High school is an exhilarating era of growing independence (driving! dating!) punctuated by milestones like first jobs and college visits. And yet, more and more frequently words like burnout, pressure and stress are being used to describe the high school experience. As our children come of age in a high-achievement environment, what can we as parents do to ease their transition into adulthood?
As the adults who spend their entire day in the company of our children, teachers are in a perfect position to offer advice. Make It Better asked high school teachers throughout the North Shore one simple — but important — question: What would you want the parents of your students to know? To encourage candor, we agreed to keep all responses anonymous. Here is what your children’s teachers had to say.
Too Many AP Classes = Too Much Stress
By the time they’re seniors, many high schoolers are signing up for five and six advanced placement (AP) classes at a time in one last pre-college push. “While they can find success in any individual one, when you put them all together, it’s too much,” says one teacher. Another notes that he sees students with schedules that are “nearly double” what an actual college student takes.
Yet another says she’d love for parents to understand that their kids are getting a wonderful education and that even if they aren’t taking all the AP classes, they will be successful. She adds, “I encourage more parents to have conversations with their kids about taking AP in subjects they love and taking honors classes for the others.”
While some amount of AP classes shows universities that students are prepared and can do the work, there’s no need to overdo it. Many of the teachers we spoke with would like to encourage parents to work with their children to develop realistic schedules.
Pare Down Activities
It’s tempting to want our kids to have as many new experiences as possible. But between school and social pressures, it’s easy for them to become overwhelmed. “I see so many kids who are capable of doing so many things, but when they do them all at the same time, burnout shows up even at the high school level. Sometimes you do have to pick and choose,” says one teacher. He adds that, though he believes in a full and challenging schedule, kids need time in their day for deep breaths.
A packed activity roster is often driven by concerns for the future. One teacher says that even freshmen ask her if it’s better to join lots of different clubs and activities — their minds already on the college admissions officer who’ll be reviewing their application. Yet another notes, “There’s a sense that they have to be doing everything to get into college.”
However, several teachers stressed that colleges tend to prefer deeper involvement in fewer activities with the opportunity for leadership roles. See what Stanford’s former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising has to say on the topic here.
One teacher suggests reducing the weight parents and students place on grades, and instead shifting the focus to attentiveness and engagement in class. “I strongly recommend that parents minimize the importance of grades in high school. The heavy emphasis and importance placed on grades convolutes and undermines the learning process.”
Another teacher agrees: “Having grades be such a strong focus produces an incredible amount of tension. It puts the emphasis in the wrong place and sends the wrong message about who we are as human beings and learners. It disrupts the sense of education as the pleasure of expanding one’s consciousness.” In fact, in the program in which he teaches, grades are optional and he reports that when grades are no longer prioritized, kids are freed up to take chances, to fail and to try again, and that they actually often do more work.
Instead of hyper-focusing on the quantifiable outcomes of learning (in the form of grades), ask your children to share what they’re engaged in at school. Ask them questions about the material and let them teach it to you. And get offline — stop refreshing those grades pages!
Discuss Screen Etiquette
Cell phones have become so ubiquitous that they have their own malady — “text neck,” pain and damage caused by the repetitive action of craning down to peer at a screen. Now distracted walkers fill our high school hallways.
One teacher remembers when her school first allowed phones and says the halls got quieter as interactions went digital. “Their social world revolves around social media and if they’re not hooked into it constantly, they feel left out,” she says. “They want instant feedback from their posts.” She laughs at the idea that her students think they’re being stealthy when checking their phones as if she won’t notice that they’re staring at their laps, noting that her best students don’t bring out their phones at all in class. She’d love to see a conversation between parents and their kids about delayed gratification — waiting to access devices until it’s appropriate.
Another teacher agrees, stressing the importance of being “present” in class. She says engagement with the subject is even more important than homework and notes that, “if a student is really present, the rest (homework, tests, etc.) will come more easily.”
Another aspect of tech etiquette teachers suggest parents discuss with their kids is usage of images of others, for example, taking photos of others and/or posting them without their permission. Find more advice on helping your children manage social media etiquette here.
Don’t “Fix” Things for Your Child
Children, like adults, will have unhappy moments. “They will study for a test and still get a D; they will have a disagreement with a friend; they will disagree with something a teacher says or does; they will not like the unit or book they are studying in English; etc.,” says one teacher. She adds, “The best learning moments are HOW they deal with these situations.”
Another teacher says, “I want parents to know two things: First, that as a teacher, I want what’s best for their child. Secondly — and this is the frequently misunderstood part — that doesn’t always mean your child gets a good grade.” He says that as a high schooler, he failed calculus and that “it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.” He went on to get a master’s degree in math education from one of the top schools in the nation.
“The most successful students see bumps in the road as opportunities to adjust and improve their skills,” says one teacher. “An acceptance on the part of students that their teachers are trying to help them rather than ‘they don’t like me’ or ‘I’m a failure’ is crucial.” This kind of growth mentality is characterized by the willingness to accept constructive criticism and make successive tweaks and improvements.
A child’s ability to handle disappointment is critical to their success and happiness when they’re out on their own. Further, one teacher says that “taking responsibility for one’s own actions and self” is a key developmental milestone and encourages parents to “model not blaming the other party.”
Teachers also urge parents to avoid the impulse to make it all better by getting involved, and suggest that conversations about things like grades should be between the student and the teacher, not the parent and the teacher.
After all, as one teacher says, “Our childhoods were not perfect and theirs shouldn’t be either.”
Our other favorite teacher tips include: Make home a safe place where your children can be listened to and accepted for who they really are. And lastly, focus on if your child is flourishing as a human being; instead of asking if they finished their homework, ask “Are you happy?”
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