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Did Your New College Student Hit Their First Tough Patch?

Guest Contributor

Advice for Parents of First-Years from a College President

The kind of phone calls parents get from their first-year students midway through a semester are often very different from the calls they receive at the start of the school year.

The calls often change from the exuberant “Everything is so exciting!” to the fretful “I just got my first midterm exam back and didn’t do well,” or “I don’t like my roommate,” and even the call that starts with “I just tried out for X and didn’t make it.”

How do you respond as a parent in ways that help your student turn early stumbles into long-term success?

1. Promote resilience by changing mindsets and expectations.

First and foremost, help inoculate your student against the fiction that “Everyone else is thriving and succeeding except for me.” It’s not true. Not even close. And it is certainly not helpful.

Instead, help them understand that failure is normal and part of the process of growing. Start by getting them to change the question from "How come I'm failing?" to "How do I learn to fail forward?"

Start by helping them understand that everybody faces failures (maybe even share some of your own). Remind them of the times when they overcame failure. Or remind them that the "failed exam" is just one exam among many.

Tell them there is a reason why so many Silicon Valley companies embrace a mantra of “Fail fast, and fail often.” Or share Michael Jordan’s great quote, “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”

Once they have changed the mindset, encourage them to do something about it. Get them to lean into the experience.

2. Make meaningful connections early to solve problems.

Encourage them to seek out faculty or staff who can help them learn from the experience. Colleges are filled with people who want to help and are good at helping, but students need to seek it out. Data from Gallup and Strada Education Network  documents that one of the single biggest predictors of post-college success is if a student found a mentor who connected, cared about and catalyzed them.

Learning to find mentors is crucial to translating early failure into growth and long-term success. It's also an important life skill. Too often students are hesitant to reach out to faculty and staff. And too often when they do, they want somebody to solve the problem for them.

Help your student learn to identify and approach faculty and staff who can help them learn to solve their problems. Let them do the work, but then follow up by asking how those meetings went.

3. Staying busy, getting engaged and widening friendship networks are the other missing ingredients.

Staying busy distracts students from the stumbles, while being engaged increases the odds that students will find the pathway to passing the class, finding some friends, or learning that they are talented and capable.

Start with the academics. Encourage your student to do the work and be engaged in classes. Prioritizing academics tends to bring down the stress levels and amp up the happiness. As students dive into their academics, they get excited by learning new things, they tend to meet friends in their classes, and they learn that they really can handle the course work.

Second, encourage your student to get involved in co-curricular activities. Colleges are filled with clubs and organizations. Encourage them to pursue something they're interested in and to stretch themselves by finding something that is totally new. Getting active on campus is a great way to meet some people, have some fun and to develop skills and confidence.

Friendships are also important, but maybe not always conceived correctly. I often find that first-year students play it safe when it comes to friends. They surround themselves with people like themselves in ways that narrow the college experience. Many of the early stumbles can revolve around early friendships that don’t meet expectations.

The students getting the most from college are seeking out a wide set of friendships, especially with people who are different from themselves.  Students who have a wider network of friends with different life experiences and world views tend to develop new ways of thinking about themselves and the opportunities that surround them.

Help your student use the early failures to dive a bit more into the academics, find a new co-curricular interest, and push themselves to develop a wider set of friends. Often the early stumbles lead to students changing their curricular or co-curricular focus in ways that help them to make a change that will benefit them in the long run by finding a better academic or social pathway.

4. Life habits matter.

Lastly, help your student understand that life is stressful, and it is filled with setbacks. Sleep, exercise and nutrition are foundational. So is putting the phones away, letting their minds rest from screens and social media.

And students also need to find their "thing" that they will turn to when they hit the bumps. I am encouraged by the programs emerging on college campuses and college towns on mindfulness, which is a life habit for managing failures, keeping stress at bay and maintaining a healthy perspective (there's no need to let catastrophic thinking unnecessarily trip them up).

Life in “the real world” is often complex, difficult and marked by challenges and setbacks. There’s no better time than the early college years to develop resiliency, adaptability and other good life habits that can help manage these challenges and transform them into long-term success.

When those “less than happy” mid- and late-semester calls arrive, see them as an opportunity.

Adam Weinberg is the president of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
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