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Proactive vs. Reactive College ParentingJennifer Sullivan
In a recent CollegiateParent Conversation over Zoom (watch it here!), three delightful people who know so much about what makes for a successful transition to college (for students and for parents) shared their best advice for supporting your new college student this fall.
Amy Baldwin is the Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas (and also the parent of an incoming college freshman as well as an older college student). Deborah Porter, founder of Moms Mentoring Circle in Virginia, has three children who are all college graduates — and financially independent (“the biggest raise you’ll ever get!”). Jennifer Sullivan is a college instructor in Connecticut and a life coach (Fast Forward College Coaching) working primarily with unique learners and their families.
We started by discussing some of the common stumbling blocks and challenges for first-year students with our three experts sharing helpful insights and tips.
Deborah brought this up straight away, observing that college requires a much higher level of organization. As a parent, her strategy was to start working on this during high school by gradually giving her kids more autonomy and responsibility for their own projects. “Every grade they earned, they earned,” she said. For her, learning by trial and error what you need to do to be successful is one of the most important life lessons. "And then make use of the many different campus resources there are to help with this skill."
Amy agreed that asking for help is part of owning the process, and reminds parents that the school is ready and waiting for students to connect with professors, mental health support/counseling, and more. Students should know how to access campus resources and put support systems in place this fall. “Encourage your student to develop help-seeking behaviors!”
Jennifer added that it’s especially important for students with disabilities to make a connection right away (during the first week of school if possible) with the accessibility office. Again, they need to own this process — it’s not on the parent, unlike in high school where they had a 504 or IEP and you were included in decisions. However, you can help your student understand the disclosure and accommodations request processes at their school. All the steps required for accommodations must be done by the student.
She understands that the decision to disclose is complicated. College is a chance to start over, but she does encourage students to think seriously about disclosing to the accessibility office as well as to their professors. “It requires vulnerability and honesty about how these challenges will impact you,” she says. You can help your student prepare for these conversations and meetings — they can write things down and have them in their pocket or on their phone.
“Parents, in any year, be patient,” Jennifer says, reminding us that there is so much for new college students to balance and navigate in the first semester. Students will NOT have it all together. They may excel in one area (for example, their classes) but be struggling with showering and laundry.
Amy agreed. “Adulting is a process. The three months between high school and college is not enough time to get them up to speed on how to do everything.”
The first-year students Amy works with tell her the biggest surprise they have as they start college is the pace at which material is covered and the depth they’re expected to master. “It’s a shocker, even if they took AP classes in high school,” she says and students easily get overwhelmed by all of it — the reading, the labs, the lectures.
She recommends you encourage your freshman to carve out the time to do the reading, attend lectures, and attend class (in person or online). They need to control how this is done in their day and on their calendar. It’s not scheduled for them the way it was in high school. Amy reiterated that time management and getting help are essential.
Deborah’s tip for new students is to connect with an upperclassman who can serve as a mentor. Students left high school as the big man or woman on campus but are now starting all over again in a completely new environment. A mentor can give them the inside scoop on professors — not so much who’s good or who isn’t, but insights into teaching methods. “Some instructors are better than others for your personal learning style and information processing.”
Returning to the theme of time management, Jennifer pointed out that in high school students use tools that have been given to them whereas in college they’re on their own. “Encourage your student to organize the space in their dorm,” she says. She really likes white boards and white board calendars (available with adhesive to stick to the wall or magnetic ones that will stick to a mini fridge). Students can also use their phone as an organization/executive functioning tool.
Ideally, they find a system before they leave high school and have a chance to practice, so it’s in place. But if that didn’t happen, now’s the time to do this.
Deborah wants you to know that “Sometimes you have to celebrate a C!” This is hard for our A students, but especially freshman year there will be times when they do their best and a C is the result. “You'll have to cheer them on, congratulate them for persevering, and celebrate that C.”
And know that Ds and Fs happen, too. Amy is used to seeing first-year students freak out over a low grade. She assures them this is normal on an early assignment and guides them through how to use this information about what they didn’t do the right way to improve next time. “Faculty often build a course around this expected hiccup,” she offers, and sometimes drop a low grade or provide other ways to cancel it out.
The other extreme is the student who shrugs off the D or F. There’s a healthy middle ground — parents can help their student understand that they need to attend to what they have to do during the remainder of the semester to strategize their approach to the rest of the course.
To do this, they need to talk to their professors, whether in person or virtually. “Some students hesitate; they fear they’ll be judged and that the professor will be mad at them,” Amy says. “Absolutely not! We may wonder what happened but we’re very interested in helping your student get better.”
Assure your student that they don’t need to fear their professors and their professors won’t think less of them for seeking help — on the contrary. You can coach your student in how to talk to a professor and open up the conversation. "I'll do anything to help a student who comes to me," Amy said.
One thing that sometimes gets overlooked — your student should enjoy the journey they’re commencing.
