Education Matters: Graceful Transitions
Preparing your teenagers for success at college
Laura Konigsberg outlines some of the skills that your children will need in college.
If you are the parent of a senior, you probably have mixed feelings as you embark on what should be a momentous year. Although you do not know where your child will be a year from now, you can see the finish line of high school graduation. Looking back to ninth grade, you likely see a clear (if not linear) trajectory toward self-reliance, self-discipline, and independence. Is this the same child who needed to be reminded to do homework? Who forgot to bring cleats to soccer practice for weeks? Now perhaps he is driving a carpool to school, or she is leading the debate team.
Certainly challenges remain. Bentley School’s counselor, Nell Branco, wisely reminds us that your son or daughter is not going to college right now. Leaving home is a year away, and much maturing has yet to occur. This is the time to help your child hone her skills of time management, independent decision-making, good judgment, self-discipline, and setting and implementing goals.
Brian Harke, the dean of students at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, cautions families about what he calls the Freshman Myth. According to Harke, 89 percent of students believe that: college faculty will keep track of them and be concerned about their progress; they will not have any trouble doing well in class; and that college will be the same as high school in terms of their ability to handle the workload and to receive good grades. The reality is more complex.
Students may have to work harder to achieve high marks in classes that are significantly larger than their high school sections. Students who have not met with high school teachers for help writing an essay or for calculus review sessions may need some coaching to be visible in their college classes. Students will need to forge relationships with teachers, so you might foster your child’s self-advocacy skills. Parents may want to help their teens to develop meta-cognition, in other words, to think about how they learn, understand, and process material. Students who recognize how they learn, and who can create an environment that plays to their strengths, fare better in college than those who do not.
As Dr. Harke notes, students may find that classes in college move quickly and that assessments are limited to a midterm and final exam. As you may remember from your own college experience, there may not be much room for error with so few papers and tests. There is still time for teens to develop the discipline they will need to consistently keep up with their work. Perhaps the most foreign experience for overscheduled high school students will be the expansive, and unfamiliar, unstructured time in college that they will have to shape and manage.
Students with learning differences will have to register themselves with the college learning center; parents will be politely turned away. Parents will also not automatically receive their child’s grades (unless students sign a waiver) and will not have access to student health records. And, of course, if students have not been trained to do laundry, be prepared to replace a newly pink wardrobe, or to welcome at the holidays—along with your child—a huge duffel bag of dirty clothes.
Psychologist Wendy Mogel cites laundry as a metaphor for the “self-reliance necessary to meet the other challenges of independence” in college. When well-meaning parents shoulder the burdens of routine tasks to give our teens more time to study and beef up their college resumes, we undermine their confidence and their competence. We don’t want to give our children the message that they cannot navigate the demands of everyday life by taking on too many of their responsibilities.
In my opinion, the key to success in college—both academic and psychological—is knowing how and when to ask for help. This skill requires self-knowledge, humility, good judgment, and being open to others. Asking for help is a natural part of self-advocacy. Students need to know their limits and their challenges, and what they will need in order to be successful. A good gauge for college readiness is a student’s ability to anticipate what may not go as planned and to devise a Plan B. What are the resources they can access at college? How may they feel about reaching out to a dean or counselor or resident assistant? We want students to have healthy coping skills and to see the ability to ask for assistance as a strength, not a flaw.
We still have almost a full school year left with our seniors. Below you will find some strategies that focus on independence, self-discipline, and positive relationships that you can employ during this final year to help your student transition to college. These tips may not all apply to your child or feel right to you. Trust your judgment, and your child, and see what you might test drive.
Embrace psychologist Mike Riera’s advice to demote yourself from a “manager” to a “consultant.”
You’ve probably heard this metaphor many times. Take it to heart. If you haven’t downgraded yourself, now is the time. This means, in part, you will want to support your child’s academic goals and performance and to allow him to explore his interests and abilities independently. Resist imposing your expectations or assumptions about what your child should study in college. These expectations can interfere with your teen’s natural development to separate from you and develop his own identity. Remember that it is your child’s turn to go to college and to embark on his or her life. If you have some unresolved issues about your education or career, you owe it to yourself and to your child to address it, not to displace it onto your teen.
