Dear Extra Credit:

At what point does the need to push our children to succeed academically, perhaps even surpass students at neighboring institutions and states, weigh against soaring depression and suicide thoughts? Is there no end in sight? These children have no "down time" because they are trying to cram in volunteer and leadership time, part-time jobs, athletic teams/clubs and church activities while trying to take a challenging course load. They barely have time to sleep, much less have time to socialize with friends.

Lisa Lombardozzi

Herndon

Herndon High School parent

Every family is different, as is every school and school district. If our children are showing evident signs of harmful stress, we take action by reorganizing our days, discussing our priorities and maybe even seeking professional help.

Yet the problem of stress from academic pressure appears to affect only a small minority of teenagers. Only about 10 percent are competing frantically for spaces in selective colleges. That figure may be somewhat higher in Fairfax County, which because of its great schools draws more than its share of academically oriented families, but as a whole American children have relatively little homework and plenty of down time, which they are filling with lots of socializing and television watching.

The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles reported that only 34.9 percent of incoming college freshmen in 2001 said they did six or more hours of high school homework a week, the lowest figure since 1987. A CBS report two years ago said homework for children 12 and younger had increased more than 50 percent, but it turned out to be like my bowling score -- a 50 percent increase sounds big until you learn that my previous average was a 53.

The actual increase in homework from 1981 to 1997 was 59.5 percent, according to the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, but the actual time spent per week on homework in 1997 was only two hours and 14 minutes a week, or less than half an hour each school night. There is no indication of a big jump in homework in the seven years since, and some studies indicate television takes five or six times as many hours out of each child's week.

Janine Bempechat, in her 2000 book, "Getting Our Kids Back on Track: Educating Children for the Future," had useful advice on homework. She noted research showing that homework has no effect on achievement in early elementary grades and not much effect in the higher elementary grades but does raise achievement in middle school and high school. Middle schoolers do better if they study at home five to 10 hours a week, but more than that doesn't add anything. The greatest benefits from homework occur for high schoolers who study five to 10 hours a week, and students who do more than that experience additional gains.

So should we forget about homework in the first and second grades? Bempechat says no, for an intriguing reason. Children need to develop habits of work, she says, and it is likely to be easier if they start early with appropriately small obligations.

As for the threat of suicide, the numbers are scary. In 2000, 1,921 youths ages 10 to 19 died of suicide in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the data indicate that the increased emphasis on academic performance in high school had little to do with it. Youth suicide increased dramatically in the 1980s, but the rates among high schoolers have actually declined in recent years. In 2000, the suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-olds was actually slightly lower than in 1981.

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