Help for my struggling high schooler
February 22, 2015 8:59 PM   Subscribe

How have you helped your high schoolers through the tough times?

My daughter is a good student, struggling for the first time with a couple classes: honors chem and math. She's in a very intense public high school that pushes hard. For the first time she's looking at C's and fighting to keep those. It's really doing a number on her.

I've got a whole side diatribe here about the downside of "tracking" curriculums and the pressure it puts on kids... But right now I just want to help her get thru it. We're getting a lot of "I can't do it" and "I hate school and I don't want to go... Everyone is miserable." She's frequently tired, studys late and is slipping behind.

We're ok with the grades, but hate to see her under so much pressure and stress. Of course we discuss all this, and solutions we think might help... But I realize she's in a tough spot... Tough classes that require (I think egregious) amounts if work, lots of propaganda about what one has to do to get into college, and her own expectations hitting a wall for the first time.

Have you helped your teen through a similar time? Anything to pass on for a situation I know is not unusual?
posted by ecorrocio to Education (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

I went to a highly academically ranked HS with a similar program with tracking for my entire school exp approx 13 years. Yes, it was quite a long road. Most of the students had weekly outside tutoring for specific subjects, attended cram/weekend school, or had extra assignments to give themselves a "edge" from their classmates. If you're aware of any tutoring programs locally it could help her with her studies and if there's a college nearby you can always hire graduate students for better rates than say a offcial tutoring program.

Personally, if I were in the same situation I'd switch around classes so I had fewer honor classes but had a stable balance. There's a lot of students who try to get a overall A in every class but unless they have a infinite resources it's going to be a pain. As for colleges it depends on which college programs she plans to apply to as different schools have difference requirements. For example, a large research university refused to accept any AP sciences unless the student got a 4.

Hmm---overall I'd go with general topics so honors math would rank higher than chemistry because I'd be able to use the former in more classes than the latter.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 9:11 PM on February 22, 2015

For example, a large research university refused to accept any AP sciences unless the student got a 4.

It's worth pointing out that there's a difference between getting into college and having your high school credits transfer, though. That can remove some of the pressure of feeling like you need all the courses.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:25 PM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not in your country, but I'm a chemist, and I've tutored a lot of chemistry students. Does she need to do chemistry? Is she interested in studying science? Maths has got a lot more general use, but upper high school chemistry (at least where I learnt and tutored it) gets hard fast, and it mostly builds on itself, so if you get lost, it can be hard to catch up. It's also not really necessary unless she's planning on studying science.

If she needs chemistry, then I'd suggest tutoring. Not extra work, but help with her homework. Tutoring for the maths too. It's not cheap, but it can really make a difference to have someone go through problems at your pace.
posted by kjs4 at 10:37 PM on February 22, 2015

You wrote that this is the first time your daughter's expectations have "hit a wall" and that it, aside from the stress of the work itself, is really "doing a number" on her-- I would focus on this, partly because it's not really going to get easier here on out if she intends to go to college and possibly enroll in more math and science courses, and partly because working through this sort of thing builds character. Putting in the hours is one thing, but the mental/emotional challenge of pushing yourself, adapting when things don't go as planned, of dealing with repeated disappointments is another entirely. This is an exciting opportunity for growth.

I would make sure that she has the space to talk about how she feels about her disappointments. What does academic achievement mean to her? What does failure mean to her? It sounds like you're fine with the grades, but maybe she still feels pressure from her peers, teachers, herself-- to deliver. How does she feel about those expectations? Perhaps she could talk to you about this, but if there's someone at school (guidance counselor, teacher, school therapist) or in the community for her to talk to about this, that could also be helpful.

I personally benefitted from reflecting once or twice a week on what seemed to be working, what didn't, and things I wanted to try out or change in my studying. It kept me forward-looking and proactive in classes that I found challenging. Maybe this is something you can talk through with her. Note that this is different from merely making suggestions to her-- I think it helps if she is actively engaged in reflecting upon her own process. Maybe she can even ask an upperclassman or successful classmate about how they studied.

In terms of practical matters, it does sound like she is already trying very, very hard. Maybe there are little things that can help make things easier on her, such as getting a planner or learning how to use a calendar so that she can more effectively space out her study schedule? Is her study environment free of distractions? Are her sleeping and eating habits okay? Have you met with her teachers to see if there is extra help or tutoring available? Would your daughter be open to that? Can she hold off on one or two extracurricular activities this semester?

Unless the course load is really affecting her physical or mental health, I wouldn't drop down into a lower class. It's the middle of the school year, and besides, honors and AP classes are worth it simply because you get to interact with a group of generally motivated classmates, and that will (I think positively) influence work ethic and other intangibles later on in life.

