Most parents don’t need an expert or a study to tell them what they already know: kids get more homework now than they ever have before, with many high schoolers getting as many as seven or eight hours of homework a night. Most parents are as overwhelmed by homework as their children are and constantly struggle to create incentives for their children to complete their piles of homework. Many parents believe they’re fighting this homework battle to ensure a quality education for their children, but the truth is that there’s little evidence that excessive homework helps children learn. Indeed, evidence is rapidly amassing that overworking children interferes with their ability to learn.
Our brains are programmed to learn things that are interesting to us and relevant to our lives. You’re more likely, for example, to remember where the aggressive dog who always chases children lives than you are to remember the color pattern on your neighbor’s shirt. Children in particular are primed to learn things that help them better function in their environment. Unfortunately, homework doesn’t pass this test. The overwhelming majority of homework assignments force children to sit down and memorize facts rather than experience their world. Not only does this make information more difficult to learn; it can also decrease your child’s motivation to learn. When learning is made miserable, children associate the thing they’re learning with misery and want to avoid it. This is why tactics such as forced silent reading time or flashcards rarely help children learn math and vocabulary.
The Stressed Brain
Even when homework is well-designed and does foster learning, too much of it can be damaging. Children who have more than one hour of homework each night overwhelmingly report that they feel stressed about their ability to complete their work. Over time, this stress can create real problems for a developing brain. When we are under stress, the brain produces cortisol, which lowers immune function and processing speed. On a short-term basis, cortisol can help us deal with stress. But when the brain is constantly releasing cortisol, development and learning can slow. This is especially damaging for children, whose brains are rapidly laying down neural connections. Even more troubling, excessive doses of cortisol can damage the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory, inhibition, and spatial reasoning.
The value of friendships, extracurricular activities, and relaxation time to children’s intellectual and emotional development has been extensively documented. When homework is overwhelming, however, children are less likely to have the opportunity to participate in these activities. Thus even a child who is left unfazed by excessive homework or who excels in school may suffer as a result of excessive homework because he’s unable to engage in the activities that can help him become a well-rounded adult.
A Better Approach to Homework
Homework can help bridge the gap between home and school, encourage independent learning, and give children who find school stressful an opportunity to learn at home. So what are the characteristics of “good” homework assignments? They include:
- Activities that encourage students to interact with their environment
- Activities that give students flexibility to focus on things they are interested in
- Activities that make learning relevant instead of flashcards and drills
- Reasonable amounts of time spent on homework—no more than one hour for young children and no more than two hours for high schoolers
- Activities that can be completed at home without substantial cost or the purchase of lots of supplies
When choosing a school or classroom for your child, ask about homework and advocate on your child’s behalf when homework becomes excessive. Your child’s stressed mind will thank you, and your child just may end up learning more.
- Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
- Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Eyer, D. E. (2004). Einstein never used flash cards: How our children really learn–and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
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