You may or may not be aware that the most important factor when it comes to preparing for college admissions is achieving high grades in challenging classes. This has traditionally motivated students to perform at their best and monitor their GPAs in hopes of securing a spot at their ideal college. But as schools continue to muddle through online and hybrid learning due to the pandemic, many students are struggling to keep their grades up with even a standard course load – let alone honors and survive AP-level classes. Stressors outside of the classroom combined with social isolation, feeling disconnected from teachers, counselors, and peers, as well as the sheer amount of screen time required for distance learning makes it harder than ever for students to manage academic stress and avoid academic burnout. While some high-achieving students will continue to strive for academic excellence, they do so under extreme pressure. Meanwhile, students with learning challenges face even more obstacles on the way to academic success. There’s no doubt that the pandemic has changed the way students and their families approach learning and schoolwork. When it comes to tackling challenging classes whether learning online or in the classroom, the following tips will alleviate stress and help students achieve their academic goals.
Review class websites with your student and direct them to make note of the due dates of big papers and projects for each class. Be especially mindful of due dates that are close together, or even overlap. For children that are visual learners, pick a color for each class and create a color-coded calendar to help them stay mindful of important deadlines as they come and avoid last-minute scrambling. As you develop a schedule, keep in mind that extracurricular activities are also important appointments to keep for your student’s social and emotional health. Help to build some flexibility into the schedule to allow your student to have a balanced academic and social life without feeling stressed about looming assignment.
SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timebound. When coming up with a schedule and setting goals for learning, make sure to break down large projects into smaller steps with their own place on the schedule. This is especially useful for students with executive functioning challenges, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed, and can feel in control of their work.
As your student makes progress, don’t forget to celebrate milestones! Some tasks that may have been easy for your student before the pandemic are more difficult under the current circumstances. Acknowledge that shift with your student and find ways to mark achievement, such as enjoying a special meal or favorite activity together.
Now more than ever, communication with teachers is paramount to addressing any academic challenges. With remote learning through the pandemic, this is one of the biggest hurdles students have faced. Even typically outgoing students can feel awkward asking questions during video lessons or reaching out to their teachers directly for help, especially if they’ve never had in-person interaction with the teacher before. As students gradually go back to school, their class time is still limited and they may face greater difficulty adjusting to a new schedule and being in class with masks on their faces. Encourage your student to establish a regular cadence of communication between them and their teachers — for example, a weekly email check-in or a ten-minute one-on-one zoom call every other week. Of course your student should feel welcome to reach out to their teacher any time they need help, but establishing a regular check-in early on will facilitate that process, especially for more introverted students.
When communicating with teachers, we find that our students often struggle with self-advocacy. Even as adults, it can be hard to talk about our areas of vulnerability, but it’s important to empower your student to be honest with teachers about the challenges they’re facing. Even the most perceptive teachers can’t read your child’s mind, and will appreciate the opportunity to connect over shared topics of interest and support a student in areas where they need help.
Kinetic learners especially suffer when it comes to moving the majority of schoolwork online. Activities such as taking notes by hand, making physical flashcards, and even doodling relevant images along with notes all force the brain to slow down and absorb information. Talk to your student to help raise their awareness of their learning style strengths and weaknesses and work together to come up with some strategies to try. You may also ask their teacher to recommend tools or strategies based on your child’s learning style.
You already know how important social interaction is for students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. Studies have shown that students also benefit academically from positive interaction — often called “peer effects” — with their classmates. With social interaction limited even when students are on campus together, it takes more effort to create safe spaces for students to interact with one another. A study group of friends in the same classes is a great solution!
When your child participates in a study group, even one that meets online, they benefit from social interaction as well as learning from peers with different strengths and reinforcing their own knowledge by sharing it with others. Connecting outside of the digital classroom also gives students the opportunity to remind each other of upcoming due dates, share different perspectives on course content, and bond over shared interests and struggles. It also reinforces accountability when it comes to completing assignments and being prepared.
Help your student coordinate regular weekly meeting times with their peers so there is less planning and legwork involved in setting up meetings. This will ensure that the group members are all available to meet on a regular basis and without as much effort in scheduling each meeting.
It’s important for your student to be able to relax and regroup outside of school time. While it’s not a bad thing if they want to do so by watching tv or playing video games, it’s important to be mindful that doing school online constitutes a significant increase in screen time. Help your student strike a balance by exploring other ways to unwind that don’t involve screens.
Keep in mind that this can also be an opportunity for your student to boost their extracurricular activities for college applications. Activities such as learning to play an instrument, knitting or crocheting items for donation, or building an invention will give your student’s eyes a break and make their applications stand out.
When you’re around the dinner table, doing chores together, or even just having a quiet moment on the couch, ask your child about what they’re learning. Remember: more specific questions will yield more detailed answers. Ask for their opinion and share your own. When you demonstrate genuine interest, it will help your child stay motivated and engaged with the learning material.
You may find that on some days, school is the last thing your child wants to talk about. That’s okay! Check in with them about hobbies, friends, college plans, career aspirations, favorite television shows, or anything else that comes to mind and sparks a conversation. During these times, it’s especially important to remember to communicate with your child through empathy. Just saying, “I get it.
I’ve been feeling the same way,” or “Of course you feel stressed. There is a lot on your plate right now,” can provide the validation your student needs to muster up the strength to persist through these challenges. Feeling truly seen and heard goes a long way for kids of all ages, especially teens during these chaotic times.
We’re all feeling more isolated than usual, so it’s even more important than ever to remember that you aren’t alone. If your child is struggling with the demands of challenging classes, it may be helpful to seek professional academic support for student success. Virtual tutoring or educational therapy can make your child feel supported while keeping them focused and holding them accountable to achieve high academic performance and follow through with assignments.
At La Jolla LearningWorks, our experienced and compassionate instructors connect with students one-on-one to address areas of weakness and reinforce strengths. We can help students with learning challenges overcome obstacles and thrive academically. In addition to support with course material, we support students with study skills, test preparation, time management, and building confidence. There are many factors that make this time especially difficult for students in challenging courses, from adjusting to new learning modalities and communication mediums to the stress of the current political climate. Even students that have excelled in honors or AP courses in years past may find themselves struggling now. You can help your student stay calm and focused and excel in challenging courses by planning ahead, setting SMART goals, forming a study group, keeping the lines of communication open with your child and their teacher, using a variety of tools and strategies for learning, encouraging your child to engage in screenless hobbies, and/ or seeking professional academic support.
Megan Trezza, M.Ed. is the founder and CEO of La Jolla LearningWorks, a private learning center based in La Jolla, California, that focuses on individualized 1:1 educational coaching to bring each student to his or her full achievement potential. As an educational therapist, she believes that all students can learn with the right approach. In 2009, Megan created La Jolla LearningWorks as a space where different learners can receive the personal attention they need to discover their capability to become successful learners. Visit ljlearning.com to learn more.