Kids have three times too much homework, study finds; what’s the cost?

Updated 11:48 AM EDT, Wed August 12, 2015
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Story highlights

First-graders get nearly three times the homework education leaders recommend, a study concludes

The cost of excessive homework is "enormous," the study's contributing editor says

Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) —  

Nothing quite stresses out students and parents about the beginning of the school year as the return to homework, which for many households means nightly battles centered around completing after-school assignments.

Now a new study may help explain some of that stress.

The study, published Wednesday in The American Journal of Family Therapy, found students in the early elementary school years are getting significantly more homework than is recommended by education leaders, in some cases nearly three times as much homework as is recommended.

The standard, endorsed by the National Education Association and the National Parent-Teacher Association, is the so-called “10-minute rule” – 10 minutes per grade level per night. That translates into 10 minutes of homework in the first grade, 20 minutes in the second grade, all the way up to 120 minutes for senior year of high school. The NEA and the National PTA do not endorse homework for kindergarten.

Related: The great homework debate: Too much, too little or busy work?

In the study involving questionnaires filled out by more than 1,100 English and Spanish speaking parents of children in kindergarten through grade 12, researchers found children in the first grade had up to three times the homework load recommended by the NEA and the National PTA.

Parents reported first-graders were spending 28 minutes on homework each night versus the recommended 10 minutes. For second-graders, the homework time was nearly 29 minutes, as opposed to the 20 minutes recommended.

And kindergartners, their parents said, spent 25 minutes a night on after-school assignments, according to the study carried out by researchers from Brown University, Brandeis University, Rhode Island College, Dean College, the Children’s National Medial Center and the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology.

“It is absolutely shocking to me to find out that particularly kindergarten students (who) are not supposed to have any homework at all … are getting as much homework as a third-grader is supposed to get,” said Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, the contributing editor of the study and clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology.

“Anybody who’s tried to keep a 5-year-old at a table doing homework for 25 minutes after school knows what that’s like. I mean children don’t want to be doing, they want to be out playing, they want to be interacting and that’s what they should be doing. That’s what’s really important.”

Related: Is homework making your child sick?

Donaldson-Pressman, co-author of “The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting that Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life,” says the National Education Association (and the National PTA) made their recommendations after a number of studies were done on the effects of homework and the effects on families of having too much homework.

“The cost is enormous,” she said. “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.”

In fact, a study last year showed that the impact of excessive homework on high schoolers included high stress levels, a lack of balance in children’s lives and physical health problems such as ulcers, migraines, sleep deprivation and weight loss.

The correlation between homework and student performance is less clear cut.

Previous research, including a 2006 analysis of homework studies, found a link between time spent on homework and achievement but also found it was much stronger in secondary school versus elementary school. Another study, this one in 2012, found no relationship between time spent on homework and grades but did find a positive link between homework and performance on standardized tests.

The stress on families

The current study also examined the stress homework places on families and found that as the parent’s confidence in their ability to help their child with homework went down, the stress in the household went up.

Fights and conflicts over homework were 200% more likely in families where parents did not have at least a college degree, according to the study.

Parents who have a college degree felt more confident, not necessarily in helping their child with their homework, but in communicating with the school to make sure the level is appropriate, said Donaldson-Pressman.

Related: Awkward! The tough transition to middle school

“Undereducated parents really believe that their children are supposed to be able to do (the homework), therefore, their children must be doing something else during school” instead of focusing on their studies, she said. “So the parents argue with the kids, the kids feel defeated and dumb and angry, very angry, and the parents are fighting with each other. It’s absolutely a recipe for disaster.”

She added, “All of our results indicate that homework as it is now being assigned discriminates against children whose parents don’t have a college degree, against parents who have English as a second language, against, essentially, parents who are poor.”

What can parents do?

Many parents might feel stressed just reading about homework, but there are specific things they can do to make the entire homework experience less anxiety-producing for everyone in the household, parenting experts say.

Jessica Lahey is author of the just released book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

Lahey recommends that if parents are concerned about how much time their children are spending on homework, they first look at how and where their child is doing their homework to see whether that’s a contribution to how long it takes. For instance, are the children being distracted by smartphones, music or other household activities?

If a parent has done that and determined the child is still spending too much time on homework, contact with the teacher makes sense, said Lahey, who is also a columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to The Atlantic and Vermont Public Radio.