WHY KIDS STRUGGLE
by Dr. Jeff Devens

This feature was first published in Journeys Winter 2017.

This article was written by high school personal academic counselor and psychologist Dr. Jeff Devens.

“I don’t understand how Kevin ended up in this situation. He made his own choices regarding which classes to take and what universities to apply to, and now he’s blaming us for the consequences of his poor decisions!”

These sentiments, shared by Kevin’s father, were spoken with an air of urgency. Kevin, a twelfth grader, was having what could best be described as a crisis moment. Actually, there were several crisis moments in the course of the past few months, culminating in him not wanting to return to school.

I began our conversation with a few questions. “What were some of the positive life choices Kevin was making that led you to believe he was ready to take on such a challenging academic load?” And, “why didn’t you and Kevin heed his college counselor’s advice regarding reach and out-of-reach universities?” My intention wasn’t for him to assume a defensive posture. We needed to develop a plan to help Kevin re-engage in his learning, and quickly. Graduation was in a few weeks. However, when Kevin received the disappointing but predictable news he was not admitted to his first, second, or third choice universities, he figured, “What’s the use in finishing high school?” Fortunately, with a bit of tough love and support, we were able to help him step back into his choices and figure out plan B. Kevin’s life journey wasn’t going to be a straight line. It would include a few twists, turns, and detours along the way.

This semester I have met with a number of students—interestingly mostly juniors (grade 11)—hitting their breaking points. Why? They are facing the prospect of earning one or more “B” grades (meeting the standard but not exceeding it) for the first time. Based on their past academic performance they believed they could continue on the same trajectory. However, they failed to plan for the cost of taking multiple higher-level courses when combined with extracurricular commitments, lack of sleep, and subsequent emotional dysregulation. The grades students earn are not wholly a measure of intelligence or academic ability as much as they are a reflection of a balanced life. When kids take on too much, there will be costs. The students I have met are feeling the weight of their choices, believing, like Kevin, they could do it all at high levels. They can’t.

By design, high school challenges students. In fact, academic rigor is an intentional component of the high school curriculum. Interestingly, survey data completed by SAS high school students (N=546 in the sample) noted that 70 percent of their stress is associated with school-related tasks (i.e., courses of study, tests, quizzes, projects, etc.). Further, 39 percent of responders noted they do not believe they have positive coping skills to deal with stress.

In recent seminars with students, counselors emphasized the need for balance, including utilizing organization and time management strategies. These skills, commonly referred to as executive functioning, also include task initiation and emotional regulation. The primary driver for determining what courses should be taken, or even what universities to apply to, should not be based solely on a student’s past grades. If those grades were earned as a result of parents sustaining their child’s executive skills, the entire learning process will intensify (with all sorts of emotional drama) through the remaining years of school.

Organization
One of the primary school-related tasks of parents during their children’s elementary schooling years is helping them organize their academic world. This may include the use of binders, folders, postit notes, calendars, and other tools. The point is to model multiple ways of organizing and finding strategies that work for each child. There is not one right way to organize. The question is, do your child’s organization strategies produce the desired outcomes? If not, keep working at it. Some kids will need direct instruction, others will learn through trial and error. What about their study space? Does it invite learning or detract from it? This space includes what they are doing with technology. In some cases, kids may need to have enticing distractions such as phones removed from their study space.

Time Management
What time does your child return home from school and when do they go to bed? For many, the time is approximately six to seven hours. However, students participating in extracurricular activities have fewer. Sixty percent of high schoolers surveyed reported spending three or more hours per night on homework. This leaves three to four hours for other activities, assuming they go to bed between 10:00 p.m.and 11:00 p.m. Interestingly, one of the primary ways teens report reducing stress is through the use of social media. Paradoxically, they also report that social media causes stress. Mapping out a timetable and discussing break times for social media will be a necessary step. Lastly, have a cut-off time for the use of technology and phones. Interestingly, 79 percent of responders in the survey noted they were not required by parents to remove technology from their rooms by a specific time each night. With unfettered access to technology, kids will wander.

Task Initiation
Task initiation refers to the ability to begin schoolrelated tasks without prolonged distractions or procrastination. One effective strategy for task initiation is using a timer. Estimate the amount of time it takes to complete an assignment, set the timer, and begin. Breaking up larger tasks into smaller, manageable portions may also be helpful. Telling others what you plan to accomplish and by when, and using rewards or penalties (i.e., if I don’t complete this project by this Thursday I won’t go out on Friday) can also be effective strategies.

Emotional Regulation
Dr. David Gleason, visiting author and clinical psychologist, noted in his book At What Cost, “Much of a teenager’s response to the world is driven by emotion, not reason.” The premise of his book is that kids are kids, not mini-adults. Dr. Gleason’s contention, based on years of work with students attending top-tier middle and high schools throughout the world, is we—parents, teachers, administrators, and coaches—are expecting too much of kids when they are not developmentally ready. For example, a teen’s ability to take advanced courses is more than a function of cognitive ability, much more. Doing so also requires (and reveals their) emotional maturity. With developing brains yet to form the executive capacities for functioning with balance, is it any wonder that kids struggle with emotional regulation? This sometimes manifests in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and in some cases, suicide.

Kids who possess the intelligence to take multiple higher-level courses but lack emotional regulation will incur psychological costs. If your teen is struggling with emotional control (remember this is a developmental process, not something to be rushed), limiting courses and extracurricular activities may be a necessity. These are uncomfortable but necessary conversations to be had.

Teens mature at different rates, for various reasons, throughout the seasons of adolescence. In a few short months, high school students and current eighth graders will begin the process of signing up for courses for the following school year. My hope is that, together, we can partner in helping kids grow to develop healthy study habits and lifestyle choices as they move towards adulthood.

  • coping skills
  • counseling
  • counselor
  • high school

 

 

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