They can start to explore opportunities and experiences to get a better sense of what they want to do. "Encourage your student to enjoy their classes — go with curiosity, especially if it’s a class they’re not sure about or a subject they’re not familiar with," says Amy. This can help them develop a sense of what they do and don’t like and will help as they start refining what they want to major in and a career pathway.
She’s telling her own son, “You’re going to have four years of eating 24/7 cafeteria food and then guess what, that doesn’t happen anymore. Enjoy those times when you can be a true college student.”
Deborah points out that electives are fantastic for this. In addition to being a great way to explore things completely different from their major classes, they can also help balance a crazy semester. “Encourage your student to explore something new and outside of their comfort zone,” and as a parent, be open to that class that might sound a bit wacky to you but might open up doors of creativity and personal fulfillment for them.
Enjoyment and self-discovery can also come from extracurricular experiences. Some of these may be curtailed this fall because of social distancing, but our students should always remember that college isn’t just academics and the richest moments may come from a commitment or relationship outside of class.
The students Jennifer works with often have unique interests. Freshman year is a great time to work on leadership skills and start a club if there isn’t one for them. “Remind your student to be proud of their own interests!”
Amy circled back to the power of being curious. “I tell my students and my own kids, look for diversity on campus. Join groups of people who don’t look like you or come from your background. Connect with people who are as diverse as your institution is. The world’s a beautiful place.”
Within the atmosphere of uncertainty, very different things are happening on different campuses with changes in plans taking place on a daily basis. Some first-year students are staying home and others will be on campus. What conversations should families be having?
“Talk to your kid about getting checked if they don’t feel well,” says Deborah. They can’t assume it’s a cold or that they can sleep it off. If they have ANY symptoms or don’t feel quite right, they should call the student health center and find out the process for being seen.
Parents should know the process for this as well — it will have been communicated to you and will be available on the website both on the health services page and in the section on the website dedicated to information about COVID-19.
This is good advice even when we’re not in a pandemic, Amy said.
Amy will also be talking to her son, who’s attending the institution where she teaches, about the indoor mask requirement. “I expect him to follow the guidelines of the institution,” she stated. “We’re trying to protect the bigger community. His individual choices can affect that.”
We all want our students to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, working with their communities to achieve the overall goals of preserving public health and permitting their schools to function successfully and return to fully normal operations sooner rather than later.
Jennifer would like to remind parents that communication now happens between the college and the student and parents are not necessarily in the loop. Your student can waive their right to privacy in certain areas giving you access to things like their student account, grades, health records and more. This is something for parents and students to discuss.
Deborah urges parents to ask their students to sign any necessary FERPA waiver forms before they leave home. (Sometimes this is a written form, sometimes it’s electronic. Information will be available through the registrar.) “Then it's one less thing you have to remind them about.”
Amy put in a quick request for parents to be patient with people at the school who may still be finalizing the waiver process, and remember that they can’t speak to faculty/staff about a student until these permissions are in place. “I have to follow the letter of law and confirm that parents do have access permitted,” she says. “We want to help parents and do not want to keep anything from them, but we need to do it in the appropriate way.”
Jennifer talks to the parents of the students she coaches about their parenting style, and always suggests that they think ahead to what kind of parent they want to be when their young adult goes off to college.
Many of us tend to be reactive parents — we deal with what comes at us in the moment. Instead we can think about being more proactive. “Take a moment and reflect before your child leaves and think about the qualities you'd like to exhibit. Maybe there are things you’d like to do differently and have a different kind of relationship with your child now that they’re in college. Think about situations before they happen.”
Deborah agrees. “There really is a letting go. We may hold on tighter when we need to be releasing them.” She and her husband had to get used to less frequent communication when they realized they were calling their kids too often. “You’re used to seeing them every day but that contact may now become weekly.”
“Retire the helicopter or lawnmower parent,” she advises. This kind of parenting is in conflict with our children’s development and what we want them to accomplish (and the college won't let you do this anyway). "You get pieces of your life back, too," Deborah says.
Amy agreed that parenting a college student is developmental for the parent as much as it is for the student. “Think about how you are going to back away this fall. How will you parent them as they choose a major and career path? How will you slowly give them their autonomy and help them build confidence?”
We short circuit this if we get ahead of them and advocate on their behalf. “It takes time,” she assures us. Again, be patient — with your student and yourself.
Jennifer concluded by urging parents to reach out to friends with college-aged children, and to experts and professionals. “Whether you’re sharing joys or challenges, we welcome conversations with families,” she said.
The Parent & Family Program office at your student’s college is a good starting place when you have a question or concern — they will help you or direct you to the right place. In-person Family Weekends will probably not happen this fall, but you can attend virtual events and conversations hosted by the college. Participate as much as you can in order to learn about the school and find healthy outlets for your energy and desire to be involved.
You don’t have to do this alone. People will walk alongside you.