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Finding the Right Balance


By H.M. Cauley

We live in a fast-paced world, with many parents struggling to balance the demands of home life and a busy career. And that world is increasingly affecting our children, who are enrolled in extracurricular activities and organized sports in an effort to help them become well-rounded individuals and increase their chances of getting into a good college. On top of that, changing to a new school can bring the added pressures of fitting in and making new friends.

The result can be a crushing weight of activities that keeps students rushing from one to another at breakneck speed. Too often, this hectic approach can backfire, creating stressed-out students who can suffer both academically and socially. Striking the right balance is crucial for kids’ health. So how can parents keep them from getting overloaded?

Establish Communication

The struggle to find the right mix of activities and the amount of hours to spend on those activities should never take a backseat to academics, cautions Lauren Wilson, school counselor at White Oak Elementary School in Sugar Hill.

“There are some students who can do all their academics and three or four extracurricular activities and others who can’t juggle them as well,” she says. “It’s very important for the parents to know their child and what one sibling can do and what another can’t do. But I think there’s room for both academics and extracurriculars.”
Wilson says White Oak does not assign its students a lot of homework, with the exception of reading, so students have time to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports. “We have parents who are involved as coaches,” she says.

Natasha Moon, head counselor at Tucker Middle School in DeKalb County, added, “Let me start off by saying I wholeheartedly endorse children to participate in extracurricular activities if their grades are high enough. Research shows if students are involved with extracurriculars, they have a higher belonging to their school. Those who don’t tend to drop out of school.” At Tucker Middle, students can sign up for academic clubs that focus on robotics, languages, science and reading, as well as off-campus activities.

“Here at Tucker, we work with students to help them prioritize their schedules,” Moon says. “We go into the classrooms and give them classroom guidance and learning how to balance your school and home activities. We also help provide how to work smarter. Particularly with the sixth grade, we always encourage them to get involved with at least one extracurricular activity, and it provides a more solid transition from elementary and middle school.”

She also says the school will intervene with students’ schedules if their extracurriculars are causing their grades to slip.

Let Kids Be Kids

While communication and time-management skills are important, it’s essential that children be given time to just be themselves but not overdo it. “For the parents in particular, I encourage them to help their kids prioritize because they know their kids’ talents and skillsets the best,” Moon said. “It’s important they look at the big picture and the activities. If they’re too tired, they can’t do their homework.”

Letting kids be kids can be even more important when those children are dealing with learning difficulties. Parents of children with special needs can feel compelled to push their kids further than is helpful, says Catherine Trapani, head of school at The Piedmont School of Atlanta, which serves children with autism.

“We have students putting in more than 40 hours a week, going to school and a combination of therapies,” she says. “Parents of children with autism are constantly afraid they’re not doing enough, when sometimes, too many things are torture.”

Trapani says parents absorbed in meeting a child’s special needs often overlook a key point.

“I tell them, ‘Your child is still a child.’ They need to learn on their own, and they can do that by allowing them to be like other children—to fall down, get hurt, get dirty and experience negotiating with other kids.”

What’s more, children need unstructured time to just play, relax or socialize—and to process what they’ve learned and experienced.

What Colleges Really Want

Juggling school and extracurricular activities can be stressful enough for kids. But that stress can multiply when parents push them to take on more projects and activities in the hopes of getting into a good college. For many parents, it’s never too soon to start building a child’s resume for higher education.

“Kids think they have to be good at everything,” says Susan Reilly, director of college counseling at Mount Pisgah Christian School in Johns Creek. “But often, that’s not what colleges are looking for. Colleges want them to pursue what they really enjoy with integrity and commitment. The big word right now is ‘authentic’—they want their applicants to be who they are, and not present themselves as someone they think that college is looking for. They should pick an activity because of the positive experience they’ll have, not because they think it will look good to a college.”

Part of the problem, Reilly says, is the misconception that all those juggled activities are the key to being accepted into college. “The truth is colleges accept more kids than they reject. But many parents and students still work themselves into a frenzy, thinking they have to do it all.”

And parents can feel the pressure to get their students into a variety of activities well before high school.

“We find even eighth-grade parents want to know what their students should do to prepare for college, when they really should be asking, ‘What is my child interested in?’” Reilly says. “Look at their strengths and let them increase their level of commitment so they can really make an impact in that area, whether it’s sports, student government or academics.”

By having realistic expectations for your children, making sure they don’t take on too many extracurricular activities at the expense of schoolwork, and allowing time for them to be themselves, you can best help position them for success in school and beyond.

Tips for Keeping Balance 

  • Set limits on the number of extracurricular activities you feel your child should be involved in concurrently.
  • Create an activity budget. Figure out how many hours in a week your child can safely spend on outside activities while still keeping up with schoolwork.
  • Check in with your kids often. Are they enjoying their current activities? Do they feel overwhelmed?
    Finding the Right Balance
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