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Ask the Experts

How Do I Help My Freshman Focus on School?

By Karen Deger McChesney, Contributing Writer


My son is a freshman this year and I can't get him focused on school and studying. He is always on the defensive. He tells me I nag him too much about school and homework. He was always a good student in grade school and now he doesn't want to study or do any homework. What can I do? I am a single mother trying to do the best I can and it just isn't enough.


Starting high school is exciting, scary, confusing and complicated. That is why freshmen often go backwards for awhile and consequently, are not the good student they were in elementary and junior high school. I encourage you to think about all the "firsts" your son is experiencing: being in a bigger school and getting less individual attention from teachers; being around older students who are practically adults. His defensiveness may stem from of all of his new worries. Freshmen worry that they won't fit in or get good grades, won't make new friends and won't meet parental expectations. Simply put, they are overwhelmed.

It's critical for you to get a snapshot of your son's school day and find out what is different and difficult for him. For example, does he have any classes at opposite ends of the building, making it challenging to be on time? Do any of his friends from junior high attend his high school? Does he see anyone he knows in classes or in the halls? Does he have to make all new friends? Ask him about the cafeteria food. Does he eat lunch with the same group every day and does he socialize outside of school with this group?

My freshman parents always comment that they don't know if their teen has homework or what they are doing in school. My response to them is: Ask your teen to show you his day-planner. It is key to getting good grades and keeping track of homework, tests, etc. While most teens start using day-planners in junior high, many lose them or stop using them in high school because they are overwhelmed and give up. I have had many freshmen whose grades dropped to D's and F's, because they did not use a day-planner and just crammed all their in-class work and homework into their backpack. Once they used a day-planner and bought notebooks and folders, their grades went up. Sounds all too simple, but organization can be very complex to freshman.

Your role is to be an astute listener and give your son endless opportunities to talk and vent about what's difficult, what's not working, what he doesn't like and what he loves. As a high school senior, my stepson still has days when he declares a teacher is mean or gives too much homework, and that high school should have recess! Teens need to feel like home is a place where they can talk and vent about school, and where they don't have to be perfect.

As you learn more about your son's high school life, you will start to understand his attitude toward academics. Give him crystal clear expectations about studying and homework. Teens rely on parents to give them structure and rules, be it that he is not allowed to get C's on report cards or that he must finish homework before going out.

Remember, try to listen rather than give advice. In the words of Harry S. Truman, "I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it." Lastly, remember to breathe, be patient and give your son a lot of reassurance.

Karen Deger McChesney is a Colorado-based high school English teacher, contributing writer to various magazines and educational publications, and stepmother to a high school student.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.