I’ve been a high school teacher for almost two decades, and one of the most common messages my freshmen seem to have absorbed when they walk through my classroom doors in September is this: “Now it counts.”
By “it,” they tend to mean grades, and as for who or what those grades “count” for, they’re often thinking of their final transcript, sent off through the future to some imagined college admissions board or dream employer.
And I get that. Sure. Transcripts have a way of seeming fixed and official when so much of life is experimented on and crossed fingers.
3 lifelong messages I’d like my high school freshman to learn
But there are many other lifelong messages I’d like my freshmen to take to heart instead. I share these messages with them throughout the school year. But since retention is a byproduct of repetition, I would love for more parents to, yes, encourage their children to apply themselves to their school assignments but also to engage them in conversation around the following areas that count well beyond grades.
1. Cultivate Community
The ninth-grade students who seem to have the best all-around experience at school are those who feel like they belong. Schools — just like the world — are big places. Help your child understand that they can make them more welcoming by actively “finding their people.”
Instead of worrying over whether or not they’ll be invited to join the “kool kids” group chat, encourage them to follow their unique interests and join a sport, the musical, an affinity group, or a club. And don’t forget the teachers and adults in the building. Identifying one or two mentors who they can go to with questions and concerns will help school feel like their school, a place where they feel welcomed and valued.
2. Prioritize Health and Wellness
Many students stay awake late at night, either studying or tapping away on their phones and video game controllers. While the first behavior might seem preferable to the latter, the truth is that neither is helpful. Teens need to be pushed academically and allowed time and space to be social and play, but not at the expense of consistent sleep.
Parents know this: Good sleep is tied to better academic performance and overall health. And yet, establishing healthy boundaries for teens can be a challenge, especially when there’s a “big grade,” or “big drama,” or a “big game” on the line (it’s always big).
That’s why it’s important for you to talk to your ninth grader before they’re exhausted or deep into some streak about how to create those boundaries around their time so they can be successful in the classroom and also have predictable periods when they can pursue what brings them delight in a way that supports their health instead of derailing it.
3. Practice Independence
Though some high school freshmen are physically larger than the adults in their lives, they’re all still kids (watching a group of them in the lunch room chugging multiple cartoons of milk in quick succession makes this pretty clear). But, when given appropriate levels of responsibility, freshmen are capable of impressive independence. Parents should discuss this capability with their children and demonstrate their belief in it by allowing for a healthy degree of autonomy as they navigate high school.
Perhaps your child doesn’t understand a physics concept or agree with an essay grade they received. Perhaps someone said something that made them feel small. Of course, parents should encourage conversation at home about situations like these. But this next part is key: instead of you, the parent, emailing the teacher or setting up a meeting with the school dean, encourage your child first to attempt those interactions themselves.
Failures should happen during freshman year
Small missteps, failures, and struggles should happen in freshmen year. It’s when the stakes are lowest. And it’s how students both learn and grow.
A solid ninth-grade year sets students up for college and career and a life of genuine interest and inquiry. Help your child think beyond the gradebook to a place where what counts are the habits they’ve created that will pave their path toward becoming confident upperclassmen, prepared to meet the wider world.
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