'Our children need us to give them permission to balance their lives'

Grady High School principal Betsy Bockman is one of the most respected leaders in Atlanta Public Schools. She sent this note to Grady parents. I asked if I could share on the blog as all parents ought to read this.

Bockman addresses the pressure many teens are experiencing as they attempt to become the college applicant sought by the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech or the University of North Carolina. She talks about the overload of AP classes, which is partly the result of the increasing demand by colleges for evidence of high school rigor.

For example, in its release about early action admissions in November, UGA noted: "The average number of AP, IB and dual enrollment courses is nine, with a mid 50th percentile range of seven to 11." According to Georgia Tech,  students in this year's freshmen class arrived with 8 to 13 college-level classes.

Bockman says students need help in balancing their course loads with their other activities. They also need perspective, which parents can help provide.

By Betsy Bockman

As we complete the period of students requesting courses for next year, I ask families to have honest and deep discussions about course loads.  I encourage families to do the research on college and career opportunities. So many students load up their schedules taking up to 6 AP (Advanced Placements) course in one year.

In addition to this heavy course load, students are often involved in very time-consuming extracurricular sports, clubs, Scouts, church. and other community activities. This leaves no time for relaxed time and conversation with family and friends. Parents often tell me their students are up past midnight completing schoolwork.

The CDC just released another study on sleep and students ages 11-18.  Sleep, family, and personal down time are really being sacrificed in the pursuit of building a resume or portfolio based on rumors and perceptions of what colleges want, what older siblings have done, or what their friends or family members tell them they must have and do to be successful.

In the time I have been at Grady, I have yet to talk to a college counselor, admissions department. or our own very fine and experienced counseling team and heard anyone of those people "in the know" say that loading up on very high-level classes is the way to a productive college and life experience.

Dr. Betsy Bockman

Universities don't accept all the AP classes -- that is a fact. The anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders, and tanking emotional health of students who are so overstressed and dejected that they express thoughts of harming themselves are not what we want.

Other practices I have observed are students coming late to school because of the need for more sleep as well as staying home to have more time to study or complete assignments. Cheating on tests, quizzes, and assignments is increasing.

Another growing trend is students not being able to keep up with the tremendous workload, then needing copious amounts of additional time to complete work after the semester ends. I am not speaking of the small number of students who have injuries or illnesses for which the additional time is warranted. I am speaking of students who legitimately cannot complete all the requirements and expectations of all that they have taken on -- academics, clubs, sports, part-time jobs. When students describe everything they’re doing in their lives, I understand the word they most often use to describe their lives which is overwhelmed. As an adult, there is no way I could manage what many of our students are doing.

College and university admissions offices want students who have a number of interests, have balanced course loads, can show how they will contribute to and benefit from the university experience, and will graduate from their institutions. Remember that students can take courses at some of our local colleges through the Dual Enrollment program, which allows students to experience college academics and expectations.

At one time, I am told Grady did have a cap on AP classes students could take at one time.  As a first step, though, I ask families to think about a more measured approach to taking demanding classes. Something like Human Geography the first year, 1-2 AP classes in the second year, and 2-4 in the third and fourth year of high school. Many of our after-school activities are very time-consuming, and I know that colleges and universities would be happy with 6-8 AP classes. Moving through high school is tough. AP classes have very clear curriculum, pace, and rigorous assignments that are set by the College Board -- the work really can’t be modified or tailored to meet individual needs. It keeps moving along until the end when a rigorous examination is given.

Our children need us to give them permission to balance their lives and make down-time as important as the accumulation of accolades, honors, trophies, and high-level courses. We have to teach them to find joy and confidence in doing fewer things well so that they build internal happiness rather than trying to do too many things that just cannot be successfully managed by young people with only 16 or 17 years of life experience under their belts.

If your student requested a very heavy course load for the next school year, please discuss how the academic pursuits will mesh with all the other activities she/he and your family are involved in. Nothing is set in stone now -- now is the time to look at the total health -- physical and emotional -- of the daughters and sons we love so much.

In addition to buying the school supplies each July, think about the things you will need on hand to ensure your child is also emotionally prepared and remains emotionally healthy during these stressful high school years.

Thank you for your support.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...