By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
By the time they reach high school, your kids are no longer kids but they’re not yet adults either: they occupy a unique middle ground we call the teenage years. How do you prepare your teens for all the academic and social challenges of high school? Here’s what the experts say:
Visit the School
Starting high school often means literary moving to a different school, and that can make any teen anxious. One of the best things you can do is to make it a priority to visit their new school on back-to-school night. As Michael Zwiers, a professor of educational psychology, says, “familiarity helps to reduce anxiety.” The experts at KidsHealth, a major health-news site, add that high-schoolers should familiarize themselves with all the important parts of their new school, including the main office, the various administrative offices, and the school nurse.
Explain School Expectations
You can make your teens less anxious by explaining to them how high school differs from middle school. Dr. Karmen Russell, a child psychologist, suggests that parents introduce their teens to “home rooms” and the frequent changes in classes throughout the day, and help them plan their day by studying the physical layout of the school together: “If your child can begin to imagine what their first few weeks at high school might look like, this may help with the anxiety that can accompany the transition.” Grace Chen, an education researcher at Public School Review, a well-known education site, agrees: “It’s very important for incoming high school students to learn their way around the school and get an idea of the structure of the school day.”
Teach Them Organization
As in middle-school, success in high school depends in large part on how organized your kids are. They have lots of courses, taught by different teachers, and the workload is often heavy and difficult. “Learning and mastering the skills of getting organized, staying focused, and seeing work through to the end,” the experts at KidsHealth say, “will help teens in just about everything they do.” They suggest that parents keep their teens organized with binders, folders, and notebooks for each course, a calendar with all upcoming deadlines, and a daily to-do list of assignments.
… and Time Management
An important part of good organization is time management. Ms. Chen suggests that parents spend the summer before high school showing their kids how to organize their daily schedule so that they have time for all their activities. “The right system initiated over the summer,” Ms. Chen says, “will mean less stress over time management throughout the school year.”
Encourage Book Reading
Help your budding high-schoolers by encouraging them to read lots of books. This can be challenging since many teens read few books other than those they’re assigned at school. But, reading books is good for them. Amanda Morin, a senior expert for Understood, a nonprofit that supports people with learning and thinking differences, says that parents shouldn’t be picky about what their teens are reading as long as they’re reading books: “whether she prefers graphic novels or teen romance books, the important thing is that she’s reading.” As Ms. Morin says, “unplugging from her electronics for a while and getting lost in a good book could be one of the simplest ways to help her perform better at school.”
Help with Homework
Unlike organization, time management, and reading, experts agree that parents should take much more of a hands-off approach when it comes to homework. As Ms. Morin pointedly says, “if the last time you studied pre-calculus was when you were in high school, you probably won’t be of much use when your teen has questions.” Kris Bales, an educational curriculum reviewer, adds that high-schoolers should take responsibility for their own education; they’re supposed to be what she calls “self-directed learners.” Instead of helping your teens with their homework, Ms. Morin says, talk to them about finding someone who can help them: “Staying after school for a homework club, meeting with a teacher individually, or seeking assistance from another student could make a big difference in their grade.”
Manage the Stress
High school can be stressful: the academics are hard, and so is the pressure to fit in socially. If academics are the primary worry for your teens, Ms. Chen says, help them create a schedule that includes ample time for homework as well as friends. Conversely, if your teen is concerned about making new friends, Ms. Chen says, remind them of all the times they successfully made friends in the past: “Bring his strengths to the forefront to help him understand why his current friends chose to spend time with him in the first place.”
Create Support Networks
Another way to help teens manage stress is to encourage them to create support networks of adults and/or other teens. Ms. Chen suggests that parents help them assemble a network that includes an older sibling, an extended family member, as well as a teacher, school counselor, or perhaps even their pediatrician, whomever your teens are comfortable talking to. Professor Zwiers recommends that peers also be included in the network. If your teens have friends who’ll attend the same high school, they should consider traveling to schools together in the morning and/or meeting up before school or during lunch. As Professor Zwiers says, “this will give them the opportunity to share and compare experiences – essentially normalizing what they’re going through, while brainstorming solutions to challenges they might be facing.”
Teens can also find peer support by joining extracurricular activities like art, music, or sports. “When students get involved in extracurricular activities in high school,” Ms. Chen says, “they cultivate a sense of belonging and meet new friends with similar interests to their own.” Professor Zwiers agrees: “this can be an easy way to connect with others who’ve similar interests, while building a support network at school.”
About the Author
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.