Busy Kids? Balance is Key

 Does the gain from advanced academic programs such as IB and AP so many youth are involved in (pushed by educators and parents) outweigh the lack of sleep and limitation of other experiences, such as 4-H, because of so much time spent on studying?

Shirley, Denver, CO 

Shirley,

I think that the growing popularity of IB and AP courses is, in general, a good trend. Most American teens are not being challenged enough, especially in what it is called STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. Our kids are going to need to step it up if they are to compete successfully in the global economy. For many young people, these courses provide an opportunity to challenge themselves in a structured way, develop a positive attitude about learning, and develop a sense that the world is their classroom.

That said, anything can be overdone. Unrelenting pressure to perform academically can actually undermine young people's capacity to cope with stress and impact their love of learning. While academically rich and rigorous experiences are key, young people also need sleep, free time and other activities.

This is not only because we want our kids to be well rounded individuals. Our brains are busy even when we aren't in school!  Sleep is a time when our brains sort out all the neural connections made during a busy day of learning and consolidate memories. Exercise builds stronger brains by boosting BDNF, a chemical that stimulates brain growth. Free play helps build imagination, creativity, and executive functioning. In other words, these activities are not just 'extra credit' for kids, they optimize the brain's capacity to excel inside the classroom and out.

Balance is key! Experiences that organizations like 4-H provide are critical throughout adolescence. Teens should be challenged academically but not to the extent that they can’t participate in other activities that are important for their development. Here are my tips for striking a balance with your busy kids:

  • Meet with your child's teachers to better understand how they approach the IB or AP curriculum. What are the expectations for outside of classroom work? Is the classroom culture competitive or cooperative?
  • Try to steer your child towards a well balanced activity diet. Encourage them to choose extracurriculars carefully and make sure they only commit to what they have time for.
  • Show your support by showing up at athletic events, plays, concerts, and other events.
  • Give your child space to explore and express themselves. 
  • Banish sleep 'thieves' like over-scheduling, cell phone use overnight, and early morning activities.

Good luck!

Dr. Dave and Erin Walsh