From kindergarten to the final years of high school, recent research suggests that some students are getting excessive amounts of homework.
In turn, when students are pushed to handle a workload that’s out of sync with their development level, it can lead to significant stress — for children and their parents.
Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National PTA (NPTA) support a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” and setting a general limit on after-school studying.
For kids in first grade, that means 10 minutes a night, while high school seniors could get two hours of work per night.
But the most recent study to examine the issue found that kids in early elementary school received about three times the amount of recommended homework.
Published in The American Journal of Family Therapy, the 2015 study surveyed more than 1,100 parents in Rhode Island with school-age children.
The researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night.
Kindergarteners received 25 minutes of homework per night, on average. But according to the standards set by the NEA and NPTA, they shouldn’t receive any at all.
A contributing editor of the study, Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, told CNN that she found it “absolutely shocking” to learn that kindergarteners had that much homework.
And all those extra assignments may lead to family stress, especially when parents with limited education aren’t confident in their ability to help kids with the work.
The researchers reported that family fights about homework were 200 percent more likely when parents didn’t have a college degree.
Some parents, in fact, have decided to opt out of the whole thing. The Washington Post reported in 2016 that some parents have just instructed their younger children not to do their homework assignments.
They report the no-homework policy has taken the stress out of their afternoons and evenings. In addition, it's been easier for their children to participate in after-school activities.
This new parental directive may be healthier for children, too.
Experts say there may be real downsides for young kids who are pushed to do more homework than the “10 minutes per grade” standard.
“The data shows that homework over this level is not only not beneficial to children’s grades or GPA, but there’s really a plethora of evidence that it’s detrimental to their attitude about school, their grades, their self-confidence, their social skills, and their quality of life,” Donaldson-Pressman told CNN.
Read more: Less math and science homework beneficial to middle school students »
Consequences for high school students
Other studies have found that high school students may also be overburdened with homework — so much that it’s taking a toll on their health.
In 2013, research conducted at Stanford University found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance in their lives, and alienation from society.
That study, published in The Journal of Experimental Education, suggested that any more than two hours of homework per night is counterproductive.
However, students who participated in the study reported doing slightly more than three hours of homework each night, on average.
To conduct the study, researchers surveyed more than 4,300 students at 10 high-performing high schools in upper middle-class California communities. They also interviewed students about their views on homework.
When it came to stress, more than 70 percent of students said they were “often or always stressed over schoolwork,” with 56 percent listing homework as a primary stressor. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.
The researchers asked students whether they experienced physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss, and stomach problems.
More than 80 percent of students reported having at least one stress-related symptom in the past month, and 44 percent said they had experienced three or more symptoms.
The researchers also found that spending too much time on homework meant that students were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills. Students were more likely to forgo activities, stop seeing friends or family, and not participate in hobbies.
Many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.
"Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good," said Denise Pope, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education, and a co-author of a study.
Read more: Should schools screen children for mental health problems? »
Working as hard as adults
A smaller New York University study published last year noted similar findings.
It focused more broadly on how students at elite private high schools cope with the combined pressures of school work, college applications, extracurricular activities, and parents’ expectations.
That study, which appeared in Frontiers in Psychology, noted serious health effects for high schoolers, such as chronic stress, emotional exhaustion, and alcohol and drug use.
The research involved a series of interviews with students, teachers, and administrators, as well as a survey of a total of 128 juniors from two private high schools.
About half of the students said they received at least three hours of homework per night. They also faced pressure to take college-level classes and excel in activities outside of school.
Many students felt they were being asked to work as hard as adults, and noted that their workload seemed inappropriate for their development level. They reported having little time for relaxing or creative activities.
More than two-thirds of students said they used alcohol and drugs, primarily marijuana, to cope with stress.
The researchers expressed concern that students at high-pressure high schools can get burned out before they even get to college.
“School, homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, repeat — that’s what it can be for some of these students,” said Noelle Leonard, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the New York University College of Nursing, and lead study author, in a press release.
Read more: Lack of mental healthcare for children reaches ‘crisis’ level »
What can be done?
Experts continue to debate the benefits and drawbacks of homework.
But according to an article published this year in Monitor on Psychology, there’s one thing they agree on: the quality of homework assignments matters.
In the Stanford study, many students said that they often did homework they saw as "pointless" or "mindless."
Pope, who co-authored that study, argued that homework assignments should have a purpose and benefit, and should be designed to cultivate learning and development.
It’s also important for schools and teachers to stick to the 10-minutes per grade standard.
In an interview with Monitor on Psychology, Pope pointed out that students can learn challenging skills even when less homework is assigned.
Pope described one teacher she worked with who taught advanced placement biology, and experimented by dramatically cutting down homework assignments. First the teacher cut homework by a third, and then cut the assignments in half.
The students’ test scores didn’t change.
“You can have a rigorous course and not have a crazy homework load,” Pope said.
Editor’s Note: The story was originally published on March 11, 2014. It was updated by Jenna Flannigan on August 11, 2016 and then updated again on April 11, 2017 by David Mills.
When it comes to school stress, Hannah O'Brien has seen some extremes.
The 17-year-old junior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, has witnessed students crying in class after getting low test scores, she says, while others have gone without sleep a few nights in a row to keep up with homework.
"I personally have seen so many of my closest friends absolutely break -- emotionally, physically, mentally -- under stress, and I knew a lot of it was coming from school work," she says.
School stress is serious business. A 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report suggests that for children and teens, too much work and too little play could backfire down the road. "Colleges are seeing a generation of students who appear to be manifesting increased signs of depression, anxiety, perfectionism and stress," the report says.
Young Kids Feel School Stress, Too
A great deal of the pressure and anxiety about school stems from the college admissions race, O'Brien says.
"Students are being really pushed to make great academic gains, with No Child Left Behind," says Jim Bierma, a middle-school counselor in St. Paul, Minnesota. "A lot of students are stressed out about college already - in junior high."
But younger kids feel pressured, too. Even among her elementary students in Harrisburg, Arkansas, school counselor Joy Holt sees academic stress. Young kids are terrified of failing the standardized tests now emphasized heavily during the school year, she says.
"Even the little ones, they know how important [testing] is, and they don't want to fail," Holt says. "They cry. They get sick. Students have actually thrown up on their test booklets."
Of course, not all students find the classroom such a crucible. But in today's landscape of high-stakes testing and frenzied college admissions, experts worry that school stress takes a toll on too many.
Here's what parents can do to help ease the burden.
1. Watch for signs of school-related stress.
With teens, parents should watch for stress-related behaviors, like purposely cutting themselves, or expressions of despair or hopelessness, however casual the comments may sound. "Those are off-hand remarks that you need to take seriously," Pope says.