Homework: A Psychologist’s Perspective, Revisited

I am re-posting this article because we are back into the swing of the new school year.  I make no apologies, I am pretty much against homework for young children.  If I ruled the world (and believe me, I sometimes try) there would be no homework for elementary kids, very little for middle schoolers, and reasonable quantities for high school students.  I was extra-pleased to receive this comment from Erika recently:

  I have been an elementary school teacher for 12 years now, and I have taught grades 1 through 6. I haven’t given homework for years. My students are expected to read to or with a family member (depending on reading level), and that’s it. The only exception is unfinished class work due to lack of effort on their part. My collegues all disagree with me, saying that it is crucial for learning time management skills and for getting through the extensive curriculum, but I say that if they give %100 for the school day, they get the rest of the time off. How are they supposed to get the recommended 1 hour of physical activity a day, and fit in family time, imaginative play, lessons/clubs, and downtime? As for time management, they are occasionally assigned projects, which help develop those skills. And believe me, they manage their time quite well when they know they’ll have homework if they don’t complete their class assignments!
I know that my parents love it… I get an incredible reaction at curriculum night. This year, I think a few of them almost clapped.

Glad to see I am not alone!

Here’s the original post:

I have written before about my thoughts on homework.  Mainly, I’m against it.  At least for elementary schoolers, and possibly even for middle schoolers.  I can see the benefits of homework for high schoolers.  Reading literature, working on calculus problems, and writing up science experiments seem like worthy ways to spend time for the high school set.  But “work sheets” for young kids and tweens mostly seem like a waste of time.

In talking to a colleague the other day (who shared my opinion), I tried to come up with a few guidelines for when I think homework might be appropriate for kids.  Admittedly, I am not an educator and don’t share their expertise and perspective on homework (I am open to comments!).  This is what I think from the perspective of a psychologist:

Goals.  There should be a clear goal when homework is given.  Homework for homework’s sake is not a good enough reason for me.  There should be a compelling reason that children need to crack open the books at home.

Priorities.  I am always hopeful that teachers and administrators keep in mind that each minute a child spends doing homework is one less minute they can spend: exercising, spending quality time with family, engaging in music lessons, volunteering in the community, preparing healthy meals, relaxing, engaging in imaginative play, and/or getting the sleep they need to grow and thrive.  Is the homework assigned more important than those things?  If not, then it can probably be skipped.

Development.  In order for homework to be an effective teaching tool, children should be able to remember they have homework, be able to read the assignment and understand the task, complete the assignment with minimal (if any) parental help, put the work in their bag, and return it to their teacher – all without assistance.  If they require more than minimal parental assistance on any of these steps – they are just too young!  Homework should not be an added burden for the parents and/or a daily potential fight between family members – but an adjunct to the hours spent in school.

Teachers, parents, educators – what am I missing?  Are there reasons for assigning homework that I am missing?  Other guidelines you employ when deciding whether or not to assign homework?

The Side Effects of Psychotherapy

The other day I posted a YouTube video by the American Psychological Association (APA) extolling the virtues of psychotherapy. Here’s another video with a similar message: namely that psychotherapy with a licensed psychologist is an effective and safe way to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.  The bonus is that it doesn’t have the side effects that medications do: no dry mouth, too-much-caffeine feelings, sexual problems, to name some of the most common.  Here’s the clip:

As I noted previously, I am a big fan of APA, but don’t totally agree with the assertion that there are no side effects of participating in psychotherapy other than a better, healthier life.  While I certainly believe that can be true, it is also true that some people notice that their mood goes down a bit before improving when starting psychotherapy.  The thought behind this is that sometimes unhappy, painful memories are discussed in the therapy session.  Sometimes “stirring the pot” of sad experiences, emotions, etc can have the “side effect” of causing a low mood.  Of course the hope is that new, healthier coping strategies will be learned and improved mood will soon follow.

Overall these videos are awesome – I love the message!  Just thought I would point out that while psychotherapy is an under-utilized and highly effective treatment option, it is not entirely without a downside.

Disney Characters Get an (Unhealthy?) Makeover

One of my colleagues, Dr. Elaine Ducharme, recently alerted me to an announcement by Barney’s about an upcoming ad campaign featuring

Image via Barneys.com

Disney characters.  She was pretty upset about the drastically slimmed-down Minnie Mouse among others.  Dr. Ducharme’s concern got me thinking, too.  Are the plump characters of old really out of date?  Have we become so used to super-thin models that our beloved cartoon characters need to put in time on The Biggest Loser?  To read Dr. Ducharme’s complete article about the dangers and signs of eating disorders and distorted body images, click here.  Here’s a glimpse of her article:

We have developed a society that shouts to us all from billboards, television screens, movie theaters, magazines and just about everywhere we look, that happiness comes only with being thin. The old saying that “you can’t be too thin or too rich” is just not true. And now, even Disney characters will be shouting this message to our kids.

