The Bigger Story Behind Homework and Stress

Saying the word “homework” provokes a reaction in just about everyone, and from my personal experience in this district, there are those people who want less of it and those who encourage more. It is without a doubt a volatile topic. It is also a cyclical one. The value attached to homework can vary by district or even by school. It is, for a district like ours, a part of the culture of work expectations.

In my time as principal here, homework has been addressed in a number of ways over my last sixteen years. We created a list of “no homework nights,” removed all projects that required students to meet outside of school time, and prohibited homework or studying for an assessment during vacations. No more than two assessments could be scheduled by a team on one day. The school year was divided into trimesters, instead of quarters, to allow more time for instruction and assessment. Our handbook was updated to provide a rationale for homework and identified parameters, where none existed before, about how much homework can be assigned.

The time it would take a child to finish all of the homework could be more or less on a given day, considering the complexity of the tasks, the number of content areas assigning homework, the attentiveness, ability level and motivation of students, and the setting and supervision by parents. Today’s ubiquitous technology tools within reach of our students guarantee distraction and impact the time necessary to complete the work.

You have probably seen or even signed the petition to request that our guidelines for homework become more consistent with recent research on the topic. I am always open to hearing ideas, conversing with people on these relevant topics, and considering what is best for our school. For this reason, I implemented a School Leadership Team when I was first appointed principal that meets several times a year for the purpose of improving what we do. In fact, the Leadership Team recently commissioned a survey which has already been administered to teachers and students. A parent survey is in the works.

From my perspective, both as an educator and a parent, homework serves an important purpose. What I have learned from reading through the comments by parents on the petition is that homework has become a source of stress for our families. Before deciding what to do about homework as a source of stress, we need to have an honest conversation about the bigger picture, i.e., other ways that schools, parents, extracurricular activities, technology, college aspirations, and peers increase the stresses on our students as well as the factors that drive the amount of homework.

While I believe in researching this problem, gathering data from surveys, and talking to people – and that we have to be open to change with regard to our homework expectations – I do not believe that reducing or eliminating homework will be a panacea to solve the problem of stress.

Once upon a time, stress was not always a bad thing. It seemed to be a natural ingredient in taking a risk to find out what we were capable of; adults in our lives would say that they would be worried if we were not nervous and that would make us better prepared.

What is so vastly different today is the number of commitments even middle school students have after school and the need to excel in everything. Kids today devote more time to more activities, including school work, music, clubs, service, and sports. It becomes challenging to find time for religious, family, social or recreational activities, as well as down time and rest. 

Our students are expected to achieve, and there is a good deal of pressure from students themselves and also parents that students participate in accelerated coursework. These courses are designed to add challenge, complexity and additional work in school and at home. No discussion about homework can ignore that a large segment of our population wants to participate in these rigorous courses.

Through their petitions, parents have started a conversation and it makes sense to broaden the dialogue to include teachers and other professionals so that we can establish consensus on what we – our school and families – can and should do to promote wellness.

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