surveyed more than 4,300 students at 10 high-performing high schools in upper middle-class California communities. They also interviewed students about their views on homework.
When it came to stress, more than 70 percent of students said they were “often or always stressed over schoolwork,” with 56 percent listing homework as a primary stressor. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.
The researchers asked students whether they experienced physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss, and stomach problems.
More than 80 percent of students reported having at least one stress-related symptom in the past month, and 44 percent said they had experienced three or more symptoms.
The researchers also found that spending too much time on homework meant that students were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills. Students were more likely to forgo activities, stop seeing friends or family, and not participate in hobbies.
Many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.
"Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good," said Denise Pope, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education, and a co-author of a study.
Read more: Should schools screen children for mental health problems? »
Working as hard as adults
A smaller New York University study published last year noted similar findings.
It focused more broadly on how students at elite private high schools cope with the combined pressures of school work, college applications, extracurricular activities, and parents’ expectations.
That study, which appeared in Frontiers in Psychology, noted serious health effects for high schoolers, such as chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, and alcohol and drug use.
The research involved a series of interviews with students, teachers, and administrators, as well as a survey of a total of 128 juniors from two private high schools.
About half of the students said they received at least three hours of homework per night. They also faced pressure to take college-level classes and excel in activities outside of school.
Many students felt they were being asked to work as hard as adults, and noted that their workload seemed inappropriate for their development level. They reported having little time for relaxing or creative activities.
More than two-thirds of students said they used alcohol and drugs, primarily marijuana, to cope with stress.
The researchers expressed concern that students at high-pressure high schools can get burned out before they even get to college.
“School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat — that’s what it can be for some of these students,” said Noelle Leonard, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing, and lead study author, in a press release.
Read more: Lack of mental healthcare for children reaches ‘crisis’ level »
What can be done?
Experts continue to debate the benefits and drawbacks of homework.
But according to an article published this year in Monitor on Psychology, there’s one thing they agree on: the quality of homework assignments matters.
In the Stanford study, many students said that they often did homework they saw as "pointless" or "mindless."
Pope, who co-authored that study, argued that homework assignments should have a purpose and benefit, and should be designed to cultivate learning and development.
It’s also important for schools and teachers to stick to the 10-minutes per grade standard.
In an interview with Monitor on Psychology, Pope pointed out that students can learn challenging skills even when less homework is assigned.
Pope described one teacher she worked with who taught advanced placement biology, and experimented by dramatically cutting down homework assignments. First the teacher cut homework by a third, and then cut the assignments in half.
The students’ test scores didn’t change.
“You can have a rigorous course and not have a crazy homework load,” Pope said.
Editor’s Note: The story was originally published on March 11, 2014. It was updated by Jenna Flannigan on August 11, 2016 and then updated again on April 11, 2017 by David Mills.
Educators and parents have long been concerned about students stressed by homework loads, but a small research study asked questions recently about homework and anxiety of a different group: parents. The results were unsurprising. While we may have already learned long division and let the Magna Carta fade into memory, parents report that their children’s homework causes family stress and tension — particularly when additional factors surrounding the homework come into play.
The researchers, from Brown University, found that stress and tension for families (as reported by the parents) increased most when parents perceived themselves as unable to help with the homework, when the child disliked doing the homework and when the homework caused arguments, either between the child and adults or among the adults in the household.
The number of parents involved in the research (1,173 parents, both English and Spanish-speaking, who visited one of 27 pediatric practices in the greater Providence area of Rhode Island) makes it more of a guide for further study than a basis for conclusions, but the idea that homework can cause significant family stress is hard to seriously debate. Families across income and education levels may struggle with homework for different reasons and in different ways, but “it’s an equal opportunity problem,” says Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, a contributing editor to the research study and co-author of “The Learning Habit.”
“Parents may find it hard to evaluate the homework,” she says. “They think, if this is coming home, my child should be able to do it. If the child can’t, and especially if they feel like they can’t help, they may get angry with the child, and the child feels stupid.” That’s a scenario that is likely to lead to more arguments, and an increased dislike of the work on the part of the child.
The researchers also found that parents of students in kindergarten and first grade reported that the children spent significantly more time on homework than recommended. Many schools and organizations, including the National Education Association and the Great Schools blog, will suggest following the “10-minute rule” for how long children should spend on school work outside of school hours: 10 minutes per grade starting in first grade, and most likely more in high school. Instead, parents described their first graders and kindergartners working, on average, for 25 to 30 minutes a night. That is consistent with other research, which has shown an increase in the amount of time spent on homework in lower grades from 1981 to 2003.
“This study highlights the real discrepancy between intent and what’s actually happening,” Ms. Donaldson-Pressman said, speaking of both the time spent and the family tensions parents describe. “When people talk about the homework, they’re too often talking about the work itself. They should be talking about the load — how long it takes. You can have three problems on one page that look easy, but aren’t.”
The homework a child is struggling with may not be developmentally appropriate for every child in a grade, she suggests, noting that academic expectations for young children have increased in recent years. Less-educated or Spanish-speaking parents may find it harder to evaluate or challenge the homework itself, or to say they think it is simply too much. “When the load is too much, it has a tremendous impact on family stress and the general tenor of the evening. It ruins your family time and kids view homework as a punishment,” she said.
At our house, homework has just begun; we are in the opposite of the honeymoon period, when both skills and tolerance are rusty and complaints and stress are high. If the two hours my fifth-grade math student spent on homework last night turn out the be the norm once he is used to the work and the teacher has had a chance to hear from the students, we’ll speak up.
We should, Ms. Donaldson-Pressman says. “Middle-class parents can solve the problem for their own kids,” she says. “They can make sure their child is going to all the right tutors, or get help, but most people can’t.” Instead of accepting that at home we become teachers and homework monitors (or even taking classes in how to help your child with his math), parents should let the school know that they’re unhappy with the situation, both to encourage others to speak up and to speak on behalf of parents who don’t feel comfortable complaining.
“Home should be a safe place for students,” she says. “A child goes to school all day and they’re under stress. If they come home and it’s more of the same, that’s not good for anyone.”
Read more about homework on Motherlode: Homework and Consequences; The Mechanics of Homework; That’s Your Child’s Homework Project, Not Yours and Homework’s Emotional Toll on Students and Families.