High school is just beginning, but my advice has nothing to do with that. This advice is all about college, written from the perspective of a former high school teacher. I know, I know, you and your kid want a moment to adjust to the major life change that high school offers. You’ll worry about college next year. Sorry, I can’t let you do that. The fact is, how your child performs freshman year will be more important than their senior year when it comes to college because of the timing of the application process. Students apply during the fall and winter of senior year which means colleges won’t see those grades until after they have accepted or denied admission. Your crazy little freshman has the power to set up your future brilliant senior for success or failure.
My first year of teaching high school was primarily with seniors. It flabbergasted me when some of my best students could only get into community colleges. My classes were tough and getting a good grade from me meant brains and hard work. How could my good students be so unattractive to colleges? I asked my students and they informed me of their stupidity freshman year. They created a GPA deficit from which they never quite recovered. The next year I taught all freshmen, and I was determined to emphasize the importance of that year. Here’s the best of my advice:
1. Take a foreign language freshman year.
This enables you to take 4 years of it, which universities prefer. This can be be hard if a student wants to take another elective, but unless your child is an artistic virtuoso, it is better to take a language now. Make sure it is a language your child loves, because he or she needs to stick with that language throughout high school. Colleges want to see advanced proficiency, not a series of beginner classes.
2. Get involved in community service on a regular basis.
Colleges look for community service, and more importantly, scholarship programs do. A strong history of volunteering will be a huge asset in admission and financial aid. Let your child decide what project he or she would like to do. This is character building and really should come from an internal motivation.
3. Talk to your school’s career counselor with your child about colleges.
Don’t let this person tell you to wait until your kid is older. Over-worked guidance counselors often push back younger students because the critical need graduating students present. Let your counselor know you are serious. Look at colleges with you child to see what his or her top choices require for admissions. You also want an idea of how much it will cost. Look into scholarship programs now, so your child can craft a resume that will fit the bill by graduation time.
4. Talk about money, big money.
Your kid cares about getting a car, a new cell phone, cool clothes and hang out money. Time for a reality check. Look at your finances and what you will be able to contribute to tuition. Let him or her know your expectations about attending college and paying for college. Letting a child know they will need to get an academic scholarship is fair. Stop by a college bookstore to check out the cost of books. When they see those prices, they will understand why you can’t buy them an iphone. They won’t like it, but they will understand. Involving your child in big money reality provides an essential financial education and gives them the opportunity to start taking responsibility for their future.
5. Cultivate good study habits.
Study habits are crucial to the success of every student, not just the struggling ones. Brilliance will get you far in school, but eventually hard work will determine success. Help your child learn good habits at the beginning of his or her high school career. Habits to cultivate include: keeping track of assignments, breaking projects into manageable chunks, reviewing or recopying notes after every class, and making flashcards for vocabulary.
6. Make daily reading a part of your life.
Reading is just as important in ninth grade as it was in first grade, even though your kid’s enthusiasm may have waned. Thirty minutes a day is the MINIMUM expectation. It is essential to your child’s brain development that this is met, so here are a few tips. First, read yourself. Turn off the TV and set an example. Teenagers are deft at detecting hypocrisy, so you need to dust off your library card too. If your child hates reading, find a book about something he or she loves. Often times boys don’t like fiction, but give them a nonfiction book about cars, whales or their favorite sport star and they will delve into it. Look at nonfiction, biographies, books about countries or interesting historical times. You may also look at manga (Japanese comic books now termed graphic novels). Manga has opened up the world of books to many children, although I wouldn’t let that be their exclusive reading material. Look in reading sources other than books, such as newspapers, scientific magazines, or periodicals about your child’s interests. Everybody can find something to read, but sometimes it does take some prodding and creativity.
7. Give your child computer help.
Think you can’t teach your kid anything about computers? Think again. It is shocking how many students don’t know the basics of word processing. They text and tweet, but they that doesn’t mean they know everything about computers. Teach them the proper format for all written papers (double spaced, New Times font, 12 pt.). This standard format is used in virtually every high school and college class, but many students don’t actually know how to do it. Teach them how to use the spell check, but also that they’ll need to proofread afterwards. Grammar check is frequently wrong, and I don’t recommend using it.
Internet research is increasingly important, but many students have no idea how to qualify the value of sources. Look something up together and show them how to determine what information is trustworthy and reliable and what is just junk. Tell them about the dangers of copy and paste plagiarism. When I suspected it as a teacher, I’d simple google the suspicious phrase and in three seconds a student received a failing grade and disciplinary action. Tell your child it is just as easy to catch a cheater as it is to be one.
8. Attend Open House.
Your child will beg you not to attend Open House. They will be correct when they tell you only freshman parents attend; however, there is good reason for that. Freshman year is the time when students make a transition to teachers who are subject specialists, rather than education specialists. This means that your child’s teacher will be more focused on teaching their specific curriculum than addressing individual learning issues. The expectation is that your child keeps track of his or her assignments, does independent studying, seeks help when needed, and is prepared everyday. The hand-holding part of teaching is over. Attending Open House will enable you to clearly understand your child’s teacher’s expectations, so you can support them on the home front. It is also nice to have a connection with the teacher in case your child struggles later.
9. Nip any problem in the bud.
Freshman year is a time of testing boundaries, so be prepared to make them clear. A drop in grades or a new behavioral problem needs to be addressed firmly and immediately. Don’t let it spin out of control and do irreparable damage. I had students go from F’s to B’s in no time flat after a call home. I also listened to mothers defend their child’s poor performance during fall quarter, and watched them fail the entire year. Your child still needs your guidance. Don’t be afraid to make your child’s life miserable in the short term in order to secure a happy, successful future for them.
10. Let them fail.
This is the hardest piece of advice, and may seem contradictory considering what I wrote about colleges in the introduction. Let me explain. If your child won’t follow your advice and refuses to do his school work, something must be done. Some people just have to learn the hard way, so allow your child to feel the consequences of his actions. If you protect your child now, this behavior will repeat. Eventually everyone experiences the consequences of their actions. Better that your child spend his time in summer school freshman year than he be in danger of not graduating senior year. As for college, a killer essay about how I was so stupid when I was a freshman accompanied with stellar grades from sophomore and junior years can help make up the difference.
Good luck, moms! This is an exciting time in your family. Your baby is growing up, but never doubt that you are needed. Fourteen is not that old. In the span of a lifetime, it’s still very young. As much awful press is written about teenagers, it can actually be an incredibly moving and beautiful time of life. Watch them carefully try on the identity of independence, waver in uncertainty, and always look back to home for strength.