Best of luck!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 10:59 PM on February 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Tough classes that require (I think egregious) amounts if work,

Not really. Classes are graded on a curve so you are competing with your peers. The kids who get straight As are very smart or working very hard. Your kid is one of the ones that needs to work hard. And thats fine, those kids tend to do better later on as they have good work ethic. However it sounds like you, and maybe she, prefer a different work life balance, which is fine too, possibly a lot more healthy. But you aren't helping her by agreeing that school is too demanding. It is what it is. She has to adapt or leave, if she really hates it a less academically demanding environment might suit her better right now.

It doesn't mean she can't go on to get a graduate degree in math later but if she hates school this much and you hate it too it might not be the right place or the right track. She's competing with kids who are focused on Yale for undegrad and Harvard med. And they're willing to put the work in. It's brutal if that's not your career goal. APs are fine but not worth going mad over.

But try tutoring first, a lot of HS math teachers suck. She might pick it right up with tailored one on one instruction.
posted by fshgrl at 12:16 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is there a reason that she needs to be in an "intense public high school"? Is she really devoted to going to a specific college, and she absolutely needs to be in this place? You don't say how old she is, but if she's not a senior, I'd seriously consider letting her change schools. It's hard enough to be a teenager without the added "pressure and stress" of a high-intensity school, and a school that puts this kind of pressure on its students isn't something that kids need to go on and live a happy, healthy, successful life.

You should also probably give her a reality check about "what one has to do to get into college"--many people who have average grades at non-competitive high schools go on to college and do just great there. Many people go to community college for a few years first because it saves you so much money. Homeschooled students and students from online schools and magnet schools and all sorts of places go on to college and do just fine. Lots of people don't go to college at all and have great lives.

Have a serious discussion with her about what she wants out of this school, and if it's really worth it to her. This sounds like a lot of pressure and drama for not a lot of payoff--and uncertain payoff at that. It's not, in my opinion, worth making her miserable over.
posted by MeghanC at 1:30 AM on February 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a high school teacher, and I live in a high-pressure district that all my 3 kids went through with different levels of success.

First, it's great that you're listening to her and taking her seriously. I can only suggest two things: first, hire a tutor. I don't like this suggestion because the school is supposed to be providing her education. If she can't access the curriculum, it's the way she's being taught and to put the burden on you (and her) to work through it by hiring someone may solve one problem but not the larger issue, which is that the teachers aren't doing their jobs.

Instead, is it possible for her to be moved to lower level classes? Like I said, I have three kids. Two were pressured in their sophomore years to take AP and highest levels honors classes, which in hindsight was ridiculous. The eldest burned out completely and the second kid was up every night, crying about the amount of work she needed to do just to keep up. She was completely fried; couldn't work her part time job, couldn't sing or do plays because she was so busy with homework.

In a high-achieving school, the pressure is on to take these classes and there's not really any need for them. With my youngest who showed an aptitude for science, he was pressured to take AP Biology in his freshman year. I held firm and he takes regular level courses. His friends are now burning out on AP Calculus and AP History and they're only sophomores. Colleges want to see a whole person, a kid who works and volunteers and lives life and gets higher grades in gen ed classes, not necessarily some kid who gets C's in AP work.

If she's struggling in more than one class, I would make an appointment with her advisor or dean or guidance counselor and see how you can reduce the work load.

A high achieving district will sell the higher level classes as though they're mandatory for lifetime success. They're not.
posted by kinetic at 3:27 AM on February 23, 2015 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I taught high school and I find this type of rigor doesn't result in knowledge and understanding, but in keeping a huge amount of data in one's head long enough to pass the test. If it was building knowledge, it might be challenging, but it wouldn't require all of that work and result in disappointing grades.

I'd work on perfectionism with your daughter. Perfectionism is pretty terrible, it causes people not to take risks because of the learning curve involved.

Ask her what she wants to do, and assure her that C in an honors class are fine.

In the future map out classes for balance. Honors classes in subject she loves or has talent for. Regular classes for those subjects that are necessary for graduation/admission to college, but for which she may not have a burning passion or aptitude. Also, make sure there's something fun and creative in her schedule. Drama, photography, Painting, Yearbook, Debate, anything that's not study-intensive.

It may be that honors Chem would be fine, if it were the only hard class in her schedule, but it's crushing if you've got a full schedule of honors and AP classes.

If honors is too hard, there is no shame in switching to a regular level class. Help her to see that. Also a C is not the end of the world. Sometimes that's the best we can do. I am very proud of my Bio 101 C. I worked like a dog for that.

