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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

Whole Student Scheduling: An antidote to teenage over-scheduling

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

One of the biggest challenges facing young people (and their families) is simply managing all of the time commitments and staying in a healthy balance. We get asked a lot about whether a student should take one more AP class, or should they participate in one more activity to make their college resume better. Setting aside the fact that we never recommend participating in something solely because a college would like it, the question about how a student should commit their finite time is not an absolute matter. It is a matter of prioritization. We work with families throughout the year to find a way to teach young people to manage their lives using a healthy set of priorities early in life. We call it “Whole Student Scheduling."

We base this approach on research promoting healthy living for teens, as well as the concept of “first things first” best summarized in this well known parable:

A professor of philosophy stood before his class with some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a large empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks about two inches in diameter.

He then asked the students if the jar was full.

They agreed that it was full.

So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly and watched as the pebbles rolled into the open areas between the rocks.

The professor then asked the students again if the jar was full.

They chuckled and agreed that it was indeed full this time.

The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. The sand filled the remaining open areas of the jar. “Now,” said the professor, “I want you to recognize that this jar signifies your life. The rocks are the truly important things, such as family, health and relationships. If all else was lost and only the rocks remained, your life would still be meaningful. The pebbles are the other things that matter in your life, such as work or school.The sand signifies the remaining “small stuff” and material possessions.

If you put sand into the jar first, there is no room for the rocks or the pebbles. The same can be applied to your lives. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are truly important.

The key to answering any scheduling question is to assess the big and small commitments through the lens of prioritization. Whenever your student (or even you as a parent) feel like you "don't have enough hours in the day" that is a sign of missing, or misappropriated, priorities. Of course you have enough hours in the day. You get 168 per week, just like everyone else. The 168-hour weekly block of time is your "jar" (from the above story).

So what are the important stones young people must put in their jars first? Research is very clear that the antidote to the over-scheduled harried condition that most modern teens find themselves in is a little "pdf" every single day. That stands for "playtime, downtime, and family time," and the good folks at Challenge Success have been instrumental in establishing how important these are.

Playtime: unstructured time to engage in open-ended free tech-free play, ideally outside and with others. Play is critical for limiting stress and for encouraging creativity.

Downtime: This is time in between activities that allow a student to decompress and reflect on their day. Downtime also includes sleep, a vital aspect of teenage health.

Family Time: Time spent with family to discuss the day and reconnect. This could be accomplished at the dinner table or right after everyone gets home.

Whole Student Scheduling is an activity we conduct with our students that asks them to account for how they are spending their week across multiple categories of activities:

School (in-person)


Pursuing interests/activities

Physical and mental health

How overwhelm happens: GEC's Whole Student Scheduling worksheet

Then, with the recommended amount of PDF, it gives the student an accounting of where they stand. If they are over-scheduled, we work with them to cut out non-pdf activities. If they are not, we help them identify new areas of activities/interests to explore, or simply add in more pdf time.

Students we talk to who are over scheduled and overwhelmed will often tell us they fill their jars the way they do so as to create an appealing "college resume." They indicate that colleges want students who are involved in lots of activities and who take tons of AP courses. They justify sacrificing their health and not getting enough sleep as a temporary exchange so their future prospects can be just a little bit brighter. This is how patterns of behavior are built, piece by piece, one seemingly insignificant sacrifice at a time.

Until one day we as a culture look up and notice that 73% of university counseling centers in the United States are experiencing a significant increase in severe mental health issues among their students.

As parents, a big role that we play is in the establishment of boundaries. When our children are very young, we set physical boundaries and teach them how to keep their bodies safe. But as our children get older, we must adjust our teaching and boundary-setting to protect their emotional health by not permitting late night studying and insisting on those PDF activities. We also must set our own lives as examples, which I know is hard (goodness knows I struggle just like anyone). We teach our young people how “to adult” as we let them see us go through the ups and downs of adult life - and yes, mom and dad, you can participate in the Whole Student Scheduling activity as well. You can simply replace “School" with “Work," and “Homework" with “'office/business' work you take home with you."

See you outside during playtime parents.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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