How to manage kids' demanding schedules

Local moms and experts weigh in on juggling

Local moms and experts weigh in on juggling children's schedules. (Credit: Fotolia)

Lacrosse. Religion. Track. Soccer. Gymnastics. With three kids ages 8, 13 and 15, Alisa Birkel of East Islip is constantly shuttling to extracurricular activities. How does she juggle it?

"Coffee is how I do it," she jokes. "That's the strategy. Lots of coffee."

Joking aside, parents can always use a little beginning-of-the-school-year extra advice about how to ease the pressure of their students' schedules. Here is some guidance from fellow parents, psychologists, school officials and leaders of extracurricular groups:

WHEN THEY'RE YOUNG

Consider readiness When kids are 4 to 6 years old, it may be too early to start them in extracurriculars. "I don't think they should be in the car every afternoon when they're 4 years old," says Kathleen Mallen-Ozimkowski, a school and community psychologist in the Huntington school district who focuses on kindergarten to fourth grade.

Maintain perspective Most kids aren't going to be future Olympians, points out Lynn McGinley of Setauket, who has four kids ages 8 to 17. They don't need to be lead soccer goal scorer at age 5. It's not going to mean they don't make the high school team or get into a decent college.

Make it fun If the child is crying and doesn't like the activity, it's time to stop, advises Susan Fassino of Jericho, who has three girls, 20, 18 and 13.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Cast a net The point at this age is to discover what lights up your child. Try to match their personalities to the activity. "Some kids, from the get-go, you know this is not an athletic child," Mallen-Ozimkowski says.

Set limits One or two activities at a time. Such a wide variety exists -- sports, arts, music, dance, chess -- that parents and kids may have a hard time saying no. "Don't bite off more than you can chew, in spite of the appetizing menu of extracurriculars," advises William Futtersak, a psychologist and director of Long Island Anxiety Care of South Setauket. "Too many activities can be counterproductive because of how much stress it creates for the children. It also is extremely stressful for the parents."

Start slowly "I try not to do too much at the beginning of the school year," Birkel says. "I want them to get used to waking up and to focusing on their schoolwork."

Network with other parents "It takes a village -- there's validity to that saying," says Emily Canzoneri of Huntington, a special-education teacher in the Valley Stream district and mom of a first-grader, Aspen, and a 4-year-old, Sophie. "I try to carpool," she says. Last year, for instance, one of Aspen's friends' moms drove Aspen to dance class. Canzoneri took the late shift, picking the girls up from dance after she got home from work.

Feed them first Cathy Firneno of East Islip, who has a second-grader and a 10th-grader, says that on nights with evening activities, she'll feed the kids first and then they can do their homework while she and her husband have dinner, and then they head to evening games, meetings or practices.

Go to the park "Give kids some downtime," says Donna Ceravolo, chief executive of the Girl Scouts of Nassau County. "The kids get really tired. Leave time for friends, reading and being with family. Give them some time to go outside and play and be kids."

MIDDLE SCHOOL

Follow their lead "We'll let him make the decision," says dad Alex Avila of Brentwood, whose older son, Casey, is entering middle school. "He's already 10 years old," Avila says, and he knows what he likes. Casey plans to join art club, and he takes Taekwondo lessons.

Monitor grades Avila says Casey can continue his extracurriculars as long as his academic performance doesn't suffer.

Don't expect excellence across the board Kids shouldn't feel pressure to be a great musician and a star athlete, says Futtersak.

Focus on follow-through Praise them for their participation and dedication, not their number of home runs or chess match wins, Futtersak says.

HIGH SCHOOL

Go deep, not wide Invest in one or two activities rather than being a shallow participant in a great number of activities. Hold a position in a club or on a team. "As kids get older, they do have to specialize," Mallen-Ozimkowski says. Activities demand more hours and commitment.

Reflect future career interest For example, an aspiring journalist would want to work on the school newspaper, says Nick Angelo, a guidance counselor at Freeport High School.

Monitor stress "Are the extracurriculars outlets for stress, or are the extracurriculars leading to stress?" Angelo asks. "When they become such a burden on the student and the family that it's taking away from their education, then you have to re-evaluate whether it should continue."

Encourage community service "Making a difference in the world is one of the biggest feeders to happiness," Mallen-Ozimkowski says. Kids should participate in social action not because it looks good on their college resume, but because it's the right thing to do, she says.

WITH MULTIPLE CHILDREN

Avoid overlap Try to schedule different kids' activities at different times, so you don't have to be two places at once. Or find activities where the classes for each of your children's ages are back-to-back, so you're just making one trip to the dance studio, for instance.

Divide and conquer With four kids ages 8 to 17, Lynn McGinley of Setauket says she feels like she's "fighting a losing battle. We're outnumbered." Her three sons all play travel lacrosse, which can mean weekends in different locales for each son's team. "I go with one, my husband goes with one, one goes with a teammate's parents, and my sister takes my daughter."

Bring entertainment When Susan Fassino of Jericho's two older girls were participating in competitive swimming, her 13-year-old used to be schlepped to their meets. "We would bring an iPad to keep her busy," Fassino says. "Or we'd bring a cousin or friend with us and they'd hang out together."

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