Making a Successful Transition to High School – What Parents Need to Know

High School.   As a parent, those two words are exciting, scary and emotional!  For most of us, it’s the last four years that you may have with your child on a full-time basis.  The four years will fly by, and next thing you know, it is time to pack up and move your child to college.  

But wait!  First things first.  Let’s talk about starting high school on the right foot, and setting in motion the path to a successful high school career. As a Independent Educational Consultant (IEC), and a former high school college counselor, I’d like to share my observations on how parents can support their rising freshman.   

It all starts with a successful transition, and most importantly, a successful freshman year.  Of course, choosing a high school is important, because high schools ARE different! Many parents automatically choose the high school that’s closest; their child may want to attend that high school because their friends are going there, too.  But, is the high school that’s closest always the right school? I recommend that parents take an active role in researching the high schools in their district (and private high schools, too, if possible), and ensure that academics, counseling support and overall environment are the right fit for their child.  

What is the teacher:student ratio? 

Will my child have ready access to guidance and college counselors?  

Will the counselor have time and/or ability to really get to know my child, especially when it comes time for college exploration and application?  

What if my child needs additional academic support? Are there support systems in place to assist my child?

Once the critical step of choosing a high school is complete, the task of supporting your high school freshman begins.  This transition is one of the most crucial times in your child’s educational career and starting with the right attitude and understanding about the importance of freshman year will save much heartache and regret later on.  

A prevalent myth that I try to “bust” every year is this: Freshmen Year really doesn’t count too much academically.  Colleges understand that you’re making a transition, and really only look at junior and senior grades anyway.   Not true!!  In reality, freshman year grades DO count! They account for one third of the grades that every college admission officer evaluates when making an admission decision for your child (College admissions often do not consider senior grades in the admissions process because of the timing of the applications early in senior year). 

It a matter of simple math: recovering from a poor freshman GPA is difficult.  Grades during sophomore and junior year have to be that much stronger to raise the overall GPA.   

So, how do you guide your rising freshman?  I advise making an appointment with your child’s counselor early – during the spring of 8th grade year is optimal.  Understand why your child will be scheduled for certain classes, and know the four-year academic plan.  In almost every case, I advocate scheduling freshman for the most challenging classes your child can be successful in.  Don’t make the common mistake of scheduling easier classes for freshman year, believing that this approach is the best way to ensure high school success for your child.  Unfortunately, this often backfires, because those “easier” classes may not have an academic path to the more rigorous courses that the student may be interested in during junior/senior year, and that many colleges expect/desire.  

What? Why am I talking about college already?  My child is still in 8th grade?  Well, often I meet with parents and students who don’t think about the academic (and financial) path to college until late junior year, or even senior year!  While in most cases, college admission is still likely, choices will be much more limited. Focusing on academics early, along with the open discussion of other stressors that high schoolers face is why I highly recommend meeting early with their child’s school counselor (don’t forget to bring your child, though!).  

You may be thinking: this already sounds stressful!  Well, there IS stress in high school! Many students deal with issues of overt bullying, relational aggression (covert bullying), peer pressure to engage in risky behavior, self-induced pressure, drugs, alcohol, and depression.   Social media is a strong, pervasive influence for everyone, and young, high school students are most vulnerable. There won’t be enough time, sleep or good meals in each day for most students, especially those who get involved with extracurricular activities.  And, yes, colleges expect that students will be involved, either in their school, church or community. Add in the stress of high-stakes testing (ACT or SAT), and it’s a recipe for anxiety on all fronts!

Counselors (both school and independent counselors) and parents can be a synergistic team to help freshman navigate transition pitfalls.  Common mistakes freshman make include:

  1. Believing freshman year doesn’t really count
  2. Sacrificing grades for their social life
  3. Skipping class, missing homework, or not making up missed assignments
  4. Not getting involved in extracurricular activities or getting involved in TOO MANY activities
  5. Deciding that high school is only about ________ (insert “sports”, “dances”, “dating”, etc)
  6. Not knowing how to ask for help, or asking questions in class
  7. Taking classes because your friends are taking them.

Freshman year should be fun, exciting and academically challenging.  Please don’t make every decision in high school based on “is this a good course/activity to get me in to college”!!!!!  Yes, high school academics are important, but so is “experiencing” high school.  This is the time to try different activities, and explore potential careers, and enjoy whatever passions that a student find: sports, music, art, and other extracurriculars that spark their interest. Is your student express interest in medicine? Find some local opportunities for volunteering in a local hospital or doctor’s office.  Engineering? Join the school robotics club or engineering club. Theater? Get involved in the school or community productions (either on stage or behind the scenes). Expensive summer programs aren’t necessary – there are plenty of local opportunities available. And, lastly, encourage your high schooler to READ – it doesn’t matter what they read. Just read! Research shows this is the single most valuable contributor to success on standardized tests, such as the SAT.  

Preparing your child for future high school years, and ultimately college and a career, is not easy!  But taking an active parental role, especially at the beginning, will help ensure academic and social success, more college choices and a less stressful and FUN high school experience. 

Pat Davis, BSN, MS

Independent College Consultant

Monumental Beginnings, LLC