Aug 23, 2017
Addressing student anxieties around the upcoming school year before they interfere with learning.
Fall is coming... It’s the baleful refrain echoing inside the heads of most teens as Labor Day nears.
From summer melt to summer slide, teens typically experience rising anxiety surrounding the return of school. The same goes for the parents of those teens, but the nature of that anxiety -- and the strategies to cope with it -- depends on the type of adolescent.
I’ve found that there’s a continuum of teen types and understanding what type of teen you are working with can vastly improve your ability to effectively address their anxieties.
Whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, tutor or none of these, you know the procrastinator. Maybe you were one yourself. Or are one. These individuals don’t just spend the summer sleeping in, they hibernate. From postponing mounds of summer homework till the final days (or final hours!) to flat-out refusing summer non-academic work (i.e. internships, volunteering etc) to, yes, staying up and sleeping late, summer slumberers are a prevalent lot. And it’s not hard to see why: being a teen today confers particularly unholy challenges, many of which simply didn’t exist in previous generations.
While somewhat less common than the procrastinators, the go-getters are the faster-growing contingent. They’re the ones loading up on AP’s, captaining sports teams, leading various clubs, and generally, juggling more than seems possible to juggle. Unsurprisingly, these kids also tend to have busy summer schedules, and so the looming academic workload signals an uptick in their already busy summer lives. Can you blame them for feeling anxious?
While some kids land squarely in one of these groups, most of the kids I’ve encountered as a tutor fall somewhere in between the extremes. And however obvious, it’s important to acknowledge that wherever one lands, we all require unique support with our anxiety -- support which may include some or all or none of the following strategy recommendations.
Did you know that the force required to move a static object is almost always greater than the force required to move something already in motion? To vastly oversimplify, this is a result of the way surfaces interlock with one another when neither is moving. And yet, once we “activate”, the force required to maintain that activity is far less than what we needed to get moving initially. Needless to say, I’m talking as much about human behavior as kinetics.
If you or someone you know is a procrastinator, it’s all about getting them unstuck. The trick I find that works best with my students, and, okay, myself, is to make it a numbers game. Let’s say there’s a task (like, I don’t know, writing a weekly blog) that I think will take me 5 hours from start to completion. I’ll take the total minutes required (5 x 60 = 300) and divide it by either 10, 20 or 100 depending on how stuck I feel. The goal then is to start in on the task with that reduced number of minutes. In the case of the completely and totally hypothetical weekly blog, I’d be looking at 30, 15 or 3 minutes as my activation tool.
If we’re talking about 200 pages of summer reading for a procrastinating teen, that small bite would amount to 20, 10 or even just 2 pages of reading! I’m constantly surprised by how that modicum of initial work almost always begets another larger chunk. And then, before you know it, the task -- however onerous -- is solidly underway.
For lots of kids, the challenge isn’t getting started so much as effectively pushing summer tasks along. As I’ve helped more kids through standardized tests, I’ve increasingly stayed on to help them with their college applications. So for me, the phenomenon of acceleration shows up most in nudging those personal statements closer to completion. There’s no magic solution here, of course, but I have found that it’s important for tutors and students to resist the impulse to go with the first viable idea. Instead, beginning the process by actively brainstorming and then free-writing on 5 completely different ideas can, by presenting distinct choices, result in a greater level of engagement with the ultimate topic. And when kids are legitimately excited about their personal essay, they will always work harder on it.
It hardly needs to be stated that adolescence is a time of profound physical and emotional change. Far less acknowledged is the idea that it’s also a period of identity construction. For lots of high school students, the acclaim and resulting self-satisfaction which arises from good grades, strong test scores and positive feedback from teachers can harden into something of albatross. When a less than glorious grade on a test, paper or project rolls in (and eventually it will) go-getters can be in for a hard fall.
I know this because I lived it.
Letting the go-getters know that they’re loved and valued well beyond their scores/grades etc., will not transform them into slackers, but rather it will arm them for the challenges ahead. No one will stay at the top of his or her class forever and the sooner students learn to derive a sense of self (really a sense of pride) which comes from within, the better equipped they’ll be for adulthood.
As tutors, we are presented with an amazing opportunity. We are neither peers nor parents, kids nor exactly adults. And while some of us have spent time as conventional classroom teachers, that’s not typically how we’re perceived when we tutor. As such, we can (if we want to) communicate things to kids -- teenagers especially -- that simply wouldn’t be heard if delivered by parents. And the longer a student and tutor work together, the more profound the communication between them can grow.
Want more back to school tips to help get the new year started right? Join Clark and follow along with the blog.