What can you as a parent do when you see a child struggling with these issues? First, you can consistently and throughout your child’s life encourage independent thinking and have open discussions about healthy life-styles. Be aware of your own problems and concerns about weight and eating. Be wary of sports or dance coaches that encourage your child to lose just a few more pounds. Because most eating disorders begin while patients are in their teens or early 20’s be particularly aware of excessive exercise patterns and unusual restriction of caloric intake. Be aware of distortions of body image, signs of depression and low self-esteem. Many teens struggle with identity issues and in today’s highly competitive world, many achieving kids feel they should still be doing more. Help your child set realistic goals for themselves and strive to keep open lines of communication. If they frequently appear upset, and most teenagers do have down periods, ask them if they are just having a bad day or if they have been feeling depressed for a long time. And, if you suspect an eating disorder is developing, consult with your child’s physician, a psychologist or other mental health professional that has experience working with eating disorders. Once an individual admits they have a problem and are willing to seek help, they can be treated effectively through a combination of psychological, nutritional and medical care.

Psychology and Reading – Top Picks

I LOVE to read.  In fact, in the past few years it has eclipsed House Hunters as my go-to stress reliever.  I thought I would take this love of books and give you some of my faves.  I’ll start with psychology and mental health oriented picks (smart and professional, huh?) and then give you a couple fun picks.

Top Book for Couples:

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  This is an oldie but goodie and I recommend it all the time.  I even recommend it for single folks because it can help us all learn more about ourselves.  It’s an easy read, totally relate-able, and so old that you can find it at the library or a used book store for super cheap.  Note: bypass the new versions and stick with the original.

Top Books for Parents:

The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness by Edward Hallowell.  I read this book for the first time before I even had kids of my own – I liked it then and now.  Dr. Hallowell’s writing style is honest and straightforward, but he doesn’t talk down to his readers as many parenting book authors do.

Parenting Your Out of Control Child by George Kapalka.  I recently read this book, and while the writing left a bit to be desired, the message was good.  In particular I loved the chapter describing how to set up a system of parenting based on rewards rather than punishments.  I like this strategy of parenting and Dr. Kapalka’s is the best description I’ve seen.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.  Ms. Chua has gotten a lot of flack for her parenting style, but I thought the book was superb.  Funny, down-to-earth, and completely unique – it is worth checking out.  Plus, after I reviewed her book on this blog, Ms. Chua wrote to me – how cool is that?!

Top Book for Kids:

Mind Over Basketball by Weierbach and Phillips-Hershey.  I use this book in my practice all the time. It is especially good for boys in elementary school.  Parents can work with their kids chapter by chapter, or it can be used by professionals.  The techniques for cooling down during periods of stress or anger are useful and understandable.

Top Book About Living with Mental Illness:

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith.  This sort-of-funny-sort-of-disturbing book is certainly entertaining.  Author Smith also writes a blog about his life and anxiety at The Monkey Mind Chronicles if you don’t want to read the whole book.

Top Book You Won’t Be Embarrassed to Read (i.e., more literary):

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger.  This was one of my favorite books this summer.  I love Ms. Freudenberger’s description of her characters (they’re all flawed, just like normal people) and the stories don’t necessarily end happily.  In fact you’re not even sure how (or if) they end at all, which is even better.  Her novel, The Dissident, from a few years ago is good, too.

Top Book You Might be Embarrassed to Read (i.e., more trashy):

Since I can’t recommend The Twilight Saga since Bella has fallen from grace, and since I am still 167th on the waiting list at the library for 50 Shades of Grey, I had to dig back in the archives for this one.  So here it is: The Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris.  Like Twilight for grown-ups this series is kind of silly, totally fantastical, sexy, and has lots of volumes (12 or 13?) – just like I like my trashy reads.  Better yet, TrueBlood is (sort of) based on these novels – but don’t even get me started on that guilty pleasure.

Happy Reading!


Summer’s Over – Emotions are Mixed

I guess it depends where you live, but in this neck of the woods summer is over! Kids headed back to school this week and I am seeing (and feeling!) mixed emotions all around me.

Kids are excited to see friends, nervous for new teachers and classes, and dreading homework and morning routines. Parents are filled with similar emotions – dread, relief, and happiness. These feelings (and lots of others) are normal and to be expected.  They may also change rapidly over the next few weeks as we get settled into new routines and say goodbye to summer for good.  Plenty of sleep, healthy foods, and physical activity can ease the transition, as can sharing your feelings.

