Helping high-schoolers find the right mix of classes and activities

By Erica Patino

Expert reviewed by Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT

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 kids academically. They need to take required courses to graduate. If they’re planning to go to college, they 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.”

Teens also have to round out their school schedule by choosing which elective courses they want to take. Colleges will look at these courses to get a sense of what their interests are. And there are activities outside their regular schoolwork, such as clubs and volunteer work, that kids may need to schedule, too.

All of these requirements and choices might seem overwhelming to your child, especially if your child has learning and thinking differences. You can help your child get a handle on their schedule to ensure that they’re on a good path and enjoy their 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, the 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 your child would 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 your child finds fun can give your child something to look forward to during a day full of academic requirements. And electives can help kids learn about a subject they’ve always been interested in or explore a potential career, such as journalism or web design.

Some electives — such as 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 their grades. So if your child is interested in taking a fine arts class, your teen might want to consider trying a few painting or drawing sessions at a neighborhood studio before committing 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 other classes during the day, a dance class might be a better elective.

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. Ask the guidance counselor or have your teen 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 teens involved in things they are 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 teens can drop extracurriculars if they don’t like them or start 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 the school counselor to help select courses and discuss interests and goals.

During the school year, be sure to talk to your child regularly about how school is going, if they’re feeling overwhelmed, or if they need 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 your teen 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 teen with the teacher whose classroom style is a good fit.

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

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