Keep Extracurriculars from Taking High School Students Off Course

Ask your students’ parents how they’re doing, and the first response will likely be, “Great!” Quickly followed by, “Busy!”

Busyness — that constant need to fill up every white space on the calendar — has infected not only parents but their children as well, says Nancy Brown, a health educator with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Palo Alto, CA. In the classroom, it can often translate into tired, distracted and anxious students trying to keep too many balls in the air.

“Our children’s lives reflect what’s going on in their parents’ lives,” Brown says. “We’re all too busy just trying to make it from deadline to deadline, activity to activity. There’s no time every day where the entire family sits down, takes a deep breath and shares unstructured time.”

Amy Wright, an elementary school principal in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, understands the problem both as a parent and as an educator. “We overschedule our children with the best of intentions, in the hope of giving them lots of options and keeping them busy and out of trouble. But we fail to look at family priorities and make sure all those activities really reflect those priorities.”

Teens Can’t Find Balance on Their Own

So how can teachers help parents and high school students recognize the pitfalls of a schedule crammed with too many extracurricular activities and encourage them to reexamine priorities?

Brown suggests teachers ask families to draw out two pie charts: one that reflects what the family members believe their priorities are and a second that realistically reflects how the family spends time each week. Completing the second chart may require creating a time log or calendar for an average week where family members write down how their time is spent (for more information on this process, visit the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s parenting site).

“It’s important to realize that the human brain is not fully developed until age 25,” Brown says. “Executive functioning, that ability to think through the consequences of a behavior and understand the long-term implications, is one of the last skills to develop. Yet we fully expect our kids to know how to make these kinds of decisions on their own.” So teens need the support of their parents, teachers and other adults to know when there just may be too much going on.

For teens, life balance issues become even more intense. “Not only do you have athletics, music and other activities, but now your teen wants to get a job because they want a car,” says Wright. “But what are they willing to give up to have that time?”

For students who don’t have a strong parenting influence in their lives, teachers frequently fulfill that role, Brown says. “Teachers can step in and help kids figure out their life balance, what’s important to them, what they really need to achieve their goals and whether those goals are realistic.”

Experiencing Consequences Is Important

Teachers should also encourage parents to let their teens experience the consequences of the decisions they make, says Gordon Churchill, a teacher and coach in Newport, NC. “I see parents doing too much for their kids, taking too much responsibility at times,” he says. “We all have to learn at some point that you can’t do everything and make everybody happy. There are going to be consequences to the decisions we make.”

As a coach, Churchill knows that even one student who fails to keep a commitment to participate in a sport can affect the whole team. “I try to help parents and students realize that making a commitment, especially in athletics, has consequences for other team members if you don’t keep it.”

High school students need to make choices, and parents and teachers need to guide them in that. “I tell students and parents that the best way to set priorities is to determine what you’re good at and focus most of your time and effort on what it takes to achieve in that one area,” says Churchill.

Linda Morris Gupton is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, NC. Find her on Google+.

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