10 Tips for New High School Students
Teens and sleep have a complicated relationship. Teens are often most awake when their teachers and other adults are starting to nod off. While teens will still need to create routines to support participating in synchronous learning, there is more flexibility.
Most hybrid and distance learning high school schedules eschew crack-of-dawn classes and rigid early morning start times designed to cram in-person instructional minutes into a school day. The result? More hours in the day for teens to sleep on a schedule that works for them. Add to this fewer scheduled activities and everyone should be able to slow down and find a nightly amount of sleep that works for them.
Take a break from the screen(s) and be active. If your had been walking or riding your bike to school, look for ways to reincorporate that time – both directions – into your distance learning life. The same goes for those attending school on large, sprawling campuses or multi-story buildings. Try to replicate the equivalent of their on-campus zig-zagging and stair-climbing into their at-home routine. If possible, consider using different rooms in your home for different subjects, or set regular timers on your Google Home or other device to prompt walking breaks or other activities.
This sounds basic, because it is: eat real food at regular intervals. The distilled version of Michael Pollan’s work on the subject of food is this: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. This will be easier on days at home than on days of physically distanced, highly sanitized in-person school. Let’s face it, few preparations of real plant-based foods are individually-packaged, the norm for packed lunches.
The packaged salads that many adults grab for lunch on the go are not a common choice for teens, nor are they saintly in terms of ingredients. Chopping up fresh veggies, or making a batch of beans in the instapot is much more doable at home. Not to mention, this will build both food preparation skills and healthier food habits that will outlast this pandemic.
This might be the single most important tip on this list – and it’s certainly the one that I coach teens on more than any other. You didn’t finish the assignment because your Wifi went out? How is your teacher to know that? You are helping manage household responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings? Does your school counselor or principal know that? Don’t underestimate the power of a short, clear email or direct message to school staff to make it clear what is going on. ( And, please, make a point of putting the message where it says “compose” not “subject” – that is a 21st-century life skill!
5. Speak Up
If you see something that concerns you, it’s time to speak out. This does NOT mean that every miscommunication (see above) needs to become a petition or a protest, but it DOES mean that if a grade is mis-entered, or an assignment goes ungraded, or a group project goes poorly that you should reach out to your teacher – via the method they request be it an email, a message, a Google Meet appointment or Zoom office hours – to let them know what your concern is.
Only after you have attempted to advocate for yourself, should you involve either your parents or other school staff. I have seen many, many students attempt to skip this step, and in most cases it simply results in overcomplicating the situation.
And while teens are by nature self-focused, it is clear that our nation now demands that our youth advocate for others as well. So look at the reading list in your English class. Examine the unit outline in your history class. Assess whether you are learning about all types of humans in all of your classes. And if you are finding that different experiences of race, gender, sexuality, and humanity are not being reflected in your curriculum, or being accounted for in your school policies, then advocate for change.
6. Excel in what you love
Of the thousands of high school students I have worked with over the past two decades, I can think of a small handful who truly, in their heart of hearts, LOVED all academic areas almost equally. And it’s okay if that doesn’t apply to you. When you talk to an individual like that about what is the favorite subject or class, it’s like talking to a doting parent, who can’t tell which kid they love the most.
I put a lot of stock in body language, and other non-verbal communication. When I ask a prospective honors English student if they LOVE reading, and they look away, or hesitate for even a minute, I can guess that they probably won’t thrive in an accelerated class. On the other hand, I have worked with many thousands who were able to figure out during their high school years that they did NOT love everything equally.
By choosing advanced coursework or in-depth extracurriculars in only certain areas that they had an overall more positive high school experience. It is not a failure to take a less advanced class in an area you don’t love, it is a way of creating balance in your life and the capacity to devote more time and energy to what you do love.
7. Don’t chase the numbers
You will likely have four course schedules during high school, or in some cases eight. I have created thousands of schedules with students over the past two decades and one truth has become crystal clear to me.
Schedules that are built on foundations of “I need to take 3 AP classes” or “I won’t get into Berkeley unless I take this particular class” or “my friend/brother/cousin/neighbor says that I need this GPA to get anywhere in life” are not schedules that are rewarding to the student. Besides, if all you are focused on is the letters attached to the course – not the content itself – you will miss the opportunity to try something new.
