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Study: Too Many Enrichment Activities Harm Mental Health

The time students spend on so-called enrichment activities—tutoring, sports, school clubs and even homework—is creating too much stress while underdelivering on academic benefits.
enrichment activities student stress
Published: March 31, 2024

Even before the pandemic, U.S. students were struggling with mental health. But the statistics have since become even more alarming. According to a new federal of teen health, about 1 in 5 adolescents report symptoms of anxiety or depression.  

The impact of social media and bullying have, for good reason, dominated much of the discussion around this growing crisis. But there are other factors that increase student stress and anxiety that are not as widely reported, including not getting enough downtime. 

Homework is at least partly to blame. Despite being under increased scrutiny over the past decade or so, homework is still a pillar of many U.S. classrooms. While educators and other experts have questioned its value, especially in the lower grades, others believe that homework can enhance instruction and keep students engaged if assigned in moderation. Too much homework, on the other hand, is something else entirely. The academic benefits can be marginal and too many assignments are a source of stress. 

But what about other enrichment activities and extra-curriculars that are designed to bolster a child’s education (and, for high school students, college applications), such as sports, tutoring, clubs, before- and after-school programs. Is there such a thing as too much?  

Yes, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Georgia. Too many enrichment activities can result in an “overscheduled” student, and that can have adverse effects—namely heightened stress and anxiety— particularly at the high school level.  

There are only so many hours in a day. If they are consumed by extra assignments and activities, the student has less time to spend on developing non-cognitive or "soft" skills—skills that can be aided by relaxing, socializing and—yes, even sleeping.  

Furthermore, the academic outcomes that homework and other enrichment activities are designed to bolster are overhyped. Beyond a certain point, the effect is “basically zero,” says Carolina Caetano, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia. Caetano and her colleagues found that students are assigned so much homework and signed up for so many extracurricular activities that the “last hour” was no longer helping to build their academic skills.  

So the cognitive benefits flatline while student mental health is being jeopardized. 

“It’s not that these assignments and activities have no value,” says Caetano. “But a threshold can be reached in which the effects turn negative. There's quite a lot of pressure on these kids from all corners. They’re undertaking much more than they really should when they probably should, at this point, just be spending more time with friends and just being free.”  

Declining Academic Benefits, More Stress 

For the study, the researchers analyzed the time diaries from 4,300 K-12 students, collected as part of the Child Development Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. With this data, they could see how much time was spent per week on certain activities. 

The researchers then compared time spent on these activities with academic achievement. They also held them up against psychological measures, such as being withdrawn, anxious or angry. This data was taken from parent surveys about their children’s behavior. 

On average, children in the sample spent about forty-five minutes per day on enrichment activities, but that adds up over a typical week. At first, there is a clear connection between enrichment activities, academic achievement, and positive behaviors. But sure enough, at a certain point, the academic benefits decline while the problems in well-being begin to ratchet up. 

These negative effects were visible and significant across all grade levels but were more prevalent in high schoolers—likely due to their heavier homework load and the added pressure of college admissions.  

“The older kids do substantially more homework and substantially more of the academic type of activity,” Caetano explains. “The younger kids do a lot more of the sports and arts classes.” 

Still, many elementary students are over-scheduled. If there was less on their plate, they may be allowed to enjoy more free time and become more adept at developing softer skills by the time they reach high school. 

So what is the solution? That is tricky because over-scheduling students is a societal problem. “Homework is not assigned by parents. There are activities colleges demand in their candidates. It's not all a private decision made by the family.” 

At the same time, even as educators point out the role homework plays in stress, not to mention the questionable academic value, many parents may still be hesitant to see it fall be the wayside or be dramatically scaled back. Homework can allow parents to understand what their students are learning and provides an opportunity to be more engaged in that work. 

“Teachers should engage parents on this issue, educate them on the research that demonstrates that a lot of homework is not useful or healthy,” Caetano says. “And everyone—colleges, schools and parents—needs to understand the value of non-cognitive skills and how emotional well-being affects future success and happiness.”

School counselor supports a young student during a group session

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