When less is more

Finding a schedule that works for your family

By Cynthia d’Entremont

Emma Skeete’s agitation grew as she sat at the dining room table reviewing sight words with her young son. In her desire to give him an early joy of reading, she became frustrated with his distraction. Suddenly she thought, “If this was your piano student, how would you approach them?”

“It was a lightbulb moment for me,” Skeete says. “Who am I trying to impress?”

As an independent music teacher, Skeete runs a business that includes preparing lessons, event planning, and teaching small group music lessons during afternoons and evenings. “If this was any other kid, I would just find a goofy way of engaging them again,” Skeete says. “Why am I getting frustrated because it’s my own kid?”

Emma Skeete with her children. Photo: Bruce Murray/visonfire

For 15 years, Skeete has taught the piano-based Music for Young Children (MYC) program. Although being a music teacher ended up influencing her parenting approach that day at the dining room table, Skeete says that overall, becoming a parent of two boys helped her appreciate the scheduling challenges parents face. “I’m far more gracious about the fact that what I’m doing is just one thing in a whole slew of other activities that parents are involved in,” Skeete says.

“If they aren’t getting work done, it’s not because they are purposefully not trying to do it. It’s because life has happened, and that’s very hard to juggle.”
Now that her boys are six and eight, Skeete experiences the challenges of fitting in homework, piano lessons, piano practice, and sports. When she assigns music homework for her students, in two of her classes, she’s also assigning homework to her sons. “If I don’t think we can do it, I’m certainly not going to expect anybody else to do that,” she says.

Skeete knows that families are busy, but still has an expectation that her students practice five times per week. “I do find that people who choose less extracurriculars and do them well, those kids tend to go further, because they’re able to put the time in at the piano and they’re just calmer all around,” Skeete says.

Dr. Aimée Yazbek, a psychologist at the IWK Health Centre, says there are many benefits from extracurricular activities including social interaction, physical activity, and confidence. “For a lot of kids who may not do so well in the academic department, extracurriculars may be a great way to boost their self esteem,” Yazbek says.

Activities also foster time management skills, develop discipline, and encourage teamwork. “It really teaches them how to be a team player and what it means to connect to something in the long term and being able to work with others towards a common goal,” Yazbek says.

To prevent overscheduling, Yazbek suggests parents ensure the selected activity is really of interest to their child rather than a parent’s desire. It’s important to note if kids are looking forward to practices, games, and events. “I worry parents aren’t listening to their kids enough when they’re figuring out what activities their children are going to pursue,” Yazbek says. “I think there needs to be some good collaboration around what’s chosen for their child.”

Yazbek says elementary students need about 10 hours of sleep each night. If activities are cutting into rest and downtime, and kids are tired and having difficulty concentrating, that may be a sign they’re taking on too much. As a parent of two elementary students herself, Yazbek says her daughter thrives with a variety of activities while her son often requests time just to play.

“I think parents have to honour that. It’s like us coming home and needing some downtime,” Yazbek says. “Unstructured play is a stress reducer for kids. It also helps with their problem solving [and] creative thinking.”

She says it’s important to ensure kids have adequate time to do their homework and study. If their grades are suffering, their schedule may be too full. One strategy is to draw a chart with 24 hours in the day and record necessary things like sleeping, eating, school, and homework. This helps a family schedule what’s leftover based on their values.

“Make room for those things first, and then with the time that’s remaining, decide how you’re going to use that time,” Yazbek says. In her own family, they value wholeheartedly engaging in commitments. “It may mean we do fewer things, but we do those fewer things well.”

Lorelei Burgess, centre director for Oxford Learning, says there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to balancing extracurriculars and academics. However, she does believe kids benefit from additional activities. “There’s a huge connection between physical activity and learning,” Burgess says.
“There’s research that shows just walking to school for 10 minutes in the morning helps increase academic skills, so it doesn’t have to be organized sport, it just has to be physical activity.”

To maintain a healthy balance, she also suggests mapping out a schedule to ensure families aren’t overcommitted. “When you have more than one child, scheduling for one impacts the entire family.”

She notes that while it’s beneficial for kids to participate in extracurricular activities, it’s also important that homework and assignments happen at an optimum time for learning. “Things like staying up late or getting up early in the morning to do homework because you had an extracurricular activity is not necessarily the best use of time,” Burgess says.

Parents can make the most of limited homework time by creating a space that is free from distractions and contains all the supplies needed to work efficiently. For some kids, music may be beneficial while for others, it may not.

“Being on your cellphone and having the notifications ding every time something comes in, that’s not useful. It ends up taking kids a lot longer,” Burgess says.

Ultimately, Burgess says parents need to “go with their gut” and explore options if they feel their child is struggling. Making extra help a priority over extracurricular activities for kids who are having difficulty academically helps restore confidence.

“Education and academics have to be a priority because it affects every single thing children do in their lives,” Burgess says. “If it’s not addressed, it just gets bigger.”

Skeete compares an overscheduled child’s capacity to grasp music concepts with how a parent may feel when working through the day, driving kids to activities after work, and perhaps taking a night course. “That information’s not getting in there the way it would if that’s the only thing you were focussing on and you streamlined some other things in your life,” she says.
With her own sons, Skeete tries to be in the moment and enjoy the fewer activities they’ve chosen. She also sets aside concerns about what other parents may think about their level of involvement. “Those are imaginary assumptions,” she says.

“At the end of the day, your kid wants to know they’re safe and they’re loved and they’re cared for, so that whatever activities you do, it’s not the activities, it’s how you go about doing them.”

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