Homework vs. Sleep: A Cause of Stress in Teens


Homework stresses kids out; there is no way around this fact. The combination of heavy homework loads and early school start times is a major cause of sleep deprivation and consequent stress in teens, but this can be a problem even in younger kids.

When we moved to Connecticut, I was struck by the perception of some parents that my son’s classmates that he and his peers were not getting enough homework. I was shocked; these kids were in first grade at the time. Fortunately, my son’s teacher have resisted this pressure.

When I started looking into the evidence,  I was surprised to find that there is not much evidence that homework before high school benefits children.  I really love this article by Justin Coulson, a parenting expert and psychologist, detailing why he bans his school age children from doing homework, concluding from the evidence that homework does more harm than good. A recent study showed that some elementary school children had three times the recommended homework load.

Sleep deprivation in teenagers is an epidemic here in the US, with up to 90% of teenagers not getting enough sleep on school nights. The most important factor causing this is school start times that are too early for teenagers, who are hardwired to go to bed later and get up later compared with younger children (or grown-ups, for that matter). I’ve discussed this at length on my blog.

Another factor which can cause sleep deprivation is homework. Some studies suggest that the amount of homework which teenagers receive has stayed constant over time. I don’t pretend to be an educational expert, but I frequently see children and teenagers who have hours and hours of homework every night. This seems most common in teenagers who are striving to get into competitive colleges. This is piled on top of multiple extracurricular activities– sports, clubs, music lessons, and public service. Of course, the patients and families I see in clinic tend to be the people with the greatest difficulties with sleep. So I decided to look into this issue a bit more.

How common is excessive homework, anyway?

The recommendation of the National Education Association is that children received no more than ten minutes of homework per grade level. So a high school senior would max out at two hours of homework per night. An analysis published by the Brookings Institute concluded that there has been little change in the amount of homework assigned between 1984 and 2012. About 15% of juniors and seniors did have greater than two hours of homework per night. Interestingly, the author also referenced a study which showed that about 15% of parents were concerned about excessive homework as well. This would suggest that the problem of excessive homework is occurring only in about one in six teenagers.

There is a perception that homework loads are excessive. This certainly may be the case in some communities or in high pressure schools. Teenagers certainly think that they have too much homework; here is a well researched piece written by a teenager who questions the utility of large amounts of homework.

Some generalities emerge from the educational research:

  • Older students get more homework than younger students
  • Race may play a role, with Asian students doing more homework
  • Less experienced teachers assign more homework
  • Math classes are the classes most likely to assign homework

How beneficial is homework?

The US is a relatively homework intense country, but does not score as well as countries where homework is less common. In high school age kids, homework does have benefits. However, 70 minutes total seems to be the sweet spot in terms of benefits; homework in excess of this amount is associated with decreasing test scores.

Homework clearly can have benefits– development of good organizational habits, review of materials, and improving skills such as reading and critical thinking. Homework should be assigned, however, with the goal of helping children learning, not because the teacher or school has decided that a certain amount should be assigned nightly, or because some parents want their children to get more homework. Alfie Kohn, an educational leader and a big critic of homework. published a great article on rethinking homework. Here’s another thoughtful perspective on homework by a history teacher named Glen Whitman.

When To Worry About Excessive Homework

Obviously, I am not an educational expert. My review of this topic suggests that most children do not have an undue burden of homework. Thus, the best way to help teenagers get more sleep is to start school later. However, there are a subset of teenagers who may have an excessive amount of homework. I would define that is over two hours of homework a night, or an amount of homework that keeps children up late at night with regularity, especially given that getting enough sleep is critical for learning. No child should have to regularly decide between homework and sleep. These factors can contribute to excessive homework:

  • Unreasonable amounts of assigned homework (10 minutes/grade level)
  • Excessive extracurricular activities leading to a late homework start time
  • Learning problems such as ADHD or dyslexia, especially if they have not yet been diagnosed.

Some final advice:

  • Teenagers: If you cannot get your homework done at night without staying up past ten or eleven on school nights, please talk to your parents about this. They can help you. Also, recognize that there are diminishing returns; I got the worst grade I ever got in college on a biochemistry exam after pulling my one and only all-nighter. Going to sleep earlier on the night before a test might be more beneficial than sacrificing sleep to study.
  • Parents: Be conscious of how late your teens are staying up and how much time they are spending on their homework. If it seems excessive, please review your child’s schedule with him or her, and have a frank conversation with your child’s teachers.
  • Educators: Ask your students how long they are spending on homework. If they seem sleepy in class, talk about this issue with them and their parents. Try to make sure that the culture of your school is such that homework is assigned for clear educational benefits, and not simply for the sake of doing so.

I would love to hear your perspectives on these issues. Of course, to paraphrase “Bones” McCoy, “I’m a sleep doctor, not a teacher.” However, if I was asking my patients to do a nightly treatment that required an hour or more of their time, I would have to be absolutely sure that it was helpful. I’m not convinced that homework meets that standard.  Do I have this issue all wrong? Let me know in the comments.  Is the homework load excessive in your town? I would love to hear.

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