Is Your Child Overscheduled?

As parents, we want to give our children the tools they need to achieve success in life. To some, this means filling up the calendar with as many structured activities as possible, since getting kids involved in sports and clubs helps with the development of strong minds and healthy bodies. While it is possible for a youngster to be closely involved in multiple activities at once, is it a healthy choice for a family to make? When the calendar fills up with sporting events special-interest club meetings, marching band practices, and youth group activities, little time is left for family, chores, homework, unstructured play, and rest. Still, some children invest most of their time into extra-curricular activities to fulfill their curiosities and gain a competitive edge. Overscheduling, however, can take its toll on the child and the family alike.

Those who continuously attempt to pack as many scheduled events as possible into a day may feel the effects overscheduling produces. A child can wear down fast by participating in multiple activities week after week. Fatigue is a number one indicator that a child is overscheduled. Those who are not getting enough sleep each night are more likely to see their grades slip at school, be more irritable during the day, and even lose interest in things they once loved. The family is affected by overscheduling, too. Besides the participant feeling fatigue, others in the family experience it, as well. Overscheduling can tire anyone out, especially when the activities require travel or are planned events for spectators. Similarly, overscheduling can burden the family financially. Being involved with a group or a team often requires money be spent on equipment as well as transportation. When being involved with multiple activities is causing too many problems, it is time to rethink joining in the first place.

Having downtime can be beneficial for one's development just as structured activities help in reaching a goal. When given free time, kids are often more self-directed. They may choose play with toys or others. They may read, listen to music, doodle, or write. Even having the chance to be bored can improve their executive functioning skills—skills that aid them in decision making, problem solving, and regulating both their thoughts and actions. When University of Colorado at Boulder Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Yuko Munakata studied the effects of overscheduling, it was discovered that those children involved in multiple structured activities were actually less able to use skills associated with executive function. In structured activities, one is always working towards a goal. It could be to win a game, to create a project, or to enhance an academic or athletic skill. No matter the desired outcome, structured activities can put a lot of pressure on a child. Munakata believes the development of one's ability to display skills of executive function is stifled because of the stress that is inherent in structured activities.

Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital's Dr. Deb Lonzer shares the belief that kids need time to play and relax, as well as to spend time with family. Dr. Lonzer cautions families who live their lives by the calendar. Instead, she feels adding downtime to the calendar is essential if the family begins to feel they are overscheduled. When the calendar is freed up, the chance to really start living is available. Everyone needs a break from structured activities if one's well-being is to be enhanced.

If your household is feeling the effects of overscheduling, it is time to make a change. It is, however, an important decision and one which should involve your child's input. Explain to your child the need to gain back time from the overly busy schedule. Your child may readily agree that too much is trying to be packed into each day. On the other hand, the effects of overscheduling may not be as obvious to your child as they are to you—especially if all the activities are really loved by your child. Plan to review the benefits that each activity brings to your child. Likewise, engage him or her into a brainstorming session about the negative aspects of the activity and how it puts a strain on the child and the family. Once you and your child have listed the pros and cons of each activity, have your child select the top two or three activities he or she wants to continue. Depending on how many remain, have your child identify which one or two will be eliminated for the time being. Assure your child that in the future you can revisit the choice. After missing a season of the activity, your child may decide that it is not something to pursue after all; contrary to this, you may learn that that activity means more to your child than another of his or her top favorite things to do. Once again, you and your child will need to decide which activity can be traded to allow time for another. No matter the choice, make sure you will all have downtime when the new schedule begins.