Volume 43 Issue 5
Academic Demands, Homework, and Social–Emotional Health
By Melissa Holland, Hilary F. Sisson & Vicki Abeles
The social–emotional health of students is moving to the forefront of our attention in schools. This comes at a time when there are also intense demands on our youth in their academics, including an increased focus on grades, standardized test scores, and larger amounts of assigned homework (Tucker, 2011). This interplay between the rise in anxiety and depression and scholastic demands has been postulated frequently in the literature (Kackar, Shumow, Schmidt, & Grezetich, 2011; Katz, Buzukashvili, & Feingold, 2012).
Since the 1980s, there has been a gradual, yet steady increase in academic demands placed on our students and in the amount of homework assigned (Kohn, 2006). With the authorization of No Child Left Behind, and now the new Common Core requirements, teachers have felt added pressures to keep up with the tougher standards movement (Tokarski, 2011) by increasing the amount of homework assigned as a way to keep pace with political demands (Cooper, 2007). However, little evidence supports this trend. In fact, there is a significant body of research that demonstrates the lack of correlation between homework and student success (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Wolchover (2012) found an inverse relationship between the amount of time spent on homework and students’ standardized test scores. International comparison studies of achievement show that national achievement is higher in countries that assign less homework (Baines & Slutsky, 2009; Kohn, 2006). However, in many schools, children even at the elementary level are receiving upwards of several hours of homework a night, interfering with family life, social time, and the ability to participate in extracurricular activities, such as play and sports (Vatterott, 2009).
Because many parents, students, and teachers normalize increasing academic pressure and homework demands as a part of school life, few question the value of its content or recognize the stress that it may cause (Kohn, 2006). Parents and school personnel are also often unaware, or perhaps minimize, the social and emotional impacts such demands create for our youth. Sleep deprivation, stress, loss of downtime and play time, compromised mental health, and drug use are just a few of the many emotional and physical consequences of academic demands on students (Bennett & Kalish, 2006). There are many descriptive case examples provided by parents as to the strain academic demands and homework place on their child’s well-being and on family life, and research supports such claims (Little & Garber, 2004). And, ironically, research has shown that reducing academic pressures can actually increase students’ academic success and cognitive abilities (APA, 2012). Very little of this research, however, currently impacts policy change to help reduce academic demands made on children, and, consequently, their mental and physical well-being continues to be compromised.
In 2009, the hit documentary Race to Nowhere challenged the wisdom of our pressure-cooker education culture and exposed a silent epidemic in our schools: students pushed to the brink by overscheduling, overtesting, and the relentless pressure to achieve. Many of the students in the film pointed to excessive homework as a primary cause of their stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. Since the film’s release, the filmmakers have formed a nonprofit and partnered with education experts, including Etta Kralovec, PhD, Harris Cooper, PhD, Alfie Kohn, and Sara Bennett to develop Healthy Homework Guidelines.
Designed to better support learning and a spirit of engagement in our classrooms, and to remedy the academic stress and anxiety that accompanies current homework practices and policies, the guidelines recommended by the nonprofit Race to Nowhere (Race to Nowhere, Bring, n.d.) are that homework should be completely eliminated in the elementary grades and severely curtailed in middle and high school. Even then, it should be assigned as an exception, not a rule. At a minimum, the guidelines recommend that schools take the following steps to restructure and improve their approaches to designing and assigning homework.
Homework should advance a spirit of learning. Educators at all grade levels should assign homework only when such assignments:
- Demonstrably advance a spirit of learning, curiosity, and inquiry among students.
- Demonstrably provide a unique learning opportunity or experience that cannot be had within the confines of the school setting or school day.
- Are not intended to enhance rote skill rehearsal or mastery. Rehearsal and repetition assignments should be completed within the confines of the school day, if they are required at all.
- Are not intended as a disciplinary or punitive measure, or as a means of fostering competition among or assessment of students.
