Are Students Overworked? Research Offers Insights

Independent School Management

Vol. 14 No. 5 8/6/15

PSN eletter Vol14 No5 childstress

With extracurricular-driven“superkids” and homework horror stories driving media headlines, it begs the question: Are today’s students truly overworked to the point of mental and physical health risks? Research suggests that the rigors through which we push many students are not enough to warrant panic, though that may not be true across the board.

In 2006, three researchers—Joseph Mahoney, Angel Harris, and Jacquelynne Eccles—evaluated whether students truly were overscheduled. They hypothesized that the pressures from families and schools to succeed academically and professionally would push the average student to overextending his or her commitments, leading to health and social adjustment problems. Theirstudy encompassed some 5,000 families nationwide with students ages 5 through 18 from a broad socioeconomic range.

The study found that there was, in fact, “very limited empirical support for the overscheduling hypothesis.” Only 3-6% of students spent 20 or more hours a week participating in extracurricular, organized activities. The average American student, in comparison, spends about 5 hours weekly enjoying organized activities, and 40% of studied students spend no time in extracurriculars at all.

The researchers also found that those students who spend 20 or more hours in an organized activity tended to be at least as well adjusted socially as “youth who did not participate” in extracurriculars. This finding runs counter to the image of highly motivated students as isolated hermits, scribbling on papers from dawn until dusk after five hours of soccer practice.

The study went on to verify the commonly held belief that participation in extracurriculars is good for a developing child’s well-being, including “academic achievement, school completion, post-secondary educational attainment, psychological adjustment, and lowered rates of smoking and drug use, to the quantity and quality of interactions with their parents.” Plus, the more a student participated in organized activities, the researchers found that the benefits of those activities either accrued or plateaued—not decreased.

The research team revisited their conclusions in 2012. They found that not only did their original conclusions continue to hold true, but also continued into early adulthood. Heavily involved students from the first study exhibited “lower psychological distress, and higher educational attainment and civic engagement” later in life.

Of course, not all studies concur with the conclusions drawn by Mahoney and his compatriots. In 2006, Dr. Shawn Latendresse, professor at Baylor University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, ran a similar study specifically examining the relationship between affluence and parenting styles and its subsequent influence on students’ social maturity.

His conclusions indicate that, on average, students from affluent families gradually became less socially well-adjusted over their academic career, with some cases showing greater maladjustment than adolescents in low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. Dr. Latendresse further demonstrates correlations between overbearing parenting styles—including overscheduling of extracurricular activities—and an increased risk of impeded social development.

So while overscheduling may not be a problem for the majority of students (even students coming from higher socioeconomic backgrounds), the possibility of overburdening students exists and should be considered when discussing the benefits of extracurricular activities and challenging courses with families.

Your school’s schedule plays an enormous role in enabling students to challenge themselves while maintaining a healthy, happy lifestyle. If your current schedule seems constrictive or burdensome, consider a new format that includes breaks, extended periods for increased engagement and information retention, and opportunities to seek assistance from advisors and teachers. ISM can help you customize a new schedule that’s designed with your mission, resources, and school community in mind.

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