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High School Freshman Problems: A Rocky Start to 9th Grade

Imagine this. You’re looking at a whole year of report cards from your son or daughter’s freshman year of high school. And you’re not pleased. What now?

As families trade the tricky middle school years for high school, new challenges present themselves. Teens begin to consider life beyond high school and the prospect of college admissions. Parents worry that their kids may step off the academic path. Or, perhaps worse, never get on it in the first place.

Ideally, of course, teens hit the ground running in high school. Cecilia Castellano, vice provost for strategic enrollment planning at Bowling Green State University in Northwest Ohio, often tells parents that students should make every effort to start out strong. “The grades and credits earned during a student’s freshman year will impact the overall academic record and can make it more difficult for a student to overcome a difficult start,” she says.

However, Castellano is quick to point out that a student can overcome a rocky first year. Significant improvements during the rest of high school can have a positive effect on college admissions. “Typically, colleges and universities are looking at the totality of the academic record. And skilled admissions professionals will recognize improvements,” says Castellano.

This is great news for students who take a “not-so-serious” attitude during their freshman year.

What’s a parent to do?

3 Suggestions for a High School Freshman who Struggled:

1. Take a breath.

Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of the bestselling books, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Saving Our Daughters from Drowning in Stress and Anxiety, advises parents and teens to first take a deep breath when they’re looking at a less-than-stellar year freshman year of high school. “We tend to talk about college like there are only 20 good colleges, which is not helpful or accurate. There are more than 4,000 colleges in this country, and there are excellent colleges at every level,” says Damour. “Reassure your teenagers that they will have many options.”

2. Set realistic expectations.

Castellano says that “setting realistic expectations is important.” Parents should talk with their teens about goals for high school and planning for post-high school.” Castellano says that with her own three daughters, she focused on getting them to try their best both academically and personally. She also reminds parents that not all students are ready for college directly from high school. And there are ample alternative paths.

3. Help your teen take ownership of their choices.

Still, teens will have more options if they step up their academics to meet their own potential, and their choices about how to spend their time now will affect their access to choices about colleges and careers later. Parents, in conveying this message, should take a “diagnostic rather than punitive” approach with their teens, advises Damour. In other words, make it clear that you’re on the same team as your child.

You can lovingly say to your teen, “You have all the power here. We’re rooting for you to have all the options you can. But you’re the one ultimately calling the shots,” suggests Damour.

If need be, parents can help teens figure out what got in the way of a successful year at school. And parents can help develop a plan going forward, says Damour. Castellano agrees, reminding parents that “in some cases, just a readjustment of expectations, study habits, and time management may help smooth out or improve the academic performance.”

Looking for some personal stories?

Teens, though, are the only ones who can turn plans into action. If your child has gotten off to a difficult start in his or her freshman year of high school, all is not lost. In fact, if handled correctly, first year mistakes can be a valuable way to learn how to be successful for the remainder of the high school years. Most importantly, your child will learn that despite the inevitable stumbling blocks along the way, there are many paths to a bright future.

Sara Lindberg

Sara Lindberg is a school counselor and writer whose work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Role Reboot, and elsewhere.