Why extracurriculars are not ‘extra’

Seven ways after-school activities benefit students and complement academics
(Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash)(Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash)
Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts. 

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts.

Now is the time when building principals and district leaders scratch and claw to meet annual budgets, and many will struggle to overcome shortfalls. Tough decisions will have to be made as leaders start asking, “What are we going to cut?”

One of the items on top of the list: extracurricular activities.

Extracurricular activities include any activities or organizations sponsored or created at a school but fall outside the scope of regular curriculum—from athletics, debate teams and chess clubs to theater and music. They require a consistent schedule and a large time commitment. Many of our students participate in more than one.

As former participants in and coaches of extracurricular activities and now as school and district leaders, we understand how students’ social time and relations are important to academic development.

Extracurriculars complement classrooms

Today, there is a lot of stress on students to earn high grades and succeed in the world of academia, and some parents believe that our public school budgets could do without after-school activity costs. We agree that academic performance is essential. However, if academic success comes at the cost of student growth outside the classroom, we are not developing well-rounded individuals.

Extracurricular activities complement our classrooms. Studies have shown that students who engage in extracurricular activities have a marked improvement in academic achievement. This can be associated with the skills these activities help to develop: time management, organization, commitment and leadership. Participation can also boost student self-esteem and increase brain function. Another life skill learned: communication. Click here to read one of many studies showing that students who participate in extracurriculars have higher grades, more positive attitudes toward school and higher academic aspirations.

Successful productive struggle outside the classroom leads to a willingness to engage in productive struggle inside the classroom.

Following are seven benefits of extracurriculars for students.

  1. Productive struggle: We know firsthand that high school sports prepare students to focus, problem-solve and build endurance in the face of challenges. All students need to experience productive struggle—time and effort that might be uncomfortable at first, but results in the desired outcome. Successful productive struggle outside the classroom leads to a willingness to engage in productive struggle inside the classroom.

    Read: How to support students’ productive struggle


  2. Responsibility: Students who participate in extracurricular activities develop a sense of responsibility as well as time management skills. They have chosen to be a part of after-school activities and their commitment to them is a reflection of who they are. They have a responsibility to uphold the reputation of the activity and their school.

  3. Productive breaks: In bestselling author Daniel Pink’s keynote address at this year’s Future of Education Technology Conference®, he stressed the importance of breaks. Students, he said, need more breaks in school, not less. Extracurricular activities allow students to get out of the classroom and refresh their minds. Social interaction is a very common way for adults to take a break from work; it can be the same for our students.
  4. Less screen time: More organized time for students outside the classroom means less unstructured time for them to consume any number of media platforms. Although it’s called “social” media, engaging in screen time is not social. Students are in front of their screens so much these days that studies are suggesting it is changing brain development. Extracurricular activities reduce the amount of time our students are on phones or computers, for instance, in isolation. They prompt students to engage with others.

    Read: Rethinking ed tech amid parent concerns over K-12 screen time


  5. Team building: Being part of a group or team, students learn to work together, develop a sense of belonging, and have the opportunity to build friendships outside academic circles.

  6. Physical wellness: Whether students are participating in “active” extracurriculars or not, doing so will serve to promote physical wellness. It’s no secret that participation in athletics, including dance, or any other extracurricular that results in physical activity will improve students’ health, but even participation in less active clubs can result in physical wellness. The emotional benefits of participation in after-school activities directly impact the physical health of all students involved.
  7. Résumé building: Extracurricular activities are excellent to include on a college application as evidence of balanced interests and talents. Participation indicates that a student can work as part of a team, strive to reach goals, and commit to attending regular meetings or practices. Students earning leadership positions will immediately catch the eye of an enrollment professional or admissions officer.

Read: How to beat the widening youth sports gap


Join in

Our goal as educators is to be a part of each student’s journey to becoming the best individual they can be. Extracurricular activities can help boost thinking and problem-solving in ways that traditional classrooms can’t. Yes, the classroom can encourage and develop many professional skills, but extracurriculars can put learned skills into practice.

So when it comes to your budget talks this year, take extracurricular activities off the chopping blocks and consider other ways to meet your shortfalls. Didn’t the chess club teach you how to problem-solve?


Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts.  


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