Transition Strategies for Parents: How to Prevent Your Child from Falling Through the Cracks



Transition Strategies for Parents: How to Prevent Your Child from Falling Through the Cracks

Geraldine Markel, PhD


Nationally, only 30% of students graduate from college. Many of those who don’t graduate are students who work part- or full-time, have more financial responsibilities, dropout after their first year, and too often make decisions without guidance. For example, they fail to use their families, role models or school resources to decision if and when to drop a course, ask for extensions, and deal with problems involving illness or difficult roommates. Sometimes, they just stop going to class and fail the semester.

How can parents help students survive the transition to college? Initially, the parents goal is the help children survive the first semesters. Some of the ways in which parents help are: listening, suggesting times during which to reach out, and encouraging balance when participating in extracurricular activities.

1. Listen and support.  It is important to schedule a regular time to communicate, especially during the first weeks.  Decide on the time and format; phone, text, email, Skype. In terms of communication, what’s your comfort level versus theirs? Remember, the amount of listening and supporting during the first part of the fall semester often lessens as students become more familiar with routines and classes.

Spend the first few minutes just listening. The conversation may begin with mundane events and then perhaps, move to issues and feelings. It may be difficult, but it is important to just listen and talk in a friendly way. You need not solve problems. The greatest help may be to listen and refrain from nagging. Just help keep spirits up and allow time for your child to come up with possible solutions. If things don’t resolve, then suggest accessing college resources. 

2. Suggest times to reach out. Students need encouragement to access resources: office hours, math labs, writing centers, advisors, health or mental health services. Students fail to understand the number and types of resources that are available. Reaching out helps keeps students in school and sets the stage for expanding skills and deal with problems in their careers.

Support regular visits to office hours, the traditional opportunity for student-instructor interaction.  Such interactions solve problems, but more importantly, establish rapport with instructors and set the stage for any difficulties that may come up later in the semester. For example, students can pose a question, clarify an issue, show an outline for a paper, or request samples of tests questions or papers. One strategy is for the student to rotate going to office hours; go to English the first week of the month, Astronomy the second week, and so on. In that way, the instructor is visited at least three times during the semester.  Instructors often have study tips about their courses, including how to take notes or memorize. The earlier the student goes for help the better.

Assure your child that he or she is not supposed to know it all. College is a place of learning and scholarly pursuit; therefore, it is important to ask questions. If discussing problems, ask questions, “What do you think the instructor or advisor said? Did you follow up with an email? Do you have the catalog information? Are there study groups?

3. Help students balance participation in extracurricular activities.  Ask, “What groups are you joining or meetings are you attending?” It is useful to engage in at least one non academic activity, although it is also important not to take too much time with it during the first semester. When it comes to extracurricular activities, less is more. Students are advised to select one activity that involves their interest and develop leadership skills and friendships in that one. Also, it is important to encourage a student to leave the organization, if things don’t work out.

4. Help students gain accommodations for learning or attention difficulties. Often, learning, attention, memory, and emotional problems surface during college. For some students, accommodations for disabilities were not needed in high school, but will be needed in college given the increased pace and complexity of college courses. All universities have programs and resources to deal with disabilities. At the college level, students are responsible for requesting such accommodations.

5. Help to find mentors and role models. It may require a parent’s suggestions to find special academic or mentoring programs. For example, is there someone at church, work or community group who might be contacted? Can you make the first call or contact?

6. Be a role model and provide consistency. Hand in any legal, health or other papers on time. The college and career game now more than ever, requires paper work, promptness and vigilance. Parents can model the prompt submission of health insurance or financial papers. Have an accordion pleated folder to organize important legal, health, insurance or financial information.

7. Expect ups and downs during the semester. Commonly, students confront difficulties with instructors, horrible roommates, sleep problems, allergies or health problems, and general academic overwhelm. Are unhealthy habits beginning involving gaming or drinking? Perhaps what’s needed is a talk with the residence hall advisor or a visit to health service.

8. Use prior positive experiences as a basis for encouragement. Athletes (and those in the performing arts) have shown disciple, commitment, focus, high energy, work ethic, ability to handle pressure and resilience. Parents can encourage their child to apply these same skills to academics. Parents can remind their child about their prior work habits. It isn’t just brains that enable a student to succeed; it is the development of effective college level work habits.

9. Deal with myths. Myths and unrealistic expectations contribute to poor decision making and problem solving. Parents can question and discuss myths such as:

I’ll get the same grades my freshman year as I did in high school.

I can multitask when doing homework like I did in high school. Perhaps the student used to hear music and complete assignments in high school. At the college level, students need to find non distracting places to study and condition that facilitate focus and analytical thinking.

I won’t be homesick. Even when families have been bickering, students miss the familiarity of family. It’s a normal phase.

I should be able to do all my coursework on my own. Perhaps students never worked with other students or having a tutor. In college, at the first sign of difficulty, it is important to contact the instructor or work with peers.

I must graduate in 4 years. Only about 1 out of 3 students complete college in four years, and about half complete it in six. If you plan to be out of college in four years, learn what your college’s four-year graduation percentage is. There is nothing wrong with taking five years to get your degree.

It’s better to get good grades than to take challenging courses. Although this may seem like the way to go, in the end students need to take courses that will benefit them, help them grow, and be useful in their careers after college.

10.  Discuss ways to relax. Provide some lighthearted humor; send a joke, cartoon, YouTube, or magazine. Whether with an actual visit, phone call or Skype, ask about the funniest thing that happened or share interesting parts of your life.

Transitions may be traumatic to student and parent. The parent, however, can be the stable and supportive factor that helps their child meet the new challenges confronted during the transition from high school to college.

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