Help your child develop meta-cognition about his or her own learning.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of students knowing their own strengths, challenges and inclinations when it comes to learning. Students need to be life-long learners in order to succeed in the 21st century economy. Ask your child about her classes in terms of what she is learning and her learning style. Help him figure out what kinds of learning environments, teaching methods (e.g., lecture, discussion, small group work), and assessments will work for him. Help your student create a narrative about his or her experience as a student. My own experience involved test anxiety, so I shied away from classes that required exams. Instead, I aimed for classes that allowed me to develop my ideas through writing. This strategy paid off, and enriched my ability to communicate, a skill I now use all the time in my career.
Help your child understand and express his or her goals for college.
What does your student hope to get out of college? What are short- and long-term goals? What courses and co-curricular learning will help her to reach those goals? What did your child do in high school that he liked? Are similar opportunities available in college? Are there opportunities to explore new interests and areas that were not available in high school? Encourage your senior to reflect on these questions in advance to help her make the most of her college experience.
Buy your child an alarm clock.
Dr. Harke notes that a major challenge in college is attendance. Remedy this by making your child responsible for her own punctuality. Let him devise a system for getting out of the house in the morning, or getting to play practice or a job. Experiencing the consequences of being late is a valuable lesson, better learned while at home with your help.
Teach your child how to do laundry.
Coach from the sidelines.
Insist that your child handle this year’s conversations with teachers, coaches, and employers—without your help. If it’s a difficult conversation, help her rehearse in advance. Encourage your child to schedule essential appointments, like doctor’s appointments, teeth cleaning, driving tests, SAT exams, tutoring sessions.
Resist jumping in to solve your student’s problems.
For garden-variety problems, like a conflict with a friend, struggles with homework: Many professionals advise to not try and fix the problem—wait at least 24 hours before offering advice. In the meantime, just listen to your child. Ask him how he wants to solve the problem. Perhaps make suggestions, but allow him to make his own plan. Check in again after 24 hours to see how things went. Repeat. Relax. Stay calm.
Help your child anticipate unstructured time.
Help him build regular study time into his schedule this year. Ask her how she will keep her academic commitments—which is, according to Dr. Harke, a challenge for all students, including yours. Ask for specific plans. What time of day is best for getting exercise? What are good times and good places to study? Can your teen identify challenges, e.g., video games, social media, procrastination, perfectionism? Now is the time to experiment with different systems and to develop good habits. Remember that it takes about three weeks to create a new habit, so if your teen can stick with a before-school workout through the discomfort zone, the new routine will begin to fit and feel seamless. And newfound success in one area can build confidence to develop other positive habits.
Help your child build positive relationships with others.
Christine Carter, sociologist and author of Raising Happiness, notes that people who recognize and express gratitude are happier and more successful than those who don’t. The college admissions process can push students toward competition, self-centeredness, and narcissism. Help your teen balance the scale by encouraging acts of gratitude and connection to others. Encourage thank-you notes to teachers who write recommendation letters, and to others who have helped. Help him connect with organizations where he will make a difference, and will know that his contribution matters. Think with your student about how to connect to a new environment, to its cultures and traditions. Bentley’s Head of School reminds us that all people want to be seen, known, and valued. How can your child transition from being one who is seen and valued to one who sees and values others?
To be sure, these amazing conversations and tactics may not happen as planned. Be sure to cultivate kindness for yourself as you navigate this final year with your child at home. Find your support systems; this will not only ease your mind, it will model for your son or daughter the essential value of community and of connecting with others. Trust your teen, and believe in your own intuition. Your teen is not gone, yet. There is still a lot for him or her to learn, and you can look forward to these last steps of your journey together.
Laura Konigsberg is the Dean of Teaching and Learning and Assistant Head of the High School at Bentley School in Lafayette.
Carter, Christine. Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.
Brian Harke. “High School to College Transition: The Freshman Myth.” 6/22/10. www.huffingtonpost.com/
Brian Harke. “High School to College Transition: Academic Expectations.” 7/1/10.
Wendy Mogel. Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Resilient Teenagers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Mike Riera. Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers. New York: Random House, 1995.