I work with many high school students who are very busy. They get up at 6:30 am and aren’t in bed until 11pm or even midnight by the time they have finished their homework. Sports, cheer leading, tutoring, piano lessons, and other activities take up a lot of their after school time. But, how busy should a high school student be really?
Students should not be so busy that they can’t get enough sleep each night so they can function well during school. Lack of sleep is linked to not only poor academic performance but even depression, anxiety, and weight gain during adolescence. Sleep is also a critical time when growth hormones are released, and there are some studies that show sleep is also linked to the formation of memories. In other words, all the studying in the world won’t pay off if those memories don’t congeal during sleep. While everyone is different, the average need for sleep in humans is approximately eight hours, so a reasonable guideline is that students should get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. The issue of not getting enough sleep is a well know one- so well know that there’s a term for it. It’s called sleep deprivation, and it can have many negative effects on both adolescents and adults. Sleep deprivation can cause an overall dull mental state and can affect the cognitive functions of thinking, memory, and problem solving that are key to succeeding in school.
It’s completely natural for high school students to assume progressively greater adult roles and choices. One of these key choices is how they spend their time, and high school students should make themselves busy with high quality activities. The future is largely an accumulation of the choices we make today. Identifying activities that will serve students well in the future will be good experiences for them as individuals and for college applications. Especially for students who want to apply to colleges with competitive entry, having a variety of extracurricular activities will be important. Many colleges want to see a “well rounded” student that has undertaken a variety of activities and has different interests. Students who attend classes and do limited things, like just sports, make themselves unidimensional and will not stand out in comparison to students who have diverse interests in the arts, technology, humanistic efforts, or otherwise show their creativity and innovation. Students should begin targeting activities that make them in to a well rounded student beginning in their freshman or sophomore year in high school, since it takes time to accumulate a variety of activities. The challenge for high school students is a simple but adult one: Choosing how to spend their time well.
Creating Their Own Structure
I’ve worked with many college students who were high achievers during high school, yet they had problems or even did so poorly in college that they were placed on academic suspension. Why? There sometimes many reasons, but for these high achievers a very common theme that didn’t understand how to give their lives structure. During high school, they were so busy fulfilling the demands placed upon them they never developed the ability to create structure for themselves. High school can be a very highly structured environment, where all day students are always in an assigned place and adult oversight is omnipresent. Even after school activities are highly structured, especially for student athletes who must be at practice after school.
In comparison, college is an extremely low structure environment. The students are the adults, and must not only make it to class but work independently on a variety of issues like studying, projects, and group collaborations. Many high school students are described as “doing well with structure.” What this really means is that they are achieve only in the presence of extrinsic (external), and not by an internal (intrinsic) level of goal directedness and motivation. This can be a huge problem, since the development of intrinsic motivation and goal directedness is critical for later success in college. It is what allows a student to get up and go to class, study, and complete necessary work for reasons that come from within themselves. Students who become structure-dependent, or doing well only with externally imposed structure, will quickly flounder during college. External structure and monitoring by adults is all but nonexistent at most colleges, and many successful high school students fail in college because they always had external structure and never became internally driven. High school students should not be so busy that they become dependent on external structure, and never learn how function on their own.
Every busy person needs down time, and hard working high school students are no exception. Having time to engage in a certain level of age appropriate leisure activities is important for high school students, and this needs to be built in to their schedule. The type of activities will be up to the individual student, and they should be fun for them. Having time to enjoy their lives is a strong antidote to burnout, and the fact that high school students do risk burnout should always be taken seriously by parents. Students can feel burnout acutely, and adults forget what it’s like to have a ceaseless stream of homework that is due every day. Some high school students, in essence, are working 16 hours a day, and adults who aren’t tuned in to the possibility of burnout can miss the chance to intervene. High school students should not be so busy that they burnout, which can happen.
While every student should strive to do their best in high school, students need to make sure that they don’t become over committed. They need to make sure that they get enough sleep and use their time for activities that will serve them well in the future and when it comes time for college applications. One of the key skills that students need to learn is how to create their own structure to avoid doing well only when structure is created for them. Finally, students need down time just like everyone else, especially to avoid burnout for very busy students.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.