Pop quiz! Growing up, what type of “homeworker” were you?
A) I did every assignment right away . . . no goofing off for me!
B) I made sure to unwind a bit at first, but I didn’t wait long to dive in.
C) I was pretty busy with sports, music, or having fun, but I eventually got the work done.
D) I waited until the last possible minute.
No matter how you answered, now that young minds are in your charge, it’s time to help them build a solid foundation of study skills and academic responsibility, and homework is a key opportunity to do just that.
The trouble is, how do you help your kids create healthy homework habits? Should you insist on their doing it right after school, or let them have some down time first? Should you hover and “help” them complete every assignment or let them work through problems on their own? And when do you say “enough is enough,” and help them advocate for a lighter load from their teachers?
We’ve talked to a few homework and study skills experts to learn a bit more about homework to find out what students of all ages can do, and how parents can help them be efficient and confident learners at home.
How Much Homework?
Research suggests students should get about “ten minutes of homework each night for each grade,” says Dr. Harris Cooper, Hugo L. Blomquist Distinguished Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University. So, 10 minutes for 1st grade, 20 for 2nd, and so on.
Others say there’s really no right answer to how much time per day a student should be studying. Kathy McIntosh, founder of Capital Learners, a tutoring service in the greater metro D.C. area says homework is a complex issue, and the “right” amount varies by student. “Some students need to combine some type of enrichment as well as a continuation of what they’re learning in school,” she says. “Students, especially the little ones who are struggling in reading or math, should definitely have some type of homework or some skill that they’re working on at school to keep up with their skills.”
In addition to keeping up with skills learned during school hours, homework offers the opportunity to “teach responsibility and keep parents connected to what their young student is learning,” says Kaitlin Gaj, director of the Baltimore-based Total Tutoring Services. Though she agrees it is also important to allow students to have the time to play outside, participate in extracurricular activities and spend time with family.
Paul Rivas, founder of Smith Rivas Study Skills & Academic Coaching in Washington, D.C. agrees that students should seek balance and would prefer to see high schoolers spend two hours a day on homework Monday through Thursday, with three two-hour chunks over the weekends. “I feel strongly about time limits, particularly for high school students, most of whom are over-scheduled,” he says.
“It is impossible for a high school student to have a healthy life doing more than 14 hours per week of homework,” says Rivas. If you’re doing more than that, you’re not getting enough sleep, or you don’t have enough free time.”
Beat the Clock: When to Do Homework
One of the biggest homework questions of all is when a child should hit the books. Once again, it just depends on the individual student.
McIntosh says that for students who are involved with sports or extracurricular activities, study time is variable; it’s all about figuring out when a student is most productive. “It really depends on what works for the kid,” she says, “what time they feel like they’re most alert, and also the time that they’re allowed to do homework” (based on time constraints from extra-curricular activities).
Gaj agrees. “Some students do well with coming straight home and immediately doing their homework while they are still in that ‘school frame of mind.’ Other families find that their children need to take a break and decompress before shifting into homework time. For these students, playing outside, having a snack or just having time to relax in their own home works well.”
For older students, when it comes to doing homework after dinner, Rivas recommends trying to avoid it, although it’s not always possible due to after-school commitments. Ideally, students would get home, have a snack, clear their head and relax for a bit, then try to tackle it prior to the evening meal or within an hour before going to bed.
He also says high schoolers shouldn’t be cramming just before a big assessment. “If you have to study the night before the test, you’ve been living wrong.” Rivas is also adamant about getting enough Z’s. “There are no academic results that justify insufficient sleep,” he explains.
Good Homework Habits
The experts say establishing good learning habits at home is key for homework success, and setting a good example for students is at the top of the list.
Young students “learn best from repetitive, modeled behavior,” says McIntosh. Parents should show kids what it means to settle in and turn their attentions to their work. She says this includes turning off the television, taking away distractions, and setting ground rules.
Although they may not have much in the way of nightly homework, McIntosh stresses the importance of reading for younger students. “Even if there’s no homework given, definitely read 20 minutes a day with kids,” she says, citing research that shows the impact reading can have on a child’s vocabulary development and knowledge of the world.
Limiting distractions is big in Rivas’s book, too. “If you can see your phone, even if it’s turned off, it is distracting you,” he says. Rivas also thinks older students should take breaks, whether or not they think they need them. Powering through is not a good idea, he says, and don’t stay up super late. “The demands of a high school schedule make it impossible to be a night owl.”
A final tenant, and probably the most important, of Rivas’s studying philosophy is going over the material just after learning it. Reviewing what was learned in class on the same day or at least over the weekend will allow a student to better retain the information and help homework go faster and avoid cramming for tests.
Parents can help students develop good learning habits by encouraging and modeling the right kind of homework behaviors and being a motivator, says Duke’s Dr. Cooper. “Homework provides a great opportunity for you to tell your child how important school is. Be positive about homework. The attitude you express about homework will be the attitude your child acquires.”
He also explains that letting children see parents in the learning zone is also important. “Be a role model. When your child does homework, don’t sit and watch TV. If your child is reading, you read, too. If your child is doing math, balance your checkbook. Help your child see that the skills they are practicing are related to things you do as an adult,” Cooper explains.
What if my child is struggling with what seems like too much homework?
If a student is experiencing anxiety with a homework overload, it often has to do with other factors, says McIntosh—perhaps they don’t have enough time carved out to work, they’re struggling in the classroom, or maybe a learning disorder is underlying. “If it does come to a point where the kids are extremely stressed out, then it’s something that needs to be addressed with the teachers to see if it can be modified,” she says.
Some teachers may be willing to adjust the amount of homework a student is required to complete. For example, says McIntosh, a math teacher could bump down the number of problems from 30 to 15 so the student can have the opportunity to show full understanding and not get stressed. “The quality is more important than the quantity.”
“If it gets to be a battle,” she says of middle and high school homework, it’s time to reach out to a tutor or a therapist to determine the best approach.
If an elementary student appears to have too much homework, “I would reach out to the student’s teacher to share my concern and discuss why the assignments are taking so long,” says Gaj. “Sometimes there is a disconnect between what teachers perceive as only taking 15 minutes but what really takes 45 minutes to complete.”
For older students who are struggling, Gaj recommends taking a look at where and how the child is doing their work to make sure there aren’t distractions. “If I have done that and determined that the student is really just given an unreasonable amount of homework,” she says, “then I would encourage them to reach out to their teacher to share their concern.”
When is a helping hand justified? The experts say a gradual progression of independence is just the ticket. For young children, it’s okay for parents to hold a student’s hand through the early days of homework, then begin taking steps back and assisting if help is needed. “The ultimate goal is for kids to be independent learners,” McIntosh says.
For older students, parents can continue to offer support but should eventually be ready to step back.
“As they get into middle school,” says Gaj, “parents can assist their children in mapping out bigger and more long term projects and help them to develop good time management skills. In high school, parents can continue to provide a quiet study space and support, but let the student take the reins and have the responsibility to complete the assignments on their own.”
Students need an organized space to do their work. Make sure your child has a quiet, well-lit place to do homework and that the needed materials (paper, pencils, dictionary) are available.
Students should study in an area that’s free of noise, distractions and interruptions.
Alternatively, kids might like to rotate their workspace, and study in different areas of the house. Learn to be flexible, because your tests won’t be administered in a comfortable room at home.