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What to Do When Your Student Just Isn’t Prepared for College
Parents, you know your kids better than anyone else. With this in mind, you likely have a strong sense of how they’ll probably fare in college. When they’re not ready, it can rightly be worrisome for its potential long-term negative impact.
A recent Hechinger Report seems to back up this assertion: Over 500,000 students in the 2014-15 academic year needed remedial coursework in college, and 96% of all colleges surveyed had to offer remediation of some kind to students. Remedial rates vary by state, and part of the problem connects to school quality. Remediation also isn’t the only indicator of stress and struggles, but it’s clear that a lot of students aren’t ready when they get to college.
Some elements of preparedness come down to maturity, which can depend on the person. Emotional readiness is a skill that can be learned, but ultimately the student is the only one who can develop it. Another common problem is anxiety and learned helplessness, a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness even in situations that are not threatening due to a fear of pain and failure.
Overwork and elevated expectations can have as negative an impact as under-preparedness. It’s challenging to find that balance between the two and give your student the exact right advice to enable success. Luckily, a few straightforward strategies can help no matter where your student falls on the spectrum of readiness.
Keep reading to learn more.
Enable Your Student’s Autonomy As Much As You Can
Let’s break down this idea of power and powerlessness. A teenager isn’t an adult yet, and the prefrontal cortex (which powers decision-making and risk) isn’t fully developed. Teens also have fewer life experiences, and will need to rely on you — regardless of whether or not they think they do — to fill in the blanks for them.
It’s also important to remember that students in high school are exploring the notions of what it means to be an adult. As adults-in-training, students begin testing the waters to see what they like and don’t like and to distinguish themselves from their parents. This boundary-pushing might feel infuriating, but it’s pretty normal. Your job is to keep them safe, successful, and healthy.
The trick is to enable them, slowly and strategically, and understand their limitations. A student who gets homework done on time may no longer need a daily check-in about how school’s going, but be watchful to make sure grades don’t slip. A student desperate to get a driver’s license who has demonstrated the appropriate skill level can take the car, but only for small trips at first and not with friends until you feel it won’t cause distraction.
This also means that students will have to fail. You will have to provide them with enough leeway for them to try, experiment, make mistakes, and learn. Failure can get a bit of a bad rap; it’s treated like a unfixable consequence and one to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately but also fortunately, failure’s actually essential and the key to true life learning.
The situation with your teen will be ever-evolving, and you’ll need to adapt your rules accordingly. There’s a lot of worth in explaining to your student why you’re making your decisions and involving him or her in the decision-making process. The more you expect and encourage adult behavior, the more your teen will know what actions will lead to the greatest independence.
Giving your child good age-appropriate role models, who essentially say the same thing but have that key similarity in age, can also be helpful as you move along this path.
Be Ready to Listen (Even if It’s Not What You Want to Hear)
A child has fewer words and emotional skills to communicate feelings and impulses. Just as a baby cries because of hunger or fear, a student may use actions or imperfect language to tell you what’s really going on.
Take a student that isn’t trying in school. It’s actually pretty rare to find a truly unmotivated student. More likely, the culprit is fear, frustration, or lack of comprehension. Here, the concept of learned helplessness is a common problem. If students fail, especially in a very competitive academic environment in which a B will knock them out of the running for valedictorian or an academic prize, the blow can be crushing.
Without the life experience to know that failure happens sometimes — and often for reasons that are not in their control — students can begin to feel helpless around schoolwork in general and can even begin to catastrophize (thinking irrational negative thoughts about situations that don’t merit that level of anxiety).
Silence can also speak volumes. Without the words or feelings of security to speak up, students can internalize instead. In our high schools today and with the increasingly high requirements to get into college, overwhelming pressure is common. A student having trouble with this may begin to exhibit signs of stress, like a change in habits, sleeplessness, or generalized anxiety, and is probably turning inwards instead of speaking up about fears and expectations.
Students should feel safe to express themselves in a safe environment without fear of repercussion; if you’re not feeling like your support is enough, counselors and therapists have lots of techniques for your student (and you, if you’re interested) to acknowledge feelings and process them effectively.
As always, it’s about balance. If your student says he or she wants to change schools once, take that information in stride; it might just have been a bad day, and teens can sometimes be dramatic. But if a student tells you over and over that he or she needs to change schools, even when no concrete reason is provided, it’s important to listen and react.
A student may also feel afraid to offend you, especially if your expectations don’t match with each other. Just know that your student is not you — he or she has unique needs and what worked for you may look very different from what works for your student.
Give The Situation Time
This is probably the toughest part, but it’s also the most important. At CollegeVine, we’ve seen students get serious about their studies midway through high school or even in college. Sometimes they’re just not ready when you expect them to be.
On the plus side, there are still plenty of options available for students who need time to adjust to the unique independence and responsibility of higher education. Community college is an option; so is transferring to a desired school after bringing up grades at another institution. Sometimes students take a gap year; sometimes they switch majors if their original path is too intensive.
Regardless of the context, the ultimate goal is to empower teenagers to face adulthood head-on, with the right mix of confidence and humility to try, fail, learn, grow, and become adults. You are responsible for a major piece of this growth, but it isn’t totally in your hands either. The more you communicate and listen, the more your student will show you what you need to do to help along the way.
If you’re interested in helping your student develop these skills beyond what you’re able to do yourself, consider the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program. Our mentors are current students at elite colleges that have survived and thrived in their college experience. Their ideas and insights will provide a powerful model for you or your student to emulate, maximizing the chances of academic and social success.