Work & Family
Step Away From Your Over-Scheduled High School Student
How to help teenagers learn to juggle their own competing classes and extracurricular activities
By Sue Shellenbarger
Nov. 21, 2017
There’s a reason your teen is so tired.
Striving to build long lists of extracurriculars to beef up their college applications, high-school students face mounting conflicts with teachers, coaches and other activity leaders who all expect 100% commitment. Teens often have two events at once, or juggle so many demands that they nod off trying to do homework. Most schools give little guidance.
By high school, students should be learning to manage their own scheduling conflicts and advocate for themselves, psychologists say. That can be a big developmental leap for young teens. They must learn to plan their time further in advance than many adults do, and make tough choices about prioritizing activities while keeping their grades up. And parents should avoid meddling, but be prepared to draw the line when teens suffer too much.
Brooke Ross struggled as a high school sophomore to satisfy competing demands from authority figures she respected. She played on two volleyball teams and studied competitive Irish dance, which she had done since age 4, says Ms. Ross, of Hudson, N.H. Her daily high school volleyball practices sometimes clashed with dance practice. After-school junior-varsity volleyball games three times a week required her to attend freshman and varsity games as well. That kept her out past 9 p.m., pushing homework time as late as 11:30 p.m., says her mother, Susan.
Some Saturdays turned into a mad dash when volleyball games for her club team conflicted with dance competitions, leaving Brooke tearful and exhausted. Brooke, 16, has dropped Irish dance, which she misses, and club volleyball, but she’s still stretched this year trying to study for tough junior-year classes while playing on one volleyball team and working part time on Saturdays.
Brooke Ross, 16, of Hudson, N.H., struggled as a high-school sophomore to manage scheduling conflicts among her two volleyball teams, homework and the competitive Irish dancing she had studied for more than a decade. In junior year she dropped two activities.
Parents in most cases should avoid intervening, says Jerry Bubrick, a cognitive and behavioral psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. A teen should learn to manage the distress rather than “relying on Mom or Dad to rescue him,” he says. Parents can role-play with the teen at home, coaching him on how to talk with a teacher or coach.
Accept that these conversations won’t always go well. Laurie Kopp Weingarten advised a high school senior who had to quit her beloved tennis team when a new coach refused to excuse her from practice for a long-planned college-admissions interview, says Ms. Weingarten, co-founder of One-Stop College Counseling in Marlboro, N.J. The student kept tennis in her life by volunteering as a coach for children.
If a coach or teacher reacts harshly, put that behavior in perspective, says Kelly Adams Fraser, owner of Green Apple College Guidance & Education, Bethesda, Md. Say, “So Coach reacted badly. That’s not appropriate. It’s too bad, but this sometimes happens in life. We all make choices, and maybe he didn’t agree with your choices,” Ms. Fraser says.
School counselors or athletic directors can sometimes help students with conflicts between classwork and school-sponsored activities, says William R. Hughen, district director of school counseling at Hudson (N.H.) School District.
Parents should step in, however, if they’re worried about a teen’s health or well-being—if a teacher or coach is being verbally abusive, or failing to attend to overuse injuries. Even then, says Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that provides research and programs to schools and families to help teens lead more balanced lives, the student should be the first to try to negotiate a solution.
Students can learn to anticipate what’s coming up in school and where conflicts may occur, says Kat Cohen, chief executive officer of IvyWise, New York, an educational consulting firm. If students communicate early with teachers when they need a break, most teachers will cooperate, Dr. Cohen says. If students wait until the last minute, “that’s when the teacher gets upset,” she says.
Many teens shun monthly planners in favor of smartphone calendars, preferring to react to reminders when deadlines loom. But by high school, teens need to take a more proactive approach, using a monthly calendar or planner that enables them to see when, say, a tournament will overlap with midterms, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of AdmissionsCheckup, Wilton, Conn., which provides reviews of students’ college applications by a team of former admissions officers.
Nicole Welch, 18, a freshman at the University of North Carolina, carried a detailed to-do list and agenda book with her every day in high school to keep track of her multiple sports teams, honors and advanced-placement classes, student government and other activities.
Nicole Welch of Westport, Conn., managed participating in three seasons of varsity sports, honors classes and several other activities by using a calendar system she calls “very over-the-top.” She carried a Lilly Pulitzer to-do list and agenda book everywhere, mapping out blocks of time she would need far in advance and color-coding various activities in rainbow hues. Ms. Welch, 18, is now a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Parents also can help students set priorities. Academics should come first, says IvyWise’s Dr. Cohen. And it can be fine to have as few as three extracurricular activities, as long as they’re tied to students’ core interests and “show depth, impact, leadership and responsibility over time,” she says.
Sean Smith, 17, of Kenosha, Wis., says he overloaded himself in his freshman year by taking five courses, plus an online Spanish class, band, lacrosse, cross-country and piano lessons and performances.
After a stressful freshman year of high school, 17-year-old Sean Smith of Kenosha, Wis., says he learned to manage his time better, canceling conflicting commitments and saving time for friends and hobbies.
“Since that initial period of awfulness, I’ve learned to manage my time better,” Mr. Smith says. He is still president of two school clubs, a cross-country team member and a piano student, but he has dropped activities that caused conflicts. He also saves time for friends and activities he enjoys, including cooking enchiladas, curries and other dishes at home with his dad.
HELPING HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS AVOID OVERLOAD
- Help your teen learn time-management skills, finding calendars or planners they’ll use and encouraging them to log future commitments.
- If a teacher doesn’t hand out a syllabus, ask for information from a student who took the class previously.
- Give top priority to maintaining good grades, the No. 1 factor college admissions officers consider in making decisions.
- Stick to extracurricular activities the student cares about and enjoys, where he or she can have an impact.
- Read your school’s absence policy to make sure time off for extracurricular activities will be excused. Many schools are tightening absence rules.
- Watch for red flags. Teens who can’t get their homework done, spend too little time with family or friends, or aren’t eating or sleeping enough may need help paring down their commitments.