Here's what you can say to her, "Chelsea, I know that Chem and Math are a real struggle for you. Know what? They were a bitch for me too. I was lucky, I didn't have the pressure from school to be in an advanced class for them. Some people love this stuff and it comes naturally to them, folks like you and me, we really have to work at it. Luckily we don't have to great at everything we try. You have a couple of options here, you can move down to a regular, non-honors section of these classes, or you can keep working on them and take the C. Either way it's fine. You'll still get into a good college, you'll still be successful in life. I admire you for tackling these classes, and I love that you're willing to try so hard. But it's not necessary to get straight As in everything. It's not even advisable. Next year, we can balance your schedule so that you have time to socialize, play sports, join clubs and do normal kid stuff."

She'll tell you what she wants to do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:47 AM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you're doing this already, but if it's likely to be a problem, reassure her that this is about her as an individual -- I spent way too long in high school toughing it out in AP Calculus because I felt like I needed to prove "girls can do math" even though I personally was miserable. Switching down to honors level in junior year made everything else so much more bearable, and doesn't seem to have let down global feminism too much. If you can't switch mid-semester, can she get a study group going with some of her classmates? Other kids may be having similar problems which aren't obvious in class but they may complain/commiserate/support each other better in a small group.
posted by nonane at 5:47 AM on February 23, 2015

I might suggest reading College Without High School, not because she is considering quitting high school, but because it might give you some perspective on how important killing yourself to get an A in some class really is. A different perspective may make the classes more palatable, or may open her (and your) eyes to what's really important about education.
posted by COD at 5:48 AM on February 23, 2015

It helps to offer perspective. If she has made it this far without struggling, she is probably very smart and her school has failed to challenge her before. Point this out to her. Remind her of how easy she has had it while some of her friends have been struggling for years. Let her know that this is temporary and not the beginning of a trend. Let her know that, so long as she tries, you don't care what her grade is and she won't be punished. And then give her $20 and drop her off at the mall with a friend for the day.

It sometimes helps to talk to the teachers. They don't always realize the amount of stress that they are putting on the students and how counterproductive that stress is.
posted by myselfasme at 7:08 AM on February 23, 2015

It's been hmm more than a decade since I had to apply to college, so it's more than possible that things have changed - but when I was applying, Cs would drop your GPA enough that you would no longer be competitive because state schools would do the cutoffs first by sat scores and gpa, and a C in honors didn't rank the same as an A in non-honors. Again, check because I know things have changed a lot, but I wanted to throw that in.

I would also encourage tutoring, but there's a lot to be said for learning that being stressed out and having a decreased quality of life is a good reason for quitting, if you've done your best. I dropped out of honors physics in high school because I just couldn't keep up. I now have a PhD in a science field, and I honestly think that learning my limits that early on helped me more than I would have learned by sticking with it.
posted by umwhat at 7:33 AM on February 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

One thing I've talked about with my son a lot is that no matter how much you screw up, there's always a path to get back onto the standard "collage and full time career" path. Screw up high school? You can still go to community college, do well, and transfer into a good four-year school. Screw up community college? You can take time off, work, and go back to school at some future date if you want to. It helps to have friends who took nonstandard paths to point out to him. "See, not going to college doesn't mean your life is over..."

Take the pressure off. Remind her that it's a game; she can play it if she wants, but it shouldn't affect her self-worth. And if she opts out of playing it, that's cool too.
posted by metasarah at 7:38 AM on February 23, 2015

Response by poster: Great, thoughtful replies all. Thank you.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:25 AM on February 23, 2015

I had a completely screwy schedule my Junior and Senior years of High School specifically because I avoided Chemistry (the typical Junior year science class) and switched it with Physics (the typical Senior year elective science class) because I hated Chemistry SO MUCH and I knew I wasn't going into the sciences in college. It's probably late in the year at this point, but does she need Chem? If not, I say try and find a way around it.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2015

There is a really common phenomenon among girls of this age where they don't ask questions and thus don't get the help they need on tough topics (and then they start to feel like they are bad at math or science, and it's a nasty spiral). I do a lot of tutoring, mostly high school girls, and naturally, they need help with the subject material. But less obviously, they simply need the sanity check that these topics/classes are tough for nearly everyone, and they are not half as alone as they may feel.

