The school-activity juggle

Is your child on the ball with school and sports?

Your son has loved hockey since he started playing at age five. And he’s good at it too. In fact, he’s captain of your town’s rep team now, and that means out-of-town tournaments on many weekends — just as his school work has reached a new level of complexity. Or maybe it’s your daughter whose love of music led her to start up a band and spend long hours practising and posting demos on her website, while her homework lies untouched in her backpack.

Keeping it in balance

You appreciate having a child who is passionate and enthusiastic — but how do you keep out-of-school activities and academics in balance?

Bruce Carabine, principal of Minnekhada Middle School in Port Coquitlam, BC, says that, developmentally, kids who are in grades six, seven and eight are in a transitional stage, and that can make finding a balance more difficult.

It’s not just the child with a single, intensely involving activity who can be distracted from academics. “Kids this age can be impulsive and eager for new experiences and so they end up joining the wrestling team, band and judo, and trying out for a part in the school play,” says Carabine. “Some really have a tendency to put too much on their plates.”

There’s plenty of temptation for the child with this tendency. At Carabine’s school, for example, there are 23 different sports or activities that kids can participate in — and that doesn’t even include teams and programs run by the town or by other groups.
Establishing priorities

Brenda Henley, a Calgary family life educator and parent coach, suggests parents remind children about where their priorities should lie: “Their first job is school. If they are committed to a team or performance where other people are counting on them, that’s their second job. If they want to fit in other activities, they need to think about what they are willing to give up — and it may be their social life, the times when they just hang out with friends.”

Carabine adds: “I actually think the number one priority is family time. You must factor that in — and family time is not just driving your children to school in the morning. Family dinners, outings and traditions are too important to let them get pushed aside by play rehearsals and team practices.”

Having some unstructured downtime is also important, especially for those children who are more introverted and need to be alone to relax and unwind.

With those priorities established, Carabine says that children are quite different in how many extracurriculars they can take on. “Some kids can juggle a lot and do well at everything. Others quickly get overwhelmed.” For that reason, Henley adds, it’s important not to compare one child to another.

If you’re not sure if your child is effectively managing his juggling act, Carabine suggests speaking to his teachers. “Teachers can usually tell you when your child is taking on too much,” he says.

But what if, despite your reminders and concerns expressed by a teacher, your child’s not sticking to those priorities? He may be working so much on music or hockey that school definitely comes second. Should you ban the extracurricular stuff until his grades come up?

Knowing your child

“This is where you really have to know your child,” says Henley. “If that activity is very important to the child, taking it away can really backfire. You can punish a child, but you can’t make him learn, and I’ve seen situations where the child ended up doing much worse in school because it turned into a power struggle.”

Not every child is academically inclined, Henley points out, and dancing, sports or painting may be not only an essential outlet for stress but ultimately the child’s career.

Instead of forbidding extracurriculars if kids are struggling, Henley recommends helping your children find a way to juggle all the things that are important to them. “Help them to see that there are only so many hours in the day,” she says. “I find it helps to make a colour-coded chart that gives them a visual tool — you have this many hours for homework, this many for basketball practice, and here’s what’s left if you want to start playing in a band.” Seeing this picture of their time can help kids make more realistic plans, she finds.

Carabine says: “Don’t say a flat-out no, but ask them to convince you they have a workable plan. Don’t turn it into an argument or a power struggle, but just keep repeating your concerns until either you are convinced they have a strategy that will work or they realize it’s not a good idea.”

And expect to rework this balancing act many times over the next few years, Carabine adds, as your teen’s interests and abilities continue to evolve.

The differences between boys and girls in middle school

Every child is an individual, says Bruce Carabine, principal of Minnekhada Middle School in Port Coquitlam, BC, but there are some common differences he sees between boys and girls in the early teen years:

• Boys tend to be tactile and active, pushing each other and running around. They are often drawn to competitive activities like sports, and are more impulsive and less organized.

• Girls tend to enjoy the teamwork, socializing and strategizing part of activities like sports more than the competition. Just talking with their friends is important to them. They tend to be more organized and mature in their decisions. This means, says Carabine, they can often handle more extracurricular activities than boys the same age.