I recently visited a wonderful independent high school in North Carolina, and was lucky to get the chance to speak with a number of incredible faculty members, parents and students. At one point during my visit, the high school principal asked me if I thought his school gave too much homework.
Not knowing the inner workings of his school and individual class homework requirements, I told him I didn’t think I was particularly qualified to answer on specifics. Instead, I shared how I believe students end up at the right post-secondary school option if they take the most appropriate classes for them in high school. From my experience working with thousands of students, I know what works for one student might not work for another, and how we – as parents, educators, and students – need to make more thoughtful decisions around course selection. In doing so, we can encourage students to take adequately challenging classes that allow them get enough sleep. I explained that if students are regularly staying up until midnight or 1 am completing schoolwork, it may be a sign they are taking wrong classes for them.
My answer seemed to surprise him. Again, I generally refrain from making sweeping generalizations on students’ workloads, because I have spent a great deal of time with students and families who complain of a burdensome workload when daily habits and choices – i.e. doing homework while on social media, procrastination, over-scheduling – are more to blame for heightened stress and late nights. It might be easier to say a teacher is assigning too much work, but the reality is advanced classes, whether honors, IB, or Advanced Placement (AP) classes, are a great deal of work. In college, students normally take four to five classes at a time, and, unless they are taking a lab science, usually spend only about fifteen hours a week in the classroom. High school students, on the other hand, are in the classroom at least thirty hours a week, not including after school activities. For high school students to take four AP classes is somewhat like taking a full college course load, except they also have to be at school all day (and live with their parents…).
I’ve spent the past fifteen years helping young people with organization and time-management so they can improve productivity and decrease stress, and I’ve never been one to dissuade what famed Stanford researcher Carol Dweck terms a “growth mindset” of looking at intelligence as the result of focused effort rather than fixed capability. When meeting with students for academic advising, I encourage them to appropriately stretch their limits, and to believe in their own potential for constant progress. In fact, many of our students regularly shock their parents and school counselors about how well they do in rigorous classes because they have built solid work habits that allow for ample rest and reflection.
At the same time, we seem to be in an arms race of advanced classes, and what quickly gets lost in that conversation is the importance of social and emotional well being, as well as personal development. Students repeatedly explain how college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors recommend taking the most challenging courses offered, as long as students can also do well in them. Students who aren’t taking the most rigorous course load offered at their school can suddenly feel less than in a world where bigger, better, brighter is the mantra for success. On the flip side, those who are able to take the most rigorous course load offered at their school feel overwhelmed because of the seeming impossibility of balancing that potential workload with friends, family obligations, extracurricular activities, and sleep (and we all know that sleep is typically the first thing to go by the wayside). We know how much sleep deprivation affects social and emotional wellness, and we often underestimate the importance of sleep when thinking about course selection. High school students are in a critical stage of their life for brain and body development, and it isn’t as though they can decide at twenty-four years old to catch up on a decade worth of missed sleep. How many of you have ever dealt with an irritable child or teenager? Not pretty. We all would like to avoid that – but some of us are signing up for it during course selection time.
This is the time of year when many students (and their parents!) are thinking about next year’s course selection. In my experience, there always seems to be an underlying anxiety that nothing is ever good enough. Personally, I love how some schools set a limit on the number of AP and advanced classes students can take in a given year. That way, schools play the “heavy” and students don’t feel pressured to take every possible AP class offered out of fear they will jeopardize their college admissions chances. I do realize this is not always possible, so as you work with your child(ren) to determine next year’s course selection, I encourage to reflect on the following:
1. Look at the whole picture. How is your child handling his or her current workload? Will they be continuing with or adding more activities next year along with more rigorous courses? If their stress level is high now, have an honest conversation about how many more hours of weekly work next year’s course load might require. Is your child playing sports or participating in an activity that requires an enormous time commitment after school and on weekends? If so, that should be addressed – especially if that activity requires missed days of schools and weekend travel to tournaments. Finally, if your family is experiencing some high-stress life situations, including divorce or illness, I encourage you to take the time to include that into consideration, because it can easily affect your child’s physical, emotional and social wellness.
2. Prioritize sleep. A great first step towards this effort is getting your child’s phone off and out of their room at least 30 minutes before a designated bedtime. Many students admit they use their phone as an alarm clock, but that they quickly read-reply-repeat it if a late night text pops up on the screen. Instead, I suggest investing in a shiny alarm clock and having an evening phone charging zone outside of their bedroom, because nothing sabotages falling asleep or staying asleep than a constant stream of phone notifications. Recent studies show that sleeping six hours a night is *just as bad* as not sleeping at all – and, since the average high school senior sleeps just 5-6 hours per night, this is a real problem.
3. Seek out clarifiers. When working with students, I often ask them to identify the clarifiers in their lives. Clarifiers are individuals who coach us around finding answers – a clarifier might be a parent, counselor, religious leader, relative or teacher. In all the noise of competition and perfectionism, we lose sight of the people who give us insight to making better choices and decisions, and help us realize we might be pushing ourselves harder than is healthy or productive. I talk about this more in my second book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl.
4. Focus on daily habits. It really is all about building on small, tangible goals that your children can work on daily that add up to personal satisfaction and success. Encourage children to start with simple concrete habits that focus on wellness, like eating a healthy breakfast focused on long-term sustainability (protein and complex carbs!), getting to sleep by 10 pm each night and/or resolving to spend only 30 minutes a day or less on their favorite certain social media site.
5. Encourage choices that manage time and energy. Ask your children to reflect on the things in his or her life that energize them, and conversely, drain them. Their list might be surprising. One student I worked with confessed that being on Snapchat stressed her out, and after thinking about what she’d rather do with those hours, like drawing and reading, decided to remove the app from her phone on weekdays. Sometimes being made aware of ingrained habits can help make small yet significant shifts over time.
To be sure, there are situations where the workload and requirements aren’t in line with learning goals, and I spend much of my time today consulting with schools and educators on finding the appropriate balance given a confluence of challenges. At the same time, we each have the opportunity to help our next generation of young people think through to create their own individual blueprint for personal and academic success, and thoughtful course selection is one important part of the overall picture.