As my children have gotten older, we’ve slowly dipped our feet into the pool that is never-ending homework. For the most part, I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised with how our children’s school has handled homework. There hasn’t been an overwhelming amount so far, allowing my children to come home from school and properly decompress and play.
Our experience, however, doesn’t seem to be the norm. Two years ago, a study in The American Journal of Family Therapy found that most children, even in the elementary school years, are getting significantly too much homework.
The recommendations set by the National Education Association state that a child should have (in theory) 10 minutes of homework for each grade. So a child in first grade could expect to get 10 minutes of homework, a child in second grade, 20 minutes, and so on.
Most children in the United States, however, are getting far more than that. And the unsettling truth is that when it comes to homework, too much may be hurting your child’s health. Here are some of the ways homework could be affecting the health of your kids and your family.
When children come home to immediately settle down at the table to do homework, guess what they aren’t doing? Being active.
One study found that some children who self-reported having 30 minutes or more of homework every night also reported concerning levels of “high stress.” Boys in this study who reported higher levels of stress were more overweight than those who reported lower levels of stress. That stress, researchers surmise, may be causing hormonal changes that contribute to weight gain. Hormones released when the body is stressed or sleep deprived contribute to weight gain because the body thinks it’s in danger. It then tries to preserve its source of energy by storing fat. The high levels of stress associated with too much homework, along with the natural decrease in physical activity, could be contributing to the rising epidemic of obesity in our nation’s youth.
Our mental health and physical health are linked, so you can’t have one without the other. One study at Stanford found that excessive homework in teens (sometimes over three hours a day!) was linked to physical health problems as well as high levels of stress and disrupted sleep. It’s a vicious cycle.
The American Psychological Association explains that excessive homework causing sleep deprivation is linked to a myriad of scary health outcomes, including:
- increased rates of substance abuse
- car crashes
- lowered immune system defenses
As you probably are already well aware, homework for your child can stress out the entire family. Studies show that the more homework kids have, the more stress parents and caregivers tend to experience. And the downward spiral continues. That, in turn, tends to stress out the rest of the family, too. I know that when I’m trying to cook dinner, pack lunches for the next day, and get laundry going so my daughter has her favorite blanket to sleep with that night, it’s incredibly stressful to try to sit down and focus enough to figure out third grade math. (And yes, I admit, it’s confusing, OK?)
The same study also found that homework can be stressful for parents who (like me) may doubt their abilities to actually help their kids in certain subject areas. So, if you struggled with math as a kid, helping your child with their math homework isn’t going to be your most stellar moment as a parent. It only makes sense. Unfortunately, this can cause more stress for you and your child.
Again and again, studies show that excess homework is not effective in improving academic performance. What’s more, it’s linked to many other negative health outcomes, including stress, weight gain, and poor cognitive performance. If you’re struggling with a school that places a high homework load on your children, here are some helpful tips:
- Get involved in the parental association at school.
- Set up a meeting with the principal to discuss the school’s homework policies.
- If you can’t change how much homework you child receives, reassess your family calendar to see if there’s any room to move activities around. Does your elementary aged child really need those soccer lessons? Could you delegate any other tasks?
The bottom line is that putting your family first can be good for many reasons, including your own health.
How much physical activity should kids aim to get after school if they’ve been sitting for most of the day?
Children 6 years and older should get at least one hour per day of vigorous physical activity. The best way for them to get this is through active play. Organized sports and scheduled activities can be an easy way to accomplish this. But unplanned, child-driven play may be even better, as it uses more imagination and might be less stressful if your child is already overscheduled. In your quest to carve out enough time for homework, look to decrease screen time while making active play and adequate sleep a priority.Karen Gill, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.