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Elevating Electives: Why They Matter So Much

student electives

Electives save children. When students feel no motivation to go to core content classes, having options that interest them makes all the difference between school being a welcome or a dreaded experience. Unfortunately, electives are too often minimized or misused. Whether students do not have enough choices because of budget constraints, or they are forbidden from enrolling in electives because of poor grades, any system that keeps kids away from subjects they love needs to be rethought. A school’s primary goal is to increase student growth and achievement, and that can be accomplished so much better if children are given the opportunity to engage with a variety of appealing options for learning.

Different Class, Different Kid

How many times has a teacher walked down the hallway to see a student who sits quietly in class clowning around noisily with friends? No matter how much time teachers spend with students each day, getting a complete picture of every aspect of a child during the instructional period is impossible. When kids have electives, they have a greater ability to show sides of themselves that might not emerge in required classes. Otherwise, how can the student who brings a guitar to school every day to play at lunchtime find a way to improve beyond basic strumming without her afternoon music class? Maybe a boy that comes across as shy needs to express himself in the safety of his drama elective. All children can benefit from a space to be themselves and to engage in work they feel passionate about. Having electives as an outlet is a non-negotiable way to make their lives a little bit more meaningful.

Social and Emotional Health

Even with the widespread recognition of how strongly social and emotional wellness relates to academic success, the connection between mental health and electives is still not highlighted enough. Part of feeling well is rooted in how students build identity, which is a lot harder to accomplish without electives. As much as students need their core courses, very few come to school because of math or English. Instead, kids look forward to two other aspects of academic life: time with peers and classes that touch upon more profound needs. When I was in middle school, I loved to act and sing. For the most part, school was a terrible experience at that age. Without having opportunities to build upon those skills in school, it would have been a lot harder for me to get up each morning. This pattern holds true for many struggling students, many of whom only go to school to attend electives. If that opportunity is taken away, the odds that students will encounter significant mental health challenges goes way up.

Extension to Core Classes

When students are successful in one subject area, it manifests in other parts of their education. Part of that connection lies in confidence, which is as much a habit as a mindset. A student who enjoys performing in drama class may gradually grow more comfortable with presentations for other classes, while making up a story for a creative writing class leads to improvement in writing across all contents as students grow more accustomed to producing a higher volume of written work. However, another important consideration is that when students enjoy one class, they are more likely to begin seeing what works (or doesn’t) about their other classes. The ability to analyze instruction, think about what makes us successful learners, and apply our victories in one area to another builds learner identity beyond just one elective course.

The Importance of Choice

Imagine if most decisions were made for us: what we ate, who we spent time with, how we learned. It is so easy for adults to forget that a life without optimal choice, which is what most kids experience, can be awfully dreary. When we give students options, they respond with much higher levels of engagement. By their very definition, electives allow students to follow their interests. If students walk into math class toting paintings or sheet music, asking them about what they’re learning in other classes is a great first step to helping them make important connections. For example, music theory has an enormous number of tie-ins to mathematics, from geometry to physics. Visual art organically supports the study of literary works, often with portrayals of poetry or fiction in a variety of mediums. When students make choices about what they wish to learn, that opens doors to learning that otherwise may never have existed.

The greatest enemy of electives is usually funding. Some schools do not have enough money to offer electives, from financing facilities to paying for staffing. However, decision-making bodies should think long and hard about making cuts to the very courses that keep students engaged in school. Without the possibility of doing something they love, students are far more likely to skip school altogether, to disengage from their core classes, or to spend their days barely tolerating classroom life. None of these outcomes are desirable. For that reason, doing everything possible to keep electives in the mix, even amid troubling times and teacher shortages, is vitally important to student growth.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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