I’m a high school Spanish teacher, and I’m sitting down to write this note to you in April. It’s about this time every year that I look back and see how far my freshmen students have come and make notes about how to help them get a better head start in the fall. I want to share these notes with you because there are things we can understand and do that can make a big difference in student success.
Understand that the freshman year is one of the “big years.” By that, I mean there’s a big developmental jump and a big expectation jump. Third grade is a biggy, sixth grade is a biggy, and ninth grade is a biggy. There are extreme physical, mental, and social changes during ninth grade, as we see students move from being kids to being adults. There are also new heavy academic expectations and a new weight students feel if they’re in sports. Everything matters more. We start to talk about college and scholarships and driving and dating.
So let me give you a list of things I always want to say to parents around August and September –things you can do and keep in mind that will help us all have a happier and more successful school experience.
Sixteen Ways To Help Your Freshman Succeed in School
1. Focus on organizational skills
In grade school and middle school, teachers give a lot of direction in helping students be organized. Then in high school students are kind of tossed into the deep end to swim on their own. Teachers give a mountain of paperwork and expect students to organize it themselves. Most students aren’t ready for this. A few weeks into school, could you please have a “binder and backpack” night? Maybe serve ice cream and make it a party. Say, “Hey, organization matters. Show me how you’re keeping track of papers for all of your classes.” You could also ask to see a student planner every once in a while. Is your freshman writing down assignments for every class? Emphasize that personality does not matter. No matter the personality, every student needs to keep track of papers that are coming and going and assignments that are due.
2. Emphasize work ethic as the number one priority
When college and scholarships enter the picture, parents often make the mistake of freaking out about grades. Please focus on work ethic instead. I know students who don’t do super great in school, but they work like crazy. They should be applauded for effort. With students who are slacking, the conversation should be about the character of being a hard worker, not about the GPA. (If you fix work ethic, better grades are sure to follow.)
3. Inflict pain for poor work ethic
If your freshman is failing because he’s lazy, please discipline him. I don’t mean a physical beating. I mean something really painful, like taking away a phone for a few days or making him stay home from soccer practice to do homework. (Spend time thinking about what will truly “hurt” your kid.) Teenagers need to know that if they are slackers there will be painful consequences.
4. Don’t check grades
These days, parents have internet access to their student’s grades and can even have each assignment grade texted to them. Please, I beg you: DO NOT check your teenager’s grades. Your freshman is almost an adult (don’t cry.) When is he going to learn to be responsible for himself??? If you want to know how your student is doing, ask him. I never once checked my teenagers’ grades in high school.
Instead, I would casually say, “Hey, are ya passing everything these days?” They would voluntarily tell me what their grades were and what classes they were worried about. Both of my kids graduated at the top of their class, by the way. Two side notes here: 1) Trust is the number one most precious gift you can offer your teen. 2) Let your kid fail and then deal with the failure when it comes. This is extremely valuable training for adulthood. (Failure? Inflict painful consequences.)
5. Teach life management
Your freshman is going to have a boatload of homework and extracurricular activities and you asking her to empty the dishwasher. Freshmen need help figuring out how and when this is all going to get done. Talk about priorities, about getting enough sleep and eating well. Talk about the value of saying no to activities. Teens don’t just naturally know how to do this. (While we’re at it, are you managing your life well? Setting a good example?)
6. Set cell phone rules
Make students do homework in public in your house and NO PHONE. (Parent, are you on your phone all the time when you’re at work? You would be fired!) Also, please insist that when your freshman is at school he keep his phone in his backpack and not in a pocket or out on the desk. (Failure to comply? Inflict pain.)
7. Homework is different for each kid
One of my own kids spent three to four hours a night doing homework in high school. My other kid did about three hours of homework during his entire time in high school. They took the same advanced and AP classes and both graduated with honors. We finally figured out that my son simply works fast, and my daughter is painstakingly meticulous and slow. Don’t expect work ethic to look the same for each of your kids.
8. Connect with teachers
Connect with each of your student’s teachers in the first quarter –either at a conference or by email. Ask, “Do you have any concerns regarding my child’s progress in school? Is there anything I could do at home that would help him do better?” Oh, and if something difficult is happening at home, please clue in the teacher. I often adjust my expectations if a student is going through a trial in his or her personal life.
9. Reward improvement
These days parents want their students to be perfect, but come on. Nobody is perfect. Treat your child like a developing human and look for progress over perfection. Did your son get a C last quarter but a B this quarter? Celebrate the success! Did he flunk a test last week but got a C this week? Awesome.
10. Help your student evaluate his own progress
A great question to ask is, “You did pretty well on this. What do you think you would have to do, to improve your grade the next time?” Most freshman don’t self-evaluate, so help them do this.
11. Feed your teen
We had a half-day in school one Friday, so students got out at 11:30. In all of my classes, the guys said, “I wish we were here to have lunch today.” Teenagers talk about food in all of my classes. It’s hard for them to study when they’re hungry. This is even truer if they’re in sports and expending a lot of energy. Think about a good breakfast, snacks for the backpack, a hearty lunch, and a good after-school snack.
12. Help the struggling student to study verbally
A lot of students don’t learn well by just looking at their notes. Say, “Hey, bring that here and let me quiz you on that vocab list.” Prepare yourself for the whining and ignore it. If you have a relaxed and playful demeanor, you might find this could actually be a relationally rich activity.
13. College isn’t everything
Yes, college-bound students need to be mindful of their high school performance, but please emphasize character development and work ethic over getting into a good school. (I might be repeating myself here from an earlier point, but I can’t help it.) Character development will breed the success you hope for. And keep in mind that a lot of really good people have had good careers without being superstars in high school.
14. Remember development and have hope
Freshmen come into my room in August acting like unruly, silly middle schoolers. They leave in June like people you might imagine being responsible adults one day. (I’m forever shocked by this drastic change.) This is a normal development during this year, so relax. My husband always encourages me that freshmen don’t stay freshmen their whole lives. They learn and grow as people. Your student needs you to have high hopes for him.
15. Always keep in mind the big picture
Students are getting an education, but they’re also dealing with relationship challenges all day long. They have to relate to different teachers and different demands all day. Embarrassing things happen regularly, and teens are painfully self-conscious. Then there are hormones (Lord, help us) and guy-girl messes. There are mean people who say mean things. And what about the comparing that we all do? Your student gets a B, but her best friend always gets an A. These kinds of experiences are hard. School is so much more than classes and grades.
16. Create a warm welcome home
Acknowledge that the school day is long and often brutal. Welcome your freshman home with affection, hot chocolate chip cookies, and a tall glass of milk. (Remember how hungry he is!) Don’t ask questions when he walks in the door, because he’s been thinking and answering questions all day. Be ready to talk later –maybe at dinner time or right before bed. Be a good listener.
Okay, that was a lot of information, but I hope the quantity of advice here also reminds you how complex is the road to success. Have hope and keep trying. It’s worth it when you see your child grow as a human.
If you have any other good suggestions, drop them in the comment section below. We can all encourage each other.
Much love from Montana,
Christy Fitzwater is a writer and pastor’s wife living in Kalispell, Montana. She has a daughter who is married and a son in college. Christy writes to help people know God, and you can find her new book about becoming blameless on Amazon. Or follow her devotional blog at ChristyFitzwater. You can follow Christy on Instagram here!