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Homework doesn’t get a lot of love. Stressed out kids scramble to finish before bed while stressed out parents have to deal with exhausted, grumpy kids. Both are frustrated that schoolwork bleeds into and sometimes monopolizes weekends, leaving little time for family and friends. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in competitive school districts, where the pressure to excel is fierce and burnout is an unfortunate result.
“Teens face a tremendous amount of pressure,” says Mark Toback, PhD, superintendent of schools in Wayne. This is especially true when it comes to scoring a spot at a prestigious college. “Schools are looking for well-rounded students. Kids have to demonstrate leadership roles in activities and sports, and when you add jobs and social lives to the mix, it adds up to a lot of demands and not enough time.”
And if you’ve ever let your child eat dinner at his desk, or skip a trip to Grandma’s because another major project is due Monday, you know the strain homework can put on familial bonding. Some parents may wonder, though—are kids really spending too much time doing homework?
That depends on the child, extracurriculars and school. The answer is a definite yes in high-achieving school districts, says Denise Pope, PhD, a senior lecturer at Stanford University, as well as the cofounder of Challenge Success, an organization that works with families, schools and communities to promote student well-being and engagement with learning. “We looked at the research from the past 10-15 years and found that in communities that have high performing schools, we’ve seen an uptick in more homework being given.
Some more than 3.5 hours of homework a night.” That’s too long, considering the National PTA and the NEA suggest no more than 10 minutes per grade from K-6 (for example, 40 minutes for grade 4), and 30 minutes max per academic subject through grade 12.
TIRED AND TAPPED OUT
What’s interesting, though, is that too many assignments may not be the reason. “A lot of teachers are saying ‘I don’t give any more homework than I did 20 years ago. It’s just taking them longer to do it,” says Pope. After a long day of school, sports and other enrichments, kids are tired and tapped out. They’re also distracted in ways we couldn’t have imagined back when we communicated via landlines and beepers.
“Students aren’t being as efficient because they’re being interrupted by social media,” she says. “To be fair, some of this interaction is both social and productive, as kids work on homework collaboratively. But this speaks to a bigger problem. Teens need time to be social during the day, and there’s a whole bunch of things getting in the way—homework overload is one of them.” In response, Wayne has implemented a district-wide initiative for the 2018-2019 school year, featuring a trio of assignment-free Wellness Weekends (the first took place in early October; the next are slated for January and May).
Instead of math sheets, reading responses and test prep, the hope is that extra free time will be spent pursuing enjoyable and engaging activities that have been pushed aside in the race to the top (so, not playing Fortnite or scrolling Instagram). “Ideally, it’s an opportunity for families to get together and do things that wouldn’t be possible with a regular workload. It’s an opportunity for kids to take a step back. Hopefully, the benefit will be happier and healthier students,” says Toback.
Wayne schools aren’t alone. Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District, which inspired Wayne’s homework-free program, has been giving students homework breaks for some time now. And Hasbrouck Heights Middle School just instituted its first homework-free Wellness Weekend to give kids down time and encourage families to do something fun together.
Competitive students and their parents may fret that less homework will negatively impact academics. Not to worry: According to Harris Cooper, PhD, author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, the impact will depend on the number of weekends it’s instituted. “If reasonable, parents and kids will feel it had an impact on well-being. If too many weekends, it may slow achievement,” he says. A professor at Duke University, Cooper’s metaresearch on homework is often cited as evidence that homework primarily benefits older students and doesn’t really boost achievement in elementary students. Regardless, the “can’t stop, won’t stop” contingent of students can use the weekend to catch up or get ahead (actions that may also reduce stress, so it’s still a win). Plus, reading for pleasure is known for boosting academic acumen.
THE BENEFITS OF TAKING A BREAK
Nevertheless, no schoolwork is the goal—especially since taking a breather can actually enhance performance. “After a little break, you feel rested, a little more capable. Students can do more and perform at a higher level—something you can’t [do] week after week, month after month,” says Toback, adding that homework-free weekends are just one part of the district’s planned wellness efforts, which include education on the dangers of social media, the importance of living in the moment and disconnecting from screens.
Breaks aren’t just good for the kids, but the whole family, since space is freed up for playtime, downtime and family time (PDF), a must for healthy and happy kids, says Pope. PDF includes activities done just for fun (playtime promotes creativity, innovation and resiliency), 8-10 hours of sleep each night (anxiety, depression, obesity and car accidents are all linked to sleep deprivation) and time spent with loved ones, even if they protest (family time is a key protective factor against things like delinquency and drug use).
So, what can you do to increase PDF? Directly petition your district’s administration to consider a homework-free weekend program, or get the ball rolling by drumming up support at your school’s PTA. According to Pope, monthly breaks are ideal but even once a semester is a great start. Breaks have even helped some teachers realize that the prior level of homework wasn’t quite necessary for mastery and deep learning. If you need persuasive talking points check out challengesuccess.org, which features videos and other resources touting the benefits of taking time outs and easing kids from the grind.
Parents need to help kids come up with a sound, sane schedule that factors in time for enrichments and academics without sacrificing leisure and family time and sleep. A lighter load allows students to focus, reflect, have some fun and enjoy valuable experiences that can’t be expressed on a transcript, yet nevertheless ensure success in school and beyond. They may even have time to help around the house.
Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.