Helping High-Schoolers Find the Right Mix of Classes and Activities

By Erica Patino

At a glance

  • In high school, kids need to take certain required courses each year to graduate.

  • In addition to required courses, kids can also take electives, which generally have less homework.

  • Extracurricular activities aren’t required to graduate, but they can help kids explore new interests.

High school is a busy time for your child academically. She needs to take required courses to graduate. If she’s planning to go to college, she may also need to meet standard college entry requirements, like two years of another language.

“It’s a good idea to think about which electives will work best given your child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests.”

Your teen also has to round out her school schedule by choosing which elective courses she wants to take. Colleges will look at these courses to get a sense of what her interests are. And there are activities outside her regular schoolwork, such as clubs and volunteer work, that she may need to schedule, too.

All of these requirements and choices might seem overwhelming to your child, especially if she has learning and thinking differences. You can help your child get a handle on her schedule to ensure that she’s on a good path and enjoys her high school years. Here’s what you need to know.

Required High School Courses

When helping your child select classes for high school, start with the basics: the classes required to graduate. Requirements vary by state and school district. But in general, they include classes in basic academic areas such as English, math, history and science. If your child is preparing for college, her school counselor might suggest more rigorous courses, such as AP (Advanced Placement) or honors classes, to fulfill these requirements.

Scheduling these required courses should be the top priority. Your child may have limited choices in these areas. For example, there may be only one teacher who teaches sophomore social studies or an AP science class. But where you do have choices, keep in mind your child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests: Perhaps she’d rather take biology than physics for a science requirement, for instance.

Elective Courses

Once you’ve covered the required courses, there will probably be room in your child’s schedule for a few electives. These classes vary from school to school, but might include music, journalism, art and technology, among others.

Some electives don’t typically require as much homework and may not add much to your child’s workload as an academic course. Taking a class that she finds fun can give your child something to look forward to during a day full of academic requirements. And electives can help her learn about a subject she’s always been interested in or explore a potential career, such as journalism or web design.

Some electives—like band or yearbook—involve activities your teen might have to do on an extracurricular basis. But it’s important to understand the difference between an elective and a purely extracurricular activity. Because electives are for school credit, if your child drops out of an elective class, it will affect her grades. So if your child is interested in taking a fine arts class, she might want to consider trying a few painting or drawing sessions at a neighborhood studio before she commits to a course at school.

It’s a good idea to think about which electives will work best given your child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. For example, you might think a computer programming class sounds practical. But if your child gets restless from sitting in her other classes during the day, a dance class might be a better elective for her.

You might also consider the teachers for each class. If your child has auditory processing disorder, a teacher who never hands out notes or who never writes things on the blackboard might not be a good fit for her. Ask the guidance counselor or have your child ask other students who have taken the class. There may be more than one teacher who teaches a class, and you could put in a request for a specific teacher.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities aren’t required for a student to graduate from high school. Like electives, though, they’re a great way to get your child involved in things she’s passionate about. They can include participating in volunteer work, Scouts, clubs and many other activities. Colleges may also look at extracurricular involvement when deciding on admissions.

It’s important to remember that unlike elective classes, your child won’t get school credit for extracurricular activities. That means your child has more freedom to try different activities. And she can drop extracurriculars if she doesn’t like them or starts to get too busy with school or other activities.

A Balancing Act

Finding the right mix of classes and activities for kids with learning and thinking differences requires some legwork—but it’s worth it. Each semester, you and your child can meet with her school counselor to help select her courses and discuss her interests and goals.

During the school year, be sure to talk to your child regularly about how school is going, if she’s feeling overwhelmed or if she needs help or accommodations. The choices in high school can seem daunting. But if you and your child make the most of them, they can help her enjoy school more—and get more out of it.

Key takeaways

  • Finding the right mix of classes and activities means looking at your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

  • Whenever possible, pair your child with the teacher whose classroom style is a good fit.

  • If your child feels overwhelmed with schoolwork, let her know it’s OK to cut back on her extracurricular activities.

    Tell us what interests you


    About the author

    About the author

    Erica Patino is an online writer and editor who specializes in health and wellness content.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.