By: Malia Jacobson
Want to raise a kid who excels at school and beyond? Think outside the classroom.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, extracurricular activities boost kids’ community connections and are linked to better grades and school attendance. But finding the right fit for your child isn’t always easy. What’s the right age to begin after-school classes? How can families choose activities that will enrich kids’ lives without added pressure, conflict, or unrealistic expectations? And how and when should parents encourage kids to persist—or decide when it’s time for a graceful exit? Read on for age-by-age guidance on finding extracurricular pursuits that round out your child’s education without ramping up stress.
EARLY YEARS 0-5
Parents shouldn’t rush tots into classes and clubs, say parent educator Tara Egan D.Ed., founder of Charlotte Parent Coaching. Young children enrolled in high-quality preschool are likely already participating in things like art, physical education, and music, so adding to their schedule might not yield much additional benefit. If you do want to give classes a go, Egan offers a few guidelines for caregivers: First, make sure your child can separate comfortably from you before you register him or her for child-only courses; kids who aren’t quite ready can participate in parent-child gym or swim classes in the meantime. Next, ensure that your child’s coach has experience working with very young children. And look for classes that don’t require your child to stay up late or miss naptimes or meals, because hungry, tired kids won’t benefit much from any class, no matter how much they like the topic or teacher.
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Grade-schoolers are often ready to play a larger role in choosing their own extracurricular activities, says Karen Petty, Ph.D., professor of family studies at Texas Woman’s University. But parents still need to guide kids’ selections with an eye toward managing the family’s overall schedule and bank account. “Choice-making builds self-efficacy and allows children to have a sense of control over their time outside of school, which is a good thing,” she says. “But parents should put financial and time parameters on their choices.” Allowing kids to select from a short list of activities—whittled down by parents based on the family’s schedule and budget—helps kids think through their choices and prevents them from jumping into a popular pastime simply because lots of friends are doing the same. Using phrases like “you can choose soccer or ballet but not both” or “It looks like gymnastics, dance, piano, and softball will fit in our family schedule, so choose two of those,” and marking time commitments on a shared family calendar (color-coding with one color per child is helpful) helps kids see their activity fits into the family’s bigger picture.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
At some point, most teens find themselves at a crossroads with a commitment they’ve made and consider quitting. When a once-enjoyed pursuit yields more stress than enjoyment, it’s time for a talk with your teen. “If a child is struggling with an activity they used to like, parents should attempt to find out why,” says Charlotte, North Carolina-based parenting coach Tara Egan. “Is there a mismatch between the coach and your child? Is there a peer conflict? Most issues can be addressed, like asking a coach to speak with your child one-on-one, or bringing a bullying behavior to the attention of the coaching staff.” In general, parents should set an expectation that kids will finish out the sports season before quitting, because they’ve committed to teammates, says Egan. But there are some valid reasons to quit, too: If your child is exhausted and overscheduled, needs more time to focus on school, or simply wants to explore new horizons, help map an exit strategy that includes how and when to make the change—and includes thanking the coach and letting key teammates know of the decision.