The anticipation a kid feels before a new school year starts is real. (The same is true every Sunday night for the upcoming week!)
From a kid’s perspective, there’s so much to be excited about—seeing friends again, wearing their new, fresh sneakers, and maybe being around their crush a little bit more. But there’s also so much to be anxious about: will any of their friends change? Will their math teacher be cool? Will they be wearing the right clothes?
In my experience, most kids leave too much up to chance, fate, or how the cookies crumble. In other words, they don’t accurately perceive their own agency to influence how the year goes for them. As parents and educators, it’s important to remember that our kids or students haven’t yet learned the life lessons of advocating for themselves, setting ambitious goals, or starting new habits. Honestly, those are lessons many adults are still figuring out, too.
That’s why it’s important not to assume they get it yet. We can guide them to be more thoughtful in defining what they want and exploring their options to move toward their goals and values.
Consider more than just their academics, although that’s really important, too. Help them think about their social life, family life, mental health, and physical health (especially sleep!). If they’re involved with sports or outside activities, help them think about those, too.
Here’s what it can look like:
Approach the Conversation with a Story. Think about those specific areas in your life. Recall moments when you took more ownership of that aspect of your life. Perhaps you started to take more responsibility for your schoolwork because of a difficult situation you found yourself in or a come-to-Jesus moment. Maybe something clicked, and you realized you wanted to shift your friend group. Or you tried out for a team and got cut, so you doubled down your effort to make the team the following season.
The moral of the story is that kids respond well to stories. Pun intended.
Next, try asking an open-ended question. Kids can smell a lecture a mile away. Sometimes when adults think they’re being clever and indirect, they’re confronted with eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, or open contempt from a teenager. Most adults don’t know how to do anything BUT lecture. So when we delicately bring up an important topic like their academic success, they can’t help but feel like it’s a dangerous setup.
No worries. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Wait a couple of days, of course, and by all means—don’t lecture!
Suggest alternate pathways. If you get this far, you might be actually discussing the good stuff, like their goals, ambitions, and values.
But most kids think in fixed terms.
For instance, a kid might say, “I want to get really good grades this year, but my math teacher is terrible, and I don’t understand the concepts from them.” To them, all is lost, and they’re up a creek. But, as a wise old sage, you know that there are so many options to improve their math skills. Khan Academy. Office hours. Talking with their counselor. Sitting next to a smarter kid. Taking better notes. Starting to raise their hand and ask questions. All of the above.
Again, they don’t respond well to lectures—but you don’t have to lecture them or say things like, “You should.” Instead, slip some wisdom into one of your life stories. Tell them about what you did when you had a difficult math teacher. Or a difficult boss. Tell them about what another kid down the street did a couple of years ago when you talked with her mom at Starbucks.
Then bring it back to them and ask them what they could imagine doing instead of accepting things as they are. Don’t expect a big breakthrough moment. But sleep tight, knowing that you planted a solid seed.
It’s not easy to guide a kid to be thoughtful, wise, and forward-thinking. But it is possible, and it’s definitely worth giving it a go. It’s probably also your responsibility if you think about it. The only other option is crossing your fingers and wishing they figure it out on their own someday.
We have a simple resource for you. Here’s a worksheet you can download and share with the kid(s) in your life. Let us know how it goes!
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).