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High Hopes for High School

What you need to help your child succeed

Remember high-school football games, pep rallies, yearbooks, and proms? What about finals, term papers, and college entrance exams? You may have gotten your driver's license, gone on your first date, worked summer jobs, and maybe even bought your first car during these same years. Looking back on the eventful years of high school, I'm glad I was young enough to handle all those changes and challenges at the time!

This fall my oldest son begins high school, and I'm nervous. While he's not especially worried about this transition, I'm concerned about heightened academic expectations, added peer pressure, an increased sense of competition, and hormones bouncing off the walls.

While teens may act like—and even say—they don't want their parents to be involved, they really do.

What's a first-time parent of a high- school student to do? It was hard enough depositing my child in that brightly decorated kindergarten room where a cherubic teacher read him stories, gave him cookies, and tied his shoes. Now I must contend with teachers who instruct more than 100 students, coaches who defend district titles, counselors who encourage college-prep courses, and upper classmen who look like grown men and women.

Before I let my imagination carry me too deep into the pit of anxiety, I decided to ask a few trusted experts for advice. I spoke to high-school administrators, counselors, and teachers who shared steps to help my student transition smoothly into high school and succeed during his years there. I also talked with parents who gave me perspective, wise counsel, and encouragement.

Put Fears in Perspective

According to principal Tommy Wallis, high school is indeed a huge transition. "High school is nothing like middle school," says Wallis. "You should prepare for some major adjustments, academically and socially."

Still, as a parent you can help minimize the "monsters in the closet" for your teen. Your student may be concerned about a host of normal fears, such as getting lost or being bullied by older students. He also may have heard stories about difficult teachers, unfair restrictions, tough classes, or extreme punishments. You can put most of these fears in perspective with some open dialogue with your child, but many schools provide orientation events that also help settle some butterflies.

Steps to Emotional Success

  1. Visit the school with your student. If your school doesn't offer a freshman orientation for students and parents, make an appointment for a meeting with an administrator or counselor and a private tour.
  2. Get the "low down" from a respected veteran high-school student. I invited a high-school junior, who seems to be enjoying school and making good grades, and her family to join us for lunch after church. In the course of natural conversation, we learned a wealth of information about teachers, courses, the band, and school clubs from a reliable and enthusiastic source.
  3. Go to school eventsbefore your student takes the field or stage. Band director Darin Jolly says, "Many students drop out of music and athletic programs out of fear of high-school standards. In my experience, students who witness the high-school level from the bleachers or audience first often come into the high- school program with increased confidence. They are more successful from the beginning and often become leaders in their organizations."
  4. Beware of horror stories. Help your student realize that not everything he hears about his new school is necessarily true. I've found that disgruntled parents often have stories to tell as well. I need to check out what I hear with reliable sources and steer clear of the rumor mill.

Prepare Your Student for the Challenge

Kim Tucker, the mom of two current high-school students and one upcoming freshman, tells me the transition to high school can include some bumpy roads that I need to navigate with my son. "Both of my girls want to be involved in lots of groups and activities," says this mother of a cheerleader, drummer, flutist, class officer, basketball player, softball player, tennis player, and student-council member. "I've had to help them make wise choices, keep focused on academics, and manage their time."

With so many new options and so much more on the line academically, your high-school freshman may need even more parental support from you than she has in the past. Principal Wallis points out that while teens may act like—and even say—they don't want their parents to be involved, they really do. "So many parents stop making time to visit with their child once their teen is in high school," says Wallis. "But parents must stay involved."

Simply participating in this adventure with your student will help put him on the road to success. However, there are a few other pointers that may be helpful as you prepare your student for this journey, academically and socially.

Steps to Academic Success

  1. Set your sights high. High school counselor Jud Idom tells parents to encourage their students to take the challenge—don't be afraid of some tougher classes. "Course loads and grades really count at this level," says Idom. "If your student is considering college, or even trade school or the military, he needs to take as heavy a course load as he can handle."
  2. Prepare for the load. Your student can expect increased homework, independent study, term papers, midterms, and cumulative final exams. Make sure he realizes that while he may be anticipating more freedom, more choices, and more fun, there is more at stake.
  3. Ask questions. Principal Wallis encourages parents to ask their students about class assignments. "Ask about their schoolwork and what they did in class that day. Don't accept the old answer, 'We didn't do anything,' because they did do something." If your student knows you intend to keep asking about his schoolwork, he will be more likely to stay on top of it.
  4. Equip your student for success. Math teacher Pam Hyde suggests my son keep a daily planner where he writes down all his homework assignments. "If your child's school is on a block schedule (longer classes that meet every other day), he will often have two days to complete his homework. If he hasn't written down his assignments in an organized way, he may forget he even has homework, much less what it is."
  5. Help your student think long-term. While your student may have had projects to complete and papers to write in middle school, she probably also had a teacher who helped her stay on track. Teachers tend to back off a little more in high school. Occasionally ask your child if she has any long-term assignments she needs to complete.
  6. Differentiate between studying and homework. Make sure your student knows how to study for a test. Teachers will not necessarily provide review sheets for exams. Does your child know how to take good class notes, organize them, and review them?
  7. Give your student room to fail. You don't want to sit idly while your child fails an entire course, but it might not hurt to let your student experience occasionally the consequences of her poor choices or actions. "Some parents have a tendency to stand over their children until the homework is done or the scholarship application is completed," says Idom. "But high school is a time for students to develop self-motivation and personal work ethics that will carry them into the rest of life."

