Fostering Independence in Middle and High School Students

In the fourteen years that I taught middle and high school, I saw the same scenario play out over and over. Well-meaning parents realized college was looming in the not-so-distant future, looked closely at their kids’ learning and study habits, and realized it was time to start fostering some independence. And of course, the logical way to foster independence is to take a step back, right? So those parents stopped doing the things they had been doing for years. They stopped regularly checking grades online, telling the kids they should do it themselves. They stopped asking to see planners and completed homework. They stopped reading with their kids, or asking them what they were learning. They repeatedly reminded their kids that the consequences would be theirs to own at the end of the quarter if they messed up. In my unofficial estimate, at least 95% of the kids faced with this newfound freedom did just that. They messed up. And unfortunately the consequences were disastrous.

Fostering independence is absolutely the right thing to do, but it’s best done in phases, with lots of oversight and frequent check-ins. After all, you want your child to develop independence without raking up a whole quarter of F’s on his personal GPA. And, once kids fall behind academically, catching up can be daunting and even defeating.

So instead of a full-blown experiment in independence, I’d suggest a more gradual approach.

Start off going week-by-week.  Nine weeks is a really long time to a high school student…long enough that they can convince themselves the end of the quarter will never come. They remain staunchly convinced that they can fix a bad grade until the last day of the quarter, when I used to brace myself for the flood of frantic and desperate emails. Instead of setting the end of the quarter as your check-in, try doing it every Friday. If things aren’t going well, intervention is usually possible after only a week.  

Don’t quit checking up on them. Maybe the first step to independence is getting homework completed without a parent asking (repeatedly) if it’s done. That’s a great first step, but make sure you’re still checking grades on the sly. Schools routinely post grades online, so make it a habit to make sure everything’s OK every other day. If you notice not many grades are showing up, you might want to email the teacher.

Keep talking about school. Just because you aren’t managing the homework doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningful conversations about education with your kids. Instead of asking them if their homework is done, ask them what they’re reading in English. Find out what their favorite class is, and why they like – or don’t like – a certain teacher. You’ll learn more from these conversations than you would if you led with talk about grades.

Take the time to teach strategies. Using a planner is a skill. So is time management. Don’t assume that your child possesses either of these skills. Before you give them freedom, take the time to teach them what you expect them to do. Eventually, they’ll take what you teach them and make it into a system of their own, but they can’t do that if no one models it for them.

When your kids seek help, praise them for it.  Seriously, for some reason teenagers are allergic to asking for help when they need it. But you want them to come to you when they’re struggling, because how else can you help them? When your child asks a tough question or lets you know school isn’t easy right now, praise them for their honesty. Teach them that you’re an ally in their education, not a threat.

It’s amazing to watch a teenager get his or her wings and rise to the occasion, but that typically doesn’t happen without a mom or dad working hard behind the scenes. Don’t feel like you have to step away from your child’s academic life during the teen years. Despite what they might tell you, your presence is their most important asset.

Written by Laura Simon, Connections Blog Contributor