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Use Growth Mindset When Choosing a CollegeGuest Contributor
As I gathered input on this topic from friends and professional educators (and reflected on my own family’s experiences), one habit — or rather life skill — emerged as the clear winner.
It’s not how many hours a day your child spends on homework, or what kind of planner they use (though those things matter). Learning to self-advocate is the single most important skill high school students should develop to set themselves up for success in college.
What is self-advocacy? Basically, it means speaking and acting for yourself. Your teenaged daughter self-advocates when she talks to her coach after practice about what she needs to do to earn more playing time, or when your son goes to see his history teacher about an assignment he turned in but didn’t get credit for. (Notice that, while you may have talked through these situations with your child beforehand, you are not calling/emailing the coach or teacher.)
Now, straight off let’s recognize that some high school students are way more ready than others to self-advocate. If your child isn’t doing this yet, it doesn’t automatically mean you are a helicopter who doesn’t know how to back off. Your student might embrace — even insist on — self-advocacy or they may need to get there with baby steps (that continue s-l-o-w-l-y all through high school and college).
Let me also observe that it’s not always easy to allow our children to self-advocate. The process can be messy and the results uneven. Junior and senior year in high school, as the stakes get higher, parental anxiety can increase. We may find ourselves itching to do things for our kids that we know they can for themselves.
But here’s why it’s essential to permit and encourage self-advocacy in our high school students.
SELF-ADVOCACY MATTERS IN COLLEGE. PRETTY MUCH MORE THAN ANYTHING.
My friend Beth has two sons in college; she’s also an educator and counselor who has worked closely with high school students for decades, and she had this to say:
Students who are good self-advocates have the confidence in themselves to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities available at college. They seek out their professors during office hours and ask questions about class work and assignments. They make sure their professors get to know them and see them as enthusiastic, curious students who are eager to be considered for research or internship opportunities.
This really is how it works. I was surprised and pleased when my middle son told me first semester of his freshman year that he was already visiting his professors’ office hours. He built relationships that led to excellent on-campus jobs (teaching assistant, docent at the natural history museum), a summer research fellowship, even a house-sitting gig. Now as a junior, his comfort in going to see his professors continues to serve him well as he digs deep into higher level academic work.
How do we help our younger kids get from here to there?
The foundation of the self-advocacy habit is the ability to approach, talk to and work with the adults in their lives — teachers, coaches, employers — without parental mediation.
For some personalities, this is difficult. Your child may be fearful. All the more reason to start as early as possible. This means, parents, that WE step back. An example from Beth: “Rather than commiserate with your high school student when they complain about a teacher or a class or a test or a grade, suggest they do something about it. Encourage them to develop a positive relationship with the teacher by seeking extra help; teach them to try to understand where the teacher is coming from.”
I appreciated Beth’s reminder that supporting our kids doesn’t mean taking their “side” against a teacher with whom they have an issue. Talking to my youngest son, a high school senior, I try not to say things like, “You’re right, it’s completely unfair that your physics teacher did that.” I still do, unfortunately, sometimes say things like that, but mostly I aim to remind him of his options: ask questions if expectations for an upcoming assignment aren’t clear, go to the teacher’s weekly tutoring session to talk over how he did on a quiz or paper, etc.
What results from these experiences?
Your student realizes they can get through an uncomfortable situation and make positive change happen on their own. They get to know, and maybe even enjoy, a teacher more. The teacher in turn knows and enjoys your student. My friend Liza’s daughters learned the value of nurturing relationships with teachers in high school: “They made the effort to chat informally, write notes and even buy thank-you gifts for favorite teachers. They found this made school more enjoyable and it meant they never lacked for academic and emotional support from adults outside the family as well as great sources of references for college, jobs, etc.”
When we step back, we gain an entirely different perspective. We can focus not only on our students’ grades but on their growth — their ability to build relationships and become active learners. Better academic performance, and a more authentic self-esteem, will flow.
Here are the runners-up — all very important as well. And again, please don’t feel overwhelmed by this list. You and your student can be working on these habits all through high school (and beyond).
#2: Get organized and cultivate key study habits.
Almost anything is possible when we’re organized. Students transitioning to the heavier workload of high school often flounder at first. Creating good organizational habits in high school is a great way to prepare for college. It is also very important during high school that your student begin to understand themselves as a learner. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What works well for them? In what areas do they typically need the most support? How will they get that support?
On that note, professional help is sometimes needed: Marlene hired an organizational tutor for her son last year after a rough start to sophomore year “to teach him skills we did not know he didn’t possess. Until the work got harder it did not matter.”
#3: Strive for work-life balance.
This relates to #2, and #1 and #4 for that matter. Up until high school, you have probably made many of the choices relating to how your student spends their time but during the high school years, your student should begin to own this. It is their life, after all. These are the years when they may realize that a certain activity no longer thrills them; or they want to de-intensify an extracurricular commitment in order to have more time for academics.
Some things will fall off their plate, but other interests will deepen.
In high school, your student should learn how to:
#4: Prepare for independent living, learn to manage self-care.
Many students relish doing things for themselves; others must be dragged kicking and screaming into adult territory. But go they must. Everyone’s life will be happier when they have the confidence to do the following by themselves: