By Sarah Kuper
The beginning of the school year comes with new challenges for students and parents. Some are trivial, like finding the right locker, while others can make a lifelong difference.
Recently, Dr. Heather Austin, UAB expert in clinical child psychology and pediatric psychology, tackled the topic of managing a student’s extracurricular commitments.
In an article released by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Austin states the importance of striking the right balance for children.
“There is definitely a difference between over-scheduled and opportunities for enrichment,” Austin said. “Life is very busy and downtime is essential for children. I think often we as parents and professionals forget this.”
Austin said parents are instrumental in guiding a child or teen through choosing participation in sports, academic or civic clubs, but a parent shouldn’t make executive decisions without considering a child’s feelings and well-being.
She advises focusing on a student’s strengths, interests and opportunities for growth. A child forced into an activity may end up miserable and anxious and not get anything out of it.
Austin said that, although it may take time and consideration, choosing the right blend of extracurriculars is worthwhile.
Lauren Patterson, guidance counselor at The Altamont School, agrees.
“Students involved in a healthy mix of extracurriculars are less likely to engage in risky behaviors,” she said.
Patterson, who is new to the private school this year, said her goal is to get to know students individually so she can help them navigate all Altamont has to offer.
“I’d like to get to know them quickly so they feel they can open up to me. I want to make sure they know how much they can handle,” she said.
Patterson wants students to be involved in extracurriculars as much as is good for their mind and body.
“Students and parents alike tend to overcommit. Nowadays college is harder and harder to get into, so students want to do everything to get it,” she said.
But sometimes less is more.
“Overcommitting leads to anxiety and depression. Students feel like they can’t live up to expectations,” Patterson said.
Austin echoes that point, saying parents should turn an observant eye on children’s participation in extracurricular activities.
“Take time to check with children and ask how they are doing,” Austin said. “Lots of children, especially teens, can identify when they are stressed but know the end is in sight. On the other hand, parents should be able to identify whether a child is not enjoying something and is struggling to finish. It is up to the parent to then help encourage the child to the end, identify changes that will help the child feel more supported and reduce mental or physical exhaustion.”
Austin adds that overcommitted students are at risk of developing a Type A personality, which is a risk factor for developing long-term cardiovascular disorders and mental health issues.
She said parents should watch students for signs of over involvement such as increased moodiness, irritability, worrying, nervous habits, clinginess, fatigue and lack of enjoyment in activities.
On the other hand, Austin and Patterson said it is important not to go to the other extreme, either. They do not encourage parents to forego extra-curricular activities altogether for fear their child won’t adapt well.
“Some children are hesitant to participate or anxious no matter what the activity may be, and frequently I will encourage parents to give the child a deadline and encourage exploration into activities of interest.” Austin said. “Sometimes this will motivate and encourage children to be an active part of the decision process.”
Before becoming the new guidance counselor at Altamont, Patterson worked with a lower income popula- tion and saw the effects of little to no participation in extracurricular activities
“If used correctly, extracurriculars can be used as a protective factor against behaviors that could have negative consequences for the rest of a student’s life,” she said.
In the end, both Austin and Patterson believe balance and boundaries are key for keeping students successful.
Additionally, Patterson believes teachers and other student support staff are instrumental in keeping students from going to extremes with extracurricular activities.
“If a student finds they can’t do it all, we are here to say it is OK. We will help them find what they love the most and what is truest to who they are,” she said. ❖