Having friends to study with can do a lot to lessen/prevent these feelings, but if that is not coming together, it's worth considering a tutor. I joke sometimes that I'm a math therapist, but it's only half a joke... The important thing is to find someone she feels comfortable with, so that she will actually ask what she considers dumb questions and get the material sorted out.
posted by ktkt at 10:17 AM on February 23, 2015

A tutor can help her with understanding concepts, but in regards to large workloads, have her assess if it all really needs to be done. IS some classes the teacher went over the homework in class but did not collect it for a done or not done grade. In other classes, homework may have been graded, but maybe it was 5% of the total class grade.

I'm not saying that she should stop doing all the work, but she should manipulate the amount to fit her time alotted and the benchmark she needs to get a "passing" grad ein the homework section of the class. I usually ended up picking a handful of problems out of ones assigned for example. I'd skim and do an easy one to "warm up" them 3 or 4 hard ones to get some examples of things i might run into, rather than doing say the whole 20 problem set assigned. This kept me from getting bored and my grades survived unharmed.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:03 AM on February 23, 2015

You need to check in and see if she is learning the material or not. In many schools, a diligent student can manage to get a C even if they don't really understand the materials (as opposed to the bright student who doesn't do the work and gets C's as well). Both Math and Chem are usually cumulative so if she doesn't really understand now, it will get worse as the semester goes on. So, a tutor seems like a good idea for now.

Regarding changing tracks: Some teachers aren't very good at explaining and the honors classes often go very fast. I had a kid who easily got A's in a regular math track but struggled in honors - the teacher did not explain has clearly and the class moved on before she had enough practice to get confident. To my surprise, two years later, she switched back up to honors and did fine - but by then she had more confidence and well as more experience. If the point of education is to learn something (not just grades), then being at the right speed for each person makes sense. I also had more than one teacher tell me that in an intense academic high school, they preferred the regular (non-honors) classes, because they were more fun to teach, had time for interesting projects and the kids were not quite as obsessed with just learning what was going to be on the test.

Most importantly, assuming you are in the US, there are SO many ways to get a good college education. With 3000 colleges and universities, there are 300 excellent ones in just the top 10%. So, your daughter should work hard and learn as much as she can while in high school but however it turns out, even the worst case will not doom her to educational disaster.
posted by metahawk at 3:14 PM on February 23, 2015

I'm not a parent but I was a high schooler pretty recently.

nthing tutoring for any sticky subjects. It's kind of expensive but if it's in reach, it's amazing. I had one that helped me with Latin when I wanted to sob every time I got called in during that class (which only became worse because the subject was so cumulative - same as Chemistry), one that helped me with college applications when I didn't even know where to start, and now act as one in Algebra for a great 15 year old who is getting stuck on a couple tough things that his teacher moved past too quickly. I don't think any of those issues could have been addressed on the same level by my parents or the school.

Also, she may benefit from the reminder that in college/work/life, she will get so much more control over what she does and she will get to play to her strengths more. At least in my high school, electives made up a very small part of our education, and that was one of the best parts of the transition to college. High school made me feel so dumb sometimes, and I wish I had been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel more.
posted by R a c h e l at 8:20 AM on February 24, 2015

I have a son attending a STEM HS that is very challenging (it's rated in top 5 HS in US). The curriculum is pretty difficult and of top of that, there is a ton of the pressure from the other kids and the other parents. My kid is pretty well balanced, but he is not immune to the high stress environment. I know it can be difficult, but try not to buy into the whole idea of "if you don't do X, you won't get into a good school" thing.

Since you can't drop classes at this point, you just have to make the best of the difficult situation. I would suggest for the short term:
-get tutor
-talk to teacher(s)
-talk to school counselors
-check if extra credit is available
-reach out to upper classmen/parents of upper classmen for tips on surviving specific teachers/classes

Long term:
-review schedule for next year and research the teachers!
-figure out in advance what AP exams your kid is actually going to take; there's a difference between AP and honors!
-take a challenging class over the summer instead of during the regular school year (being able to concentrate on one class a a time is a bonus!)
-research graduation requirements to determine if your kid is taking over and above what is required for the desired degree

Best of luck to you and your daughter!
posted by jraz at 9:08 AM on February 24, 2015

Kutsuwamushi: True, but a lot of the top colleges only notice your APs if you did exceptionally well in them otherwise it looks bad on your academic record to have a list of so-so AP grades instead of high grades in regular classes. For example, my HS also a had convoluted way to promote people to APs/Honors and would remove people who didn't do work up to their standards (B- is the lowest a person could get).

It depends if the person is only interested in getting into college or passing their classes too. Grades are still one factor admissions will look at and people who happened to be accepted had to do a bunch of other extracurricular activities/clubs. I have met people who have gone to Ivy League and they didn't need to the whole Honors/AP route and vice versa.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 8:50 PM on February 24, 2015

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