Too much homework

When to help your preteen manage the workload

Nine-year-old Andrew has so much homework that his stepmother, a teacher herself, says, “at times it is overwhelming.” Every day, including weekends, the fourth grader has at least 1½ hours of work to do. Some days it takes him two hours or more to finish up. Not surprisingly, this workload has dampened his enthusiasm for school.

“He used to be eager to do his homework and show us what he is learning,” says Sarah Nystrom.* “Now he complains that it is too much, too hard, and that he doesn’t want to do it. He also finds the required reading too much, and the teacher adds five minutes each week to the reading requirement. It is zapping the enjoyment of reading for him.”

If you don’t remember having this much homework, it’s because you didn’t. “Homework has increased and has become a problem right through the years,” reports Linda Cameron, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

In this age group, a couple of issues complicate matters, says Cameron. Kids may have multiple teachers, who don’t necessarily coordinate their homework assignments. Plus, the increased workload comes when kids are becoming involved in extracurricular activities and when most would benefit from getting more sleep and more active play.

“If you look at stress in kids, doctors will say that it’s often school and homework related,” says Cameron.

So what can parents do?

Help with organization. “Family calendars are critical,” says Cameron. Ask your child’s teachers to let parents know, for example, with a monthly newsletter, when big assignments are due or tests scheduled. Identify conflicts with hockey tournaments or band performances and plan. Nystrom and her partner help Andrew break projects into smaller tasks he can manage.

*Family’s names changed by request.
Buddy up. Many kids dislike being alone in their rooms. Your child may prefer to work at the kitchen table, with you close by. Andrew finds it easier to get his reading done since his parents declared a “family reading time” and join him on the living room couch.

Find out what the work is. Cameron says there are three kinds of homework: drills to practise what was learned in class (math sheets), work that challenges kids to extend their learning (like independent research projects), and work that the child didn’t finish in class. Most homework should be of the second type. “Kids this age really don’t enjoy skills and drills. This is not appropriate homework night after night.”

Communicate with the teacher. Teachers may not realize how much time is being spent on homework or that a particular child is struggling. So phone and ask for a meeting, says Cameron. “Say something like this: ‘I’m concerned with the amount of homework my child has, and I’d like to discuss ways of helping him manage better.’”

Work on the background problem. Kids who have trouble getting their work done in class may bring home loads of incomplete work on top of their “regular” homework. For a child who works slowly to begin with, this extra load is a recipe for despair. Work with the teacher to figure out why your child falls behind and how to help her stay on top of things during the school day.

If, after helping your child manage and consulting with the teacher, the workload still seems excessive, it may be time to discuss your concerns with the principal.

Is she really doing homework?

Before you report to the teacher that Brynna spends three hours a night on her homework, spend a couple of nights really watching how she works, suggests Linda Cameron, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto..

“Some kids may say they’ve been working the whole time, when in truth they’ve been on the phone, text messaging, surfing the Internet, all sorts of things,” she says. “We all learn in different ways, and some kids do work well with their iPods attached, but you need to monitor the output. Are they actually working productively?”

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