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Choosing kids' extracurricular activities

Tips for parents on choosing kids' extracurricular activities.

Tips for parents on choosing kids' extracurricular activities. Credit: iStock

Almost every extracurricular activity, from dance to debate team, is getting ready to start or kick into high gear as the school year begins. With so many choices, parents can get overwhelmed about how to direct their kids.

Child psychologists and guidance counselors say balance and knowing a child's limitations are key to navigating the extracurricular search.

"You have to look at every kid by themselves," says Renee Clauselle, a child psychologist and owner of Child and Family Psychology in Franklin Square and Kings Park. "I think it's about what your kid can handle."

Most child experts stress that, while exposure to a wide variety of activities is important for kids to develop their interests and tastes, parents shouldn't force an activity onto their children. "We find parents . . . didn't have opportunities like their kids do, so this is their opportunity now," says Joseph Volpe, a psychologist and the executive director of East End Psychological Services.

Here's some advice on how to direct a child based on his or her level of motivation.

THE OVERACHIEVERS

These are the kids who want to do everything and fill up every waking moment with something, whether it be school, sports or music. They can usually juggle a lot and balance well.

Frank Muzio, director of guidance for both Wantagh middle and high schools, says he and other counselors approach the overachievers differently than others: by making sure they're performing well academically and that they're not overly stressed.

When looking out for overcommitted students, Muzio says that counselors and teachers should pay attention to slipping grades, missed commitments and a change in attitude and appearance. Bill Milliken, general manager at Winners Edge Sports Training, a sports school in Huntington Station, says the telltale sign of over-commitment is lethargic kids who can't seem to focus while playing sports.

Sometimes, students will talk about their stress. But Volpe says that, oftentimes, younger children tend to act out -- being defiant, weepy or argumentative -- while older kids tend to keep going until they burn out.

THE KIDS IN THE MIDDLE

Many have had this problem -- wanting to do something but having a problem pinning down what that special thing is. For kids unsure of which route to take, exposure is key.

Maria Lombardo, a child psychologist at Family Psychology of Long Island in Oakdale, says that allowing kids to try a variety of activities during the summer when they have more free time may help them pick activities to continue with during the school year.

Programs that allow kids to try out activities are also beneficial. For example, Winners Edge offers free trials of all its sports to help children and parents decide. Milliken says these free trials have a 90-percent retention rate, meaning most kids will usually pick a sport after getting a taste of it.

How can you tell if your kids have enjoyed their extracurricular activities? "By the joy on their faces," Clauselle says. "If they [parents] are attuned to their kids, they can see that."

When kids have found an activity they like, Lombardo says it's good to explain what kind of commitment they'd be agreeing to. For instance, if they want to join a sports team, tell them that they'll miss birthday parties, other events and even downtime.

THE KIDS WHO JUST WANT TO 'HANG OUT'

They're not necessarily slackers or lazy, but these kids want to do things at their own leisure. But not being involved in extracurricular activities can be worrisome. Muzio says studies show that students who are involved in activities outside the classroom tend to be happier and perform better academically.

"It does help children grow, and that's the major purpose and value behind extracurricular activities," he says.

As a psychologist, Volpe says, when he sees cases like this, he tries to figure out what the problem is. Are kids being underactive because of parents, a lack of self-esteem, anxiety or trying and failing? Getting to the bottom of the source is the first step to addressing the problem.

Then comes finding the right activity. Exposure to a variety of options is key. And although team sports like soccer and baseball tend to be the "go-to" activities for kids, Volpe says that more solitary activities such as karate, bowling or hiking can be more welcoming, especially for younger kids.

More important, allowing kids to help choose their extracurricular activities is beneficial for their self-confidence, especially when they excel.

"If it's something they're good at, they wear that something like a badge," Volpe says.

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