Jeanette slumps on my couch while Collin sits on the office floor, building with Legos. Dark circles under her eyes swell a bit as she tears up, describing how she and Collin battled over homework for hours last night. She finally gave up in despair at around 11 pm. Both are exhausted.

Collin is seven years old — a second grader. He has ADHD and some anxiety, and getting homework done has been a challenge all school year. This is not the first very late night for them. The homework is supposed to take about 30 to 40 minutes — 20 minutes of sheets or activities and 20 minutes of reading — but the entire evening is consumed with the goal of getting it done.

Most days Collin does not get home until 4 or 5 pm because he has something after school every day — scouts or soccer or an after-school program when parents work late. With dinner to make, homework does not get started until 6 pm. They try to start right away but he fusses and whines, avoids and dawdles. There is screaming and crying on both ends. The goal of bath by 7:30 and bedtime by 8 or 8:30 is missed most nights. Collin tells me he hates school because he hates homework.

The teacher has expressed concerns about the homework not being done or being incomplete or sloppily done. She has made the excellent recommendations of a specified homework time and place and limiting screen time until after homework is done. But there is still something wrong and Collin’s exhaustion during the day affects his behavior; he is irritable and more impulsive than usual. Focus is harder than usual.

From the angle of child brain development, the homework demands on children are a poor fit for kids’ health from every angle — physical, emotional, behavioral, social. Especially if a child struggles and takes some extra time to do the work, there is just not enough time in the day to get it done. We have to allow time for after school activities and for plain old downtime — doing nothing, talking to and seeing friends outside of organized sports or clubs, spending some relaxing time with family that isn’t always timed (for example, “We can have 10 minutes to chat but then you have to start your homework.”). Sleep is essential but often homework takes priority.

Family lives are stressed enough — parents’ work lives, community obligations, household chores and demands, kids’ needs. School is a long day. Work is a long day. Everyone is drained at the end of it. Everyone needs a break, and many families just don’t get any downtime at all during the week. And for some of these families the time is filled with extreme stress due to homework demands.

I recommend to Jeanette that homework take a backseat to bedtime. They should spend some planned and measured time on the homework and reading but then it is to be put away even if it is not done. The solutions offered at school are often about how to make the child do the work — what can be rearranged to make sure it gets done. But this misses the bigger picture. I suggest to Jeanette, as I do with many families, that we work with the teacher/school to consider modifications so that Collin can master his homework without extreme distress.

One straightforward accommodation is simply reducing the amount of homework — fewer math problems, fewer sentences to write, break up the spelling words over the course of the week, ten minutes of reading instead of 20. Another strategy is to give an amount of time to each subject, and whatever gets done in that time is enough for the night. While parents are encouraged to be active participants in homework and support it getting done, there is a point at which it is okay to shut down the work for the night. It is okay if it is not all finished or not all correct. It is helpful for the teacher to know where the student is struggling, so the teacher can adjust instruction or alter supports based on the child’s needs.

Homework, especially in younger children, but even into high school, needs to be a part of life outside of school, but when it is hijacking every spare moment it is damaging and counterproductive. Some children meet the expectations without excessive distress, but many, many kids and families are overwhelmed much of the time with homework demands. We have to expand the discussion to consider solutions that are not just telling the child and family to “Try harder” or “Do more.” We harm our kids and our families this way.

Burnout and alienation from school are huge problems. When we just keep blaming the children and families for not getting homework done and we don’t look at the reality of what we are asking of them, we are setting up children and families to fail.

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