How The Learning Habit Is Changing American Homework

Books such asby Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and the research behind them, are inspiring parents to take a look at the conventional wisdom behind giving children unlimited amounts of time to complete homework assignments.
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In an earlier post, Balanced Homework Habits, I discussed the need for homework reform in the United States. Books such as The Learning Habit by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and the research behind them, are inspiring parents to take a look at the conventional wisdom behind giving children unlimited amounts of time to complete homework assignments.

Stephanie is not just a colleague, she is also my co-author. Now, The Learning Habit is in every store, and Stephanie's research and recommendations to parents are being discussed everywhere from The Today Show to CNN. Just last Friday, the book sold out on Amazon (not to worry, more are being shipped).

I sat down with Stephanie to talk about her research and her advice to parents.


Q: What has been the most surprising piece of research you can share with parents?

A: That kindergarten children have three times the amount of homework load as that recommended by the NEA; of ten six times that of high school students. They have 25 minutes of homework a night. Do you know how hard it is to get a 5-year-old to sit still for 25 minutes?

This is a very real problem in our culture. Kids are starting off school and hating it! We are raising the academic standards in this country, and then sending children home with assignments that require a parent's assistance. When parents can't even understand the directions, or can't be there to help, everyone feels stupid and angry. The Brown researchers found levels of family stress surrounding homework to be detrimental to the emotional, social and physical health of children -- and their families. It was 200 percent higher for families whose parents do not hold a college degree.

Q: So what would you recommend for parents?

A: Decide on a developmentally appropriate amount of time for children to spend on homework. The NEA recommends 10 minutes per grade starting in first grade -- none for kindergarten. So, a second grader should spend 20 minutes on schoolwork, and then move on to sports or another activity which is equally important to their development.

If your child can't do the assignment or the parent doesn't understand the directions, have your child read instead. Write a note to the teacher and ask him or her to review it with your child then next day. Homework should not be ruining family time, critical to a child's mental health during formative years.

Q: But what if the child really wants to finish the assignment, do you stop them?

A: This is the time to speak to a child's teacher. The challenge for teachers is that they don't know how long the assignment is taking your child. The assumption is that all children learn at the same pace, but they don't. Then, when it takes your own child a long time to complete an assignment, you start to worry that maybe there is something wrong with them!

Write a letter to the teacher letting them know how long homework assignments are taking your child. They probably aren't even aware of the issue! The goal is not to focus on a single assignment -- it is to create healthy lifelong habits for children.

Q: My oldest child is in the Coast Guard Academy, and he is never given additional time for his studies. He said it was challenging at the beginning, but now he is learning how to better manage his time. Do you find that by keeping homework time-limited, children learn these "time-management skills" at a younger age?

A: The biggest challenge children I work with face is that they do not have time management skills. "Work until you are finished" doesn't teach a child how to balance multiple activities. Kids should be busy, that's part of being a kid. They need to learn how to cut out distractions (especially all electronics) and focus on one job at a time. A parent's role is to provide the quiet homework area area and resist the impulse to "help" or "rescue" their child. Kids need to experience taking responsibility for their work; otherwise, they won't develop confidence in their own abilities.

Q: Have educators reached out to you about The Learning Habit? What have you heard that has surprised you?

A: I spent four years working on the research for The Learning Habit. The way homework is currently structured in the Unites States, the burden frequently falls on parents to tutor their kids and help them figure it out. That's the way it is usually explained to parents. Since the American Journal of Family Therapy and the American Psychological Association published our research last week, the topic of homework reform is now being discussed. Homework reform has always been my long-term goal educational goal. Seeing this become a reality is exciting; not just for families but also for teachers.

Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman is an internationally recognized expert on family dynamics. As a therapist and the clinical director of New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, she served as the editor for the study "Homework and Family Stress" from Brown University School of Medicine published in "Homework and Family Stress: With Consideration of Parents' Self Confidence, Educational Level, and Cultural Background" The American Journal of Family Therapy.

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