Homework should be student-directed. Educators at all grade levels, but particularly in elementary and middle grades, should limit take-home assignments to:
- At-home reading chosen by the student.
- Project-based work chosen by the student.
- Experiential learning that integrates the student’s existing interests and family commitments.
- Work that can be completed without the assistance of a sibling, caregiver, or parent.
Homework should promote a balanced schedule. Educators at all grade levels should avoid assigning or requiring homework:
- On nonschool nights, including weekends, school holidays, or winter or summer breaks.
- On the nights of major or all-school events, concerts, or sports.
- When a child is sick or absent from school.
- When it conflicts with a child’s parental, family, religious, or community obligations.
- When a parent opts a child out of homework.
This kind of support and restructuring will help us to ensure that homework policies can better:
- Support learning and engagement among students, regardless of family background, income level, or caregivers’ educational status.
- Narrow the achievement gap by ensuring that instruction, rehearsal, mastery, and remediation occur primarily at school and in the classroom, rather than at home, where resources and instructional support are less equitably distributed.
- Enhance family engagement with schools and students by providing parents and caregivers more opportunities to influence and collaborate on homework policy and practice.
- Provide time for students to develop a rich array of extracurricular personal interests and to engage in meaningful family, religious, community, creative, or athletic activities outside of school.
To further the effort to restore balance in students’ lives, the Race to Nowhere team has also launched the Ban Busy: Time to Thrive (Race to Nowhere, Ban, n.d.) campaign. The initiative calls on communities to rethink the demands we put on students’ time in and out of the classroom. You can learn more at www.racetonowhere.com/banbusy.
We will explore in more depth the ways that today’s academic demands are affecting students’ health and learning at the 2015 NASP convention in Orlando, Florida. Vicki Abeles, the director of Race to Nowhere and a strong advocate for educational reform, will be screening her film with a group discussion to follow. This group discussion will provide practical tips, resources, and recommendations to take back to our school districts now. Please join us for this informative and lively event. February 19, 8:00–10:00 p.m., Northern Hemisphere Ballroom C of the Dolphin Hotel.
American Psychological Association (2012, March 12). Reducing academic pressure may help children succeed [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2012/03/academic-pressure.aspx
Baines, L. A. & Slutsky, R. (2009). Developing the sixth sense: Play. Educational Horizons, 872 97–100.
Bennett, S. & Kalish, N. (2006). The case against homework: How homework is hurting our children and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Crown.
Cooper, H. (2007). The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers and parents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J.C. & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76 1–62.
Kackar, H. Z. (2011). Age and gender differences in adolescent’s homework experiences. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32 70–77.
Katz, I., Buzukashvili, T. & Feingold, L. (2012). Homework stress: Construct validation of a measure. Journal of Experimental Education, 80 405–421.
Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Little, S. & Garber, J. (2004). Interpersonal and achievement orientations and specific stressors predict depressive and aggressive symptoms. Journal of Adolescent Research, 19 63–84.
Race to Nowhere. (n.d.) Bring healthy homework to your school.Retrieved from http://www.racetonowhere.com/bring-healthy-homework-your-school
Race to Nowhere. (n.d.) Ban busy: Time to thrive campaign.Retrieved from www.racetonowhere.com/banbusy
Tokarski, J. E. (2011). Thoughtful homework or busy work: Impact on student success. (Unpublished master’s thesis). San Rafael, CA.: Dominican University of California.
Tucker, J. (2011, August 11). Schools rethink homework’s relevance to learning. San Francisco Chronicle.Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/default/article/Schools-rethink-homeworks-relevance-to-learning-2336691.php
Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Wolchover, N. (2012, March 31). Too much homework can lower test scores, researchers say. Huffington Post.Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/30/too-much-homework-test-scores_n_1391134.html
Melissa Holland, PhD, is an assistant professor and program coordinator of the school psychology program at the California State University, Sacramento, and is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in working with children and their families; Hilary F. Sisson is a school psychologist intern in Sacramento; and Vicki Abeles is the producer and director of Race to Nowhere.