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4 Creative Ways to Get Students to Check Email

Jennifer Sullivan


Our young adults are proficient at many types of technology, but it seems to be a constant (at least in my house!) trying to get my teenage daughters to understand the importance of checking their email daily. Add to this scenario a generation of teenagers who naturally prefer to text or look for info "in their DMs."

Checking (and sending) emails every day is an essential college success skill — and an important part of "adulting" in general.

We know our college-bound teens need to get in the daily email habit but most of them aren't there yet. So what can we do?

Try out these four tips to help your student develop a habit of checking their email inbox, and then reinforce that important habit when they do.

1. Build email time into your family routine.

An easy way to teach a skill is through telling and showing. Modeling the behavior you're trying to teach is an effective way to change your teen’s behavior.

Incorporate a time of day when you encourage everyone in your family to check their email — together. For example, after dinner, encourage everyone in your family with a phone to spend five minutes checking email. This isn’t a social media/video game break, but an intentional time to look for important business or school emails.

Then everyone shares with the family one important piece of information they learned from their inbox. Modeling a habit and sharing your learning with each other: a win-win!

2. Experiment with variable reinforcement (it's not just for Skinner's pigeons).

Based on the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, reinforcing a behavior is the quickest way to increase the frequency of that behavior. Put simply, reinforce behavior you want to see repeated.

This is one of my favorite tips and has been effective with my own teens. I start by identifying a small treat that will motivate my daughter (i.e. $5 Amazon gift card, a coffee, more time to play video games, etc.). Whatever will motivate your teen becomes the reward that will reinforce their behavior.

I email my daughter at various days/times and tell her in the email that if she lets me know that she read the email on that day, I'll reward her with the treat in the email (I include an image of a Dunkin' coffee, ice cream cone, etc.). Sending these emails at random times means that your teen needs to check their email frequently because they don’t know when the reward will come.

Some parents might call this bribery but psychologists label it "reinforcement" or self-reinforcement and point to our brain's natural way of responding to rewards to increase and change behavior.

3. Send event invites to your student's Google calendar.

Encourage your teen (and your entire family) to use a shared calendar such as Google Calendar. Your family can have a shared online calendar where you list sports games, campus events, medical appointments, and social get-togethers.

Even if your family uses a visual calendar at home on the refrigerator or a whiteboard calendar on the wall, you can create a shared electronic calendar, too. We know teens don’t go far from their phones, so a Google calendar that mirrors your family calendar at home means your teen always knows events that are happening.

Use your teen’s email address to invite them to the shared calendar and they'll receive a pop-announcement on their phone AND an email reminder as the event approaches. You’ve just created a multifaceted approach to scheduling and emailing — nice job!

4. Ask your teen to attach a photo or document to an email.

Checking email is an important skill, but does your teen know how to respond to an email — and better yet, include an attachment?

You may be surprised to learn that many new college students struggle with the technical skills needed to send an email with an attachment. College professors may ask students to email rough drafts of an assignment or include a scholarly article they found while researching and you don’t want your teen’s technical savvy to be a barrier.

While you build your teen’s email capabilities, ask them to occasionally send you a favorite picture from their camera roll — in an email, not a text. Or have your teen take a picture of their fall semester class schedule and send the picture as an attachment to both you and them via email. The more comfortable our teens become checking and sending emails, the better prepared they will be for college.

We know that currently email is the primary way colleges and universities communicate with students. This summer is the perfect time to start developing your college-bound student’s email habits!

Jennifer Sullivan, M.S. is a private executive functioning coach for high school and college students and the founder of Fast Forward College Coaching. Jennifer lives in southeastern CT and helps students across the country improve their time management and organization skills. Jennifer currently teaches at UCONN in the Neag School of Education. She and her husband are the parents of two teenagers. Find more or her expert advice in her book, Sharing the Transition to College: Words of Advice for Diverse Learners and their Families.
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