Senior Slump

By Dr. Raymond J. Huntington

If you’ve noticed a distinct change in your son or daughter’s academic attitude since the day that highly anticipated college acceptance letter appeared in your mailbox, you’re not alone. For generations, the phrase “Senior Slump” has characterized the tendency to ease up on studying and kick back and enjoy the last few months of high school. And since most colleges and universities don’t even look at last-semester grades once admissions decisions have been made, both you and your child may be tempted to believe that some “down-time” is a well-deserved reward for years of hard work.

Well, think again. And imagine picking up the phone a few months from now and hearing that your son has been placed in a remedial English class to build the skills he needs for college-level work, or a few months later when your daughter tells you she’s so far behind she wants to drop out. Both scenarios are more likely than you may believe. According to Stanford University Professor Michael W. Kirst, Ph.D., who authored the report “Overcoming the High School Senior Slump: New Education Policies,” some colleges place up to 70 percent of incoming freshmen into remedial courses. And although a lack of preparation throughout high school may be part of the problem, students who decide to take a break from learning during the last semester of high school are clearly losing an opportunity to build and strengthen skills that college level courses require.

So what do you do to keep your teen on track? You can start by acknowledging that although your son or daughter has finished one race, a far more difficult one may lie ahead. And in today’s competitive, skills-driven economy, you should both recognize the direct connection between a strong finish to high school and a strong kick-off to the college years. Then, as a parent or guardian, you can consider the following additional tips:

  • Make sure you understand the material your son or daughter is expected to master during the senior year. Get this information by talking with teachers early on in the year, and checking in from time to time to make sure your child is keeping up and staying engaged. While half of this school year is over, you and your child still have time to make the next few months productive.
  • Take a critical look at activities that compete with academics. Many students with part-time jobs begin working longer hours to earn extra money once they feel “freed” from the pressure to keep grades up. While the rising cost of college may require some extra time on the job, spending too much time earning and too little studying could also put your child behind academically, leaving even less time for part-time jobs or other extracurricular activities once he or she reaches college.
  • Transform the last semester to a foundation for future achievement. Even if your child has done well, consider working with teachers and guidance counselors to create a “capstone” senior project that builds on your child’s interests and skills and strengthens preparation for the college-level work that will utilize those interests and skills. Examples might include a series of essays or commentaries on current events for future English majors, advanced experiments or studies for those heading into biology or other pre-med courses, or even the design of software or programming projects for students pursuing degrees and careers in technology fields.
  • Deal with academic trouble spots now. Keep in mind that problems with basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics, time management and study skills will only be compounded by the complexity and rigor of college-level work. Make sure you talk with teachers about extra assignments or tutoring to strengthen these skills before you send your son or daughter off to college or into the workforce.

While all of these approaches should be useful, it’s especially important for you and your teen to simply stay engaged in the learning process even if it feels like the finish line is well past. And if you have younger children, keep in mind that the “Senior Slump” may not even be an option a few years from now. In fact, Professor Kirst, whose report was published by the Institute for Educational Leadership and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, has actually recommended that colleges and universities set explicit standards for senior-year performance and withdraw admissions offers if those standards are not met.

But students should do more than simply wait for some external force to kick academic performance into gear. Staying motivated and on course now is the best way for your child to be prepared for the challenges to come.

Dr. Raymond J. Huntington and Eileen Huntington are co-founders of Huntington Learning Center, which has helped children succeed in school for 26 years. For more information about how Huntington can help your child, call 1 800 CAN LEARN.

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