8. Try new things
I get it – peer pressure in high school is real. It can be hard to make the call to stand out and take the proverbial “road less traveled.” But here is why you should: the “no” is often more helpful than the “yes.” Several years ago, I worked with a student who loved animals, loved biology and was hyper-focused on being a veterinarian. Pre-vet programs can be a little tricky to find, so he had a fairly narrow college list at the end of his junior year.
Our school does not offer any classes related to veterinary fields, so his last summer in high school he volunteered at an animal hospital. He did not pay for a summer program, or take a week-long summer “internship” with a high-tech company in nearby Silicon Valley. He rolled up his sleeves and volunteered, unpaid for several weeks at the local animal hospital. And do you know what he learned? That he had trouble being around sick animals.
After years of dog-walking and pet-sitting and other animal-related pursuits, it turns out that the chief responsibility of most veterinarians – caring for animals who were ill or injured – was something he just couldn’t stand. One thing we both agreed on the fall of his senior year -we were thankful he learned that DURING high school, and not after committing to a specialized pre-vet program.
9. Learn from failure
Helicopters. Snowplows. Bubblemakers. The terms society has used to describe your parents all have one thing in common: they are focused on shielding you from making mistakes and from experiencing failure. But it is not just an empty cliché: you really do learn more from failure than from success.
Whether that is getting a homework problem wrong, or planning a schoolwide project or event that flops, the learning that comes from those missteps is worth ten-fold what you walk away with from something that felt easy. Regardless of what you may think , it is likely your parents did NOT have a straightforward path to where they are today, and if they want you to have a life worth leading they need to let you zig and zag as much as possible, providing wide-set boundaries around health, safety and core family responsibilities.
(Parents – ask yourself if you are intervening for one of those three reasons – if not, then walk away. Allow your teen to fill in the gaps – it is their story to write, not yours. You already had your high school experience, for better or for worse. My colleagues and I are here primarily for your students, not you.)
10. Stay Connected – Safely
Being social is essential for teens. Being safe is essential for your well-being (and your family’s). There are situations that put the two in direct opposition to each other. You are not the first generation to face this challenge. Your grandparents weighed these challenges in the 60’s and 70’s, when the impact of drugs on long-term development was still not defined. Your parents grew up in a world hyper-focused on preventing drunk driving and smoking. Yes, controlled substances are still out there- and you have more access to them than we’d like to admit. But your current challenge has much more to do with the who and the where than the what when it comes to hanging out with friends.
Avoid closed, crowded spaces and close contact. Whether that means hanging out on chairs or blankets spaced 6 feet apart in a backyard or driveway, or focusing on online interaction is up to you. But pods of unmasked teens wandering our streets give adults the impression that you are less mature than we know you are.
I spend a LOT of my time convincing parents like yours that you should be supported in making your own choices – and living with the consequences. I tell your parents to read Julie Lythcott-Haims’ seminal book, How to Raise an Adult. Please live up to your part of the bargain and act responsibly.
Your high school story may not be what you think – and that’s a good thing
Beware the “should” in high school. Students who feel like they “should” take a class or join a club and parents who feel like their child “should” be doing more rarely end up enjoying high school or valuing the experience the same way.
One of my recently graduated seniors just wrote me a lovely note (yes, wrote, on paper!). In it, she expressed how she was glad she didn’t get into a highly coveted AP class a few years ago, because she took a non-AP elective that changed her high school trajectory for the better – and informed her intended college major. (In contrast, many of the dozens of other students who had lost this particular course lottery had their PARENTS email me to ask for an exception).
Embrace what, in the moment, looks like a setback, and learn from it. It is your reaction to these challenges where your story will unfold.
A Note to Parents
I have spent more than twenty years in public high schools (not counting the four years I spent as a student in one). In addition to years of formal study and ongoing professional development, I am an avid reader of nonfiction, most often choosing titles that address the academic, social-emotional and/or post-secondary challenges facing our students. Much of what my focus has turned to over the years is student well-being. Our current health crisis has only accentuated the importance of this area.
As more and more students, families and educators face weeks, months or even a year of distance learning ahead, it is important to lay the foundation for the most positive experience possible. This is especially true for students, like my older son, who will begin their high school careers in these uncertain waters.
And while these tips will support your high school student in any situation, take heart that a few of them are actually easier to implement during distance learning. These tips for new high school students may help reframe high school for those who are struggling or who struggled with the transition to distance learning. What tips for new high school students would you add? Please share in the comments.
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