Steps to Social Success

  1. Watch for changes in friendships. Looking back, you will probably remember that many of your relationships changed as you crossed the bridge between junior high and high school. Variations in class schedules, extracurricular pursuits, and maturity levels often result in shifting friendships. Help your student navigate these changes.
  2. Stay involved in your student's relationships. "So many parents have no idea with whom their children are going out, eating lunch, or talking on the phone," says Wallis. Now is the time to step up involvement with your student's friends.
  3. Prepare for heightened boy/girl relationships. If you don't have a plan for charting your teenager's course through the dating scene, get one fast. Kim Tucker was admittedly caught off guard when her daughter was asked to the junior/senior prom as a freshman. "My husband and I had some vague ideas about when and how our children would be allowed to socialize with the opposite sex, but we hadn't really addressed the issue yet," says Tucker. "We didn't let her go to the prom, but we also had to equip her with some parameters for the future."
  4. Encourage involvement. "Involved kids are more likely to excel scholastically, stay out of trouble, and learn a few social graces in the process," says Jolly, the band director. Help your student choose manageable and enjoyable extracurricular pursuits.
  5. Manage your student's involvement. According to Tucker, you also need to be aware of the heightened level of competition and increased expectations that may be placed on your child in these extracurricular organizations. "While most coaches and music directors have good intentions toward your child, they don't necessarily have the 'big picture' in mind," says Tucker. "That's my job as the parent."
  6. Hold the bar high. As a parent you may be tempted to extend your teen's curfew or relax your rules based on what others are doing. Teacher Pam Hyde suggests you re-evaluate some of your teen's rules at this time (what he can wear, what time she should be in, whom he can ride in a car with, where she can go after school, etc.), but you should not be afraid to keep your standards high. Hyde, who is also the parent of a high-school student and two recent graduates, says you may need to let your teen know that his rules will probably always be a little stiffer than many of his classmates' because your family follows biblical principles.
  7. Set up a financial plan. I've talked to enough parents to know that kids get more expensive as they grow up. According to Kim Tucker, her part-time job as a substitute teacher does little more than pay for her two high-school students' "extras." That's not to say that every family needs to pick up an extra job to cover their student's expenses, but you do need some sort of plan for paying for band trips, meals after basketball games, club T-shirts, football-game tickets, yearbooks, and prom dresses.

Partner with the School

While I'm glad I've heard good things about the school my son will attend this fall, I cannot completely relegate his education to the experts. The book of Proverbs reminds parents numerous times that God has given us the responsibility for instructing our children in knowledge and wisdom (Proverbs 1:8; 4:1-2; 22:6).

But, according to most teachers and administrators, many previously involved parents disappear once their children begin high school. "We have a very hard time notifying parents about deadlines for college and scholarship applications," says counselor Judy Idom, "because we don't seem to have their ears."

Idom says it's important for parents to partner with their student's school as they quickly approach the time for some major decisions. With a little effort, parents can make a difference in school policy, student/teacher relationships, scholastic opportunities, and even school atmosphere.

Steps to Parental Success

  1. Meet your student's teachers. If your school has a "Meet the Teacher" event, make a point to attend. If there isn't one, send an e-mail or make a quick call to communicate your support and interest in being involved.
  2. Participate in parent/teacher org-anizations and booster clubs. This is where you get information firsthand. This is also where you have an opportunity to be heard on issues that are important to you and your child.
  3. Be familiar with the policies. Take the time to read over the student handbook. Visit the school website. Ask questions if issues such as dress code or conduct standards are not clear.

While we want our children to excel in high school, their success during these four crucial years is mostly up to them. We must stay involved in their education, but at times we'll need to take our posts in the shadows as our teenagers become more independent and self-motivated. And with a lot of prayer and a few steps in the right direction, we can all start high school with high hopes.

Kay Harms is a mother of two. She and her family live in Arizona.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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