For more information on dealing with the back to school blues, check out the American Psychological Association’s article here.


Depression and Exhaustion

Most of us have had the experience of being worried and not being able to sleep.  3am can be a great hour to worry about money, career, and relationship issues, as well as less weighty topics like what color to paint the powder room.  But did you know that a symptom of depression and anxiety can also be sleepiness, and trouble waking?

While most of us require 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, those of us struggling with depression or anxiety may crave more.  One of the reasons for this is that emotions take a lot of energy to create and sustain.  Think back to the last time you were nervous or worried.  Did you feel tired after it was over?  What about the last time you were really excited or sad about an event?  Did you need a few hours of extra zzz’s when the event was over?  Now imagine experiencing chronic anxiety or depression, and you can imagine the drain on your energy these states may cause.

So the next time you or a loved one feels more tired than usual, you may want to take stock of your mood, as well as other aspects of your health.  Depression and anxiety can be effectively treated with psychotherapy and sometimes medication.  And a good mood – and good sleep – are all important aspects of overall health.

To read more reasons and side effects of too much sleep, read this WebMD article.

A Picture Perfect Marriage

We can’t all have a wedding like this, but luckily it’s not the flowers or custom made dress that makes a happy marriage
Photo: Summit

Ahhh…wedding season.  It is upon us – and I love it.  I love the flowers, the white dress, the dancing, the cake, the cake, the cake.  But as my colleague Dr. Angela Lodono-McConnell over at Your Mind. Your Body. writes, there is more to a happy marriage than a clever proposal and Pinterest-worthy reception.

After attending many weddings as a guest and a worker (I used to be a waitress at a wedding venue) I can tell you the one ingredient that makes the most picture perfect wedding: a loving, happy couple.  It’s not the food, the open bar, the flowers, or the handmade place cards that ensure your guests have a super time.  It’s the amount of love and fun coming from the couple.

The cool news is, these are also important ingredients in a successful marriage.  A sense of fun, optimistic happiness, and an outpouring of affection (physical, verbal, etc) are key elements to staying married, not just an evening of fun with family and friends.

Taming Tween Tantrums

I was recently asked to be a part of this article on dealing with tantrums in tweenagers over at mom.me.  This was a new site to me, and it seems pretty cool – with lots of good info.  I got to participate in the discussion with one of my favorite psychologists, Dr. David Palmiter whose blog and book (Working Parents, Thriving Families) are some of my favorites. (In fact, if you check out the reviews of the book here, you will see mine in the list!)

Anyway, when Alison Bell contacted me about doing a story on tween tantrums – rather than the typical toddler tantrums – I thought she was brilliant!  So many parents struggle with this issue, and most of us think we are alone.  Clearly, we are not.  Many kids ages 7-12 have tantrums, and the article offers super solutions for parents.  My faves? “Catch Them Early” and “One-on-One Time.”

Thanks for including me, mom.me!

Motherhood: Taking Care of Ourselves So We Can Take Care of Our Kids

Welcome to Moms’ Month on Dr. Stephanie! This month I will be featuring guest posts from some awesome moms around the country.  They will be sharing tips, tricks, and funny stories about motherhood.  This will be a fun celebration – thanks for joining us!  Today’s author is Katie Dupont.  Welcome, Katie! 

Hi!  I’m Katie Dupont and I am a busy and happy personal trainer in San Antonio, Texas and mother of five; Ivy, 17, Karsten, 8, Kamden, 6, Sophie, 4 and Olivia, 9 months.

When asked what we want most for our kids, inevitably their true happiness in life makes the list.  But how do we teach it?  It seems these days we do so (or think we do so) by over-parenting them to it.  Always putting options before them, giving them seemingly unlimited paths to choose.  Are we really giving them the tools to seek out their own paths?  Are we pursuing happiness for ourselves as an example?

A few years ago, I had one of the hardest easy decisions to make.  I was in an abusive, destructive marriage with a man who craftily kept it from my children’s eyes, but I resigned myself to it because I told myself my kids’ security and happiness were the most important things.  What I was failing to recognize was that the eggshells on which they watched me walk were the antithesis of happiness and security for any of us.  I put on my big girl panties and left after 14 years.  As scary as that was, my children have learned a valuable lesson.  Happiness doesn’t happen to us; we must seek it out for ourselves.  I know now that I’m a more complete person for myself and for them.  Their boat was temporarily rocked but not capsized.  Since then, I met and married the love of my life and we added a final arrow to the quiver.  And when my 8 year old son sees the two of us hug and kiss, something he never saw his dad and I do, his proclamation is always the same….”Another happy ending!” What more could a mother want to hear?