According to a report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, effective after-school programs can improve classroom behavior, school attendance, and academic aspirations as well as reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out of school. That’s no surprise to Drew Brandenburg, school counselor at Putnam Heights Elementary in Eau Claire. “Many activities provide opportunities to develop pro-social behaviors, like communication and problem-solving skills, the art of negotiation and cooperation, and lessons about persevering and coping,” Brandenburg says. “From my experience, children that develop these skills are often more confident and assertive in their day-to-day living. They are better able to manage life’s challenges.”
While all of this may sound like a dream come true to parents, there can be too much of a good thing. “A child that is over-scheduled can be affected physically, mentally, and emotionally,” says Jane Adler-Corning, Memorial High School counselor. “The downside to extracurriculars is when more emphasis is placed on them instead of academics. Finding a balance between school and extracurriculars is the best of both worlds.”
But with all the activities available to students nowadays, what can parents do to make sure their kids are getting the out-of-school enrichment they need without driving the kids (or themselves) crazy?
Trevor Kohlhepp, Memorial High’s athletic director and assistant principal, suggests that older students “look at the offerings in their school for activities and clubs that interest them. When considering an activity, a student should look at time commitment, interest level, possible financial cost, and transportation needs.” Once the interest is identified, students can work with parents to see if the activity will fit with current family demands.
For the younger crowd, True Vang, a physical education teacher at Sam Davey Elementary, suggests parents “ask their (child’s) teacher, PE teachers, or other adults who works closely with their child to identify their strengths and interests. Also look for something more local instead of any traveling sports until the parents are sure that it is something the child really enjoys.”
Questions to ask before committing to an activity:
How many activities are the child and other members of the family involved in?
Remember the big picture when it comes to your family’s schedule, and try to make sure everyone has a balance. If you’re spending all your free time running from one event to another, someone is bound to get burned out.
Is my child truly interested in this, or is it fueled by something else, such as their peers or parental influence?
While being a star athlete may be a leftover dream from your days in high school, that doesn’t mean it’s your children’s dream, too. Forcing them into an activity they’re not interested in is more likely to breed resentment than it is to create Olympians. “There’s absolutely validity in giving new things a try and branching out, but nothing good comes from making a child participate in an extracurricular that they are not at all interested in,” relates Jen Zwicky, youth development director for the Eau Claire YMCA. “Some kids (myself included!) are just not hard-wired for sports, particularly team sports. Instead, perhaps they can find a different sport or activity that better suits them. For me as a kid, that was tennis, theater, and writing.”
Could this activity have any negative effects on grades, quality family time, and stress levels within the family?
Ideally, activities would enhance learning, fitness, and the home – not the opposite.
Will this activity cut into my child’s time for free play?
According to April Becker, marriage and family therapist at HopeTree Family Therapy, “Increasing research, not to mention observations by parents, educators, and child therapists alike, is showing that there is a positive correlation between kids’ participation in unscheduled free time and the development of self-directed executive functioning skills. (That is) the brainpower that helps us plan, make decisions, switch between tasks, and better manage difficult thoughts and feelings. Developing robust self-directed executive functioning skills can make childhood and adult life a whole lot easier and lead to successful outcomes in all areas of life.”
What is the cost and will this one activity put a strain on the finances of the family as a whole?
Some activities can be very expensive, and it’s important not to jeopardize family financial health. However, there are often financial assistance programs to those who need them.
Have you done your research?
“Talk to others involved,” Brandenburg suggests. “Learn about the program, the leaders, and the mission and beliefs of the organization or group offering the activities. Observe the activity if you can.”
Unfortunately, kids and families don’t come with manuals, so there is no magic formula for deciding which activities to participate in. Largely, that will depend on the child and each family’s individual needs and abilities. Take some advice from the staff at the Boys and Girl’s Club of Eau Claire: “If they start falling behind in school, express concerns of not having fun, or cannot seem to relax – it may be time to think about whether or not it is the right fit for their interests.”