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Support Your Student's Transition to College — Help Them Set SMART Goals

Courtney Ackerman

Transitions are tough. We're not always prepared to manage the big changes in life (even when we know they're coming), and young people are generally less experienced and skilled at coping with them.

The move to college will be one of the most significant transitions your student has experienced. Some students struggle more than others as they adapt to living on their own away from the structure of home and family.

Specifically, they may come face to face with failure — possibly for the first time. Failure is unpleasant for all of us, but it can be devastating for young people, especially if they're accustomed to being top students and breezing through their courses.

The shock of failure can lead to anxiety, depression, and — worst of all — learned helplessness, a phenomenon where a person starts to feel as if their efforts don’t have any impact on the outcome.

As a parent, you're eager to give your student the tools to succeed in college. Luckily there are actions you can take to improve their chances of success. As you prepare to send them off to college, try these four strategies to help them develop the skills and attitudes they need to confidently manage the transition.

1. Model (realistic) optimism.

Adopting an optimistic mindset is one of the best ways to prevent learned helplessness from creeping in. If we're able to look at failures as what they are (a consequence of choices we made and/or circumstances we found ourselves in) rather than what they’re not (an indication of our failings as a person), it’s much easier to believe that we have some amount of control over our future. With a positive outlook, we can put setbacks into perspective.

Adopt this mindset yourself and model it for your student. When bad or discouraging things happen, remind them that these things are:

  • External – Sometimes we fail through no fault of our own, but because of external factors.
  • Temporary – Some bad things are isolated incidents unlikely to be repeated.
  • Situation-specific – A failure or setback in one area doesn't translate to a failure or setback in your entire life.

Of course, it’s important to reflect on our failures and disappointments to see where we went wrong and what we can work on in the future, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that we are not responsible for everything that goes wrong in our lives.

2. Encourage your student to focus on things they can control.

It does us no good to dwell on factors we can’t control. Use a scenario like this to explain it to them:

Imagine you're planning an outdoor activity, like a picnic or shooting hoops with your friends, but your plans are ruined by an unexpected downpour. What should you do to salvage the day?

You could rail at the rain or curse the meteorologist for predicting sunshine. But would any of these things improve the situation? Would they solve your problem?

Instead of focusing on things outside of your control, put your energy toward working around the problem or creating an alternative solution. You could brainstorm ideas for fun indoor things to do with your friends, like see a movie or play a board game. You could also decide to grab rain gear and follow through with your plans anyway, rain or no rain!

Focusing on the things we can control allows us to more effectively deal with change and disappointment.

3. Teach your student the SMART goal setting method.

Have you heard of the SMART method for setting goals? SMART goals are:

  • S – Specific. Your goals should be clearly outlined and unambiguous, and you should be able to easily write them down in one sentence.
  • M – Measurable. You should be able to measure your goals so you know how much progress you’ve made — and when you’ve achieved them.
  • A – Achievable. Your goals should be realistic and achievable (think about probable or potential setbacks to ensure this).
  • R – Relevant. Your goals should be related to your overall aims and desires in life; it does you no good to work toward short- or medium-term goals that don’t further your big-picture goals.
  • T – Timely. Set goals with an end date in mind (e.g., “By September 30th I will…” rather than “Sometime in the next few months, I will…”).

Teaching your student to set and strive toward concrete, meaningful, achievable goals will be a lifelong gift.

4. Provide unconditional love and support.

As ever, the most important thing you can do for your student is simply to love and support them without any limits or strings attached. Be sure they know your love does not depend on them achieving a certain grade point average or even passing every college class they take. Give them the same amount of encouragement and validation whether they succeed or fail.

Further, support them by offering your help when you can and making them aware of other resources when you can’t. For example, you could look up their school’s mental health center and have the number on hand in case they ever want to talk to someone. Encourage them to reach out and make use of these campus resources whenever they feel the need to do so.

Courtney E. Ackerman is a researcher, author and consultant who specializes in positive psychology and survey research. She has written numerous articles on topics relevant to students and their parents, including ways to tackle stress, positive parenting, learned helplessness and learned optimism, the power of journaling, and much, much more. Go to to check out her books on positive psychology.
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