How much homework is too much?

Grade-by-grade guidelines for what kids can reasonably be expected to do.

By GreatSchools Staff

The lowdown on homework

In the wake of No Child Left Behind, some U.S. schools are putting more emphasis on homework. But the push for higher academic standards has left many parents wondering about the value of their children's assignments — especially if the grownups are the ones who end up frantically finishing reports or art projects. Just how much homework should kids be doing anyway?

Adding to the confusion, the sheer number of schools with varying curricula can pose a challenge for parents looking for consistency. Even within a single district or school, homework expectations can vary widely depending on the whims of teachers. While some first-graders are slaving away for two hours each night, fourth-graders might be getting by with almost no outside work. So what role does homework play in learning? And how much is too much — or too little?

According to Harris Cooper, a homework expert and psychology professor at Duke University, homework is valuable to a point, and researchers have found that some kinds provide more benefits than others. Homework may be most useful as a way to develop study habits and practice skills that can be acquired through repetition, he says. Think spelling, vocabulary, multiplication tables, number placement, and grammar rules for foreign languages: "The biggest homework effects do come from these kinds of skill areas."

As for what constitutes an appropriate amount, one easy-to-remember tip is Cooper’s "10-minute rule," which calls for 10 minutes of homework per day per grade and is endorsed by the National Education Association. Looking for more grade-by-grade guidelines? GreatSchools weighs in with this primer on how much homework is best.

Kindergarten

None. The fact is that a lot of kindergarten teachers assign homework. When New York Times Magazine writer Peggy Orenstein took an informal survey of her local schools, she found that every one boasted daily homework requirements for kindergartners. But studies have shown homework has few benefits for young kids and could even have negative effects. (In The Battle Over Homework, Cooper found that assigning homework in elementary school did not improve test scores and that too much of it decreased motivation.) Then there's Finland, where students perform at or near the top of all countries on standardized tests, and children don't even begin school until age 7.

Instead of worrying about homework in kindergarten, involve your children in family activities to boost their brainpower, like talking, playing pretend, and reading together before bed. Just setting aside time for conversations can be an incredibly valuable way to connect with your child.

First grade

0-10 minutes. Again, the jury's still out on whether homework helps at this young of an age. If it does, it's in the hard-to-measure areas of study skills and time management. Reviewing the current homework debate, Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon has made the case that no elementary school student should be required to do homework. So spend time playing, talking, and interacting as a family. With some brainstorming, everyday activities like eating or shopping can be turned into opportunities for learning.

Second grade

0-20 minutes. In second grade continue to cook together, play games as a family, and spend time outside. Depending on the school and teacher, your child’s homework may increase somewhat. That's OK, but don’t let your kid spend excessive amounts of time on assignments — more than 20 minutes per night is probably overkill.

On the other hand, second grade is not too early to encourage your child to start reading age-appropriate books on his or her own, whether they’re pretty picture books or the Harry Potter series. Either way, it’s important for children to develop solid reading habits at this age. A good rule of thumb is at least 15 minutes of reading time every night (together or alone), even if it’s not part of their homework. Know your child's interests and recommend a few books to match. Studies have shown that even a little bit of time spent reading increases children’s comprehension, vocabulary, and understanding of the larger world.

Third grade

0-30 minutes. Homework will probably increase somewhat in third grade, as will the expectation that your child begin mastering a lot of math, reading, and spelling facts (which good homework habits can help with). Still, assignments for third-graders should remain low-key. Reading, collecting dandelions for a science project, and spending a few minutes building vocabulary are all good examples of reasonable projects.

If your child’s assignments routinely last more than half an hour or cause excessive frustration, you may want to speak to his or her teacher about working out a reasonable alternative. It may be a sign of two things: Your child’s teacher believes in a lot of homework (maybe more than studies find is effective), or your child may be struggling with a learning issue and need extra help.

Fourth grade

0-40 minutes. By fourth grade, you can expect your child to be more independent, keeping track of different assignments and asking for your help only when it’s needed. If your child can’t work alone, you may need to reassess him or her (for learning or emotional issues) as well as the teacher’s expectations.

As a parent, it's important to be attuned to your child's needs, and some kids benefit from more emotional support when it comes to homework. Explain the importance of homework and, if possible, the real-world applications of the assignments. It won’t benefit your child if you give all the answers — even to a problem he or she has been wrestling with. In fact, it may frustrate your fourth-grader more and undermine his or her confidence. Parents should make sure kids understand the concepts being taught in their assignments.

Fifth grade

Up to 50 minutes. By fifth grade, you probably won't need to monitor your child's homework as closely. Good study habits can be developed organically. Help your child stay organized with a planner and notebooks for completing assignments as well as a clean, well-lit place to work.

If assignments are getting long, you may want to keep an eye on your kid for signs of frustration or tiredness. If you notice either, that could be an indication of too much homework or a learning problem that needs attention. Through more-complex reading, math, and science assignments, fifth-graders hone their basic skills while increasing their understanding of U.S. history and culture.

Middle school

Up to 90 minutes. In middle school there's more separation between subject areas, so expect your child to have different teachers for math and humanities classes. Some schools also offer electives. Though teachers know their students are taking other classes, it's easy for the workload to pile up. Keep an eye on what's being asked of your child — and help him or her get organized.

Following the 10-minute rule, Cooper recommends middle-schoolers spend anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes completing their assignments. To help your tween perform his or her best, make sure there’s a quiet, private study space at home.

High school

Up to two hours. "The strongest case for homework is at the high school level," says John Buell, the author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning and Closing the Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time. But Buell cautions that even at this stage "many scholars suggest that capable and well-motivated students do homework rather than homework yielding better academic achievement."

Your teen must learn to handle competing assignments in different subject areas — from geometry to AP U.S. history. Finding a way to juggle the myriad demands of high school is key to succeeding in college and in life.