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Is more homework putting stress on families?

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For some families, the start of a new school year means a return to squabbles over homework. A recent study examining the link between homework and family stress suggests some possible reasons for the tension, and argues that the youngest kids are simply getting too much.

The study, published in The American Journal of Family Therapy, found first-graders get nearly three times the amount of homework recommended by national education groups, while second-graders get around 1.5 times what is recommended. Kindergartners get nearly as much as first- and second-graders.

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The researchers, affiliated with the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, Brown University, and other institutions, compared the amounts of homework reported through nearly 1,200 parent surveys to a so-called “10-minute rule” endorsed by the National Educational Association and the National PTA. According to this standard, students should receive about 10 minutes of homework per grade level: First-graders should get about 10 minutes of homework each night; second-graders, around 20 minutes; and so on, up to 120 minutes a night for 12th-graders.

The parents surveyed reported that first-graders were getting about 28 minutes of homework per night, while second-graders were getting an average of 29 minutes per night.

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“When a child is 5, 6, 7 years old, they are really learning how to interact with the world,” said Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, contributing editor of the study and clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology. “Homework takes time away from free play and learning creative thinking. It increases stress and cuts down on time for building social skills.”

Past research, including a 2006 analysis by researchers at Duke University, has found that the link between homework and achievement is stronger for later grades (seventh through 12th in that particular analysis) than for earlier ones.

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, has noted that increases in homework in the lower grade levels over the past two decades have been associated with neutral, or sometimes negative, effects on achievement. However, the organization also notes that homework in the elementary school level can help kids develop study skills and habits.

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Some studies that have found a positive association between homework and achievement have also found that the benefits seem to diminish beyond a certain amount of work. This has fueled education groups’ support for the “10-minute rule.”

The new research also explored how parents’ involvement in kids’ homework impacts levels of stress within families. Particularly since the advent of the Common Core, Donaldson-Pressman said, many parents feel pressured to explain assignments and instruct their kids, which puts parents with less education or with limited English at a disadvantage.

Not surprisingly, as parents’ confidence in helping their kids with homework declined, the level of family stress increased. Families in which neither parent had a college education experienced significantly more homework-related stress than did families in which at least one parent had a college degree. Spanish-speaking families reported higher stress levels than did English-speaking families.

Parents can help reduce stress around homework by creating an environment conducive to doing it, said Donaldson-Pressman, coauthor of the book “The Learning Habit: A Groundbreaking Approach to Homework and Parenting that Helps Our Children Succeed in School and Life.”

“Kids should have a place to do their homework, with no distractions and no screens, and they should stay there for a finite amount of time — 10 minutes per grade level,” she said. “If they don’t have homework, they can read a book in that allotted time. Having a routine with a set amount of time . . . builds good study habits and time-management skills, which can be very empowering for kids.”

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.
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