The Trouble with Homework Pressure
By Sonali Gupta
As a therapist, I hear painful and heartrending stories all the time. But some of the more frustrating accounts I listen to are about trouble with homework. In the last few years, I have had parents request Sunday appointments for their adolescent children, who are struggling with too much homework every evening and the only time they can squeeze in counselling for their emotional woes is Sunday. One teen client tells me he manages to sleep only five hours every weekday; he’s on move from 7 am to 2 am and still struggling with homework. Other parents and students tell me the student has had to drop extracurricular activities or sports to keep up with homework pressure.
I call these stories of homework pressure frustrating because of how ordinary and common they are. For most of these students, it’s not a problem of poor time management or difficulty grasping a concept; it’s a problem of sheer volume and arbitrary assignments. It’s a sad reflection on our educational system when students are sacrificing their mental and physical health in order to complete school work – and, it follows, when they are being penalized if they can or do not make that sacrifice. School should be a place where students learn and grow healthfully. And school work should be work that facilitates that healthy learning and growth.
Homework, in theory
In theory, the purpose of homework in generally threefold: First, to help children reinforce classroom lessons; secondly, to establish a connection with parents so they know what children are learning on any given day; and lastly to help children develop healthy habits of independent study, time management, ownership and accountability, and exploration.
“Research is consistent with the notion that homework can be a good thing if the dose is appropriate to the student’s age or developmental level,” wrote Harris Cooper, psychologist and author of The Battle over Homework, in a 2010 article for the New York Times.
Based on his research, Cooper offers solutions to homework problems in the form of a 10-minute formula: 10 more daily minutes of homework for each additional grade level. According to this rule, a first-grader can do 10 minutes of homework each day, a sixth-graders not more than 60 minutes, a 12th-grader, 120 minutes. (However, conflicting research says 120 minutes a day is too much homework and caps peak productivity at 60 to 70 minutes.) Research has shown children learn or practice best when they deal with small, specific bits of information regularly for short periods of time. In cognitive science, it’s known as distributed practice.
The content of the homework matters, too. Homework benefits students specifically when its aim is to help students revise or practice an already learnt skill. This not only creates scope for better retention, but also builds a sense of competence. A mother told me once that her child was asked to write a full page of the Hindi alphabet each day during the 15-day Christmas break. This understimulating assignment seemed like a forced attempt in the name of learning. How much more engaging for the child to practice the letters by writing a short story or mathematical story problem.
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Homework pressure, in practice
A growing number of schools around the world are experimenting with the content of homework, or adopting no-homework policies. There are many good solutions to homework problems out there, developed by seasoned educators and researchers. But my concern here is what happens if our schools don’t address homework pressure.
When homework is wielded arbitrarily or as a punishment – both all too common – instead of as a tool for healthy learning, it can deeply impact children’s attitudes toward school and learning. I once sat in on a class in which the teacher told students they would have to write multiplication tables, 2 through 10, as homework if they didn’t remain quiet. The children didn’t remain quiet (a reminder that threatening children doesn’t work). One 8-year-old refused to go to school the next day, as he couldn’t complete the assignment. Instead of learning multiplication, he learned skipping class was preferable to learning. (Ironically, the teacher issued an empty threat and never marked the papers.)
And when homework is simply drudging repetition of school work (as it often is), it can teach children that learning is dull work and inhibit inclination to seek new knowledge. As Alfie Kohn, the author of the Homework Myth, argues, homework like the 15 pages of Hindi letters over Christmas break (or, according to Kohn, any homework) not only robs children of intimate family bonding time, but also of their curiosity. The mother of the child who received that assignment finally decided not to force her child to do the homework — which in the end was never collected or corrected.
Finally, homework pressure can lead children to equate education with homework, which can impact their ability to learn and explore, long term. School can become a frustrating place, and learning an overwhelming task. “I don’t understand why teachers don’t coordinate amongst each other before scheduling assignment deadlines,” one 7th-grade client, struggling with the pressure to complete all of his assignments, told me.
As parents, we do not have control over what is assigned in the classroom, but we can help manage the effect of homework pressure. We can help our children balance homework with refreshing and active leisure. We can refrain from adding performance pressure when we see our children working hard. We can look for ways to use interesting visual examples or mnemonic devices to help them understand their assignments.
And critically, we can engage with schools, explain how the content or amount of homework impacts our children’s motivation, and encourage them to explore new ways of teaching. Because if children should feel pressure to do anything, it should be to grow and learn healthfully – not to sacrifice their mental and physical health in order to check the boxes of homework.