How to deal with your child entering high school

By Voula Plagakis on July 24, 2013
As your teen makes the jump to high school, are you scratching your head and asking yourself, “Now what?”

That’s what I found myself doing when my teenage son came home and removed a frozen pack of bacon from his backpack. He had “found” it in the refrigerator of the room where they were having a soccer meeting.

As he proceeded to thaw the bacon in the microwave to make a sandwich, I wondered if I should call the principal and report the missing bacon. This was just one of many times I questioned how much a parent gets involved once your kid is in high school.

While schools prepare students to deal with the transition of that first year of high school, parents are often confused as to how their role changes. Should parents help with homework? Volunteer at school? Or should they just step back to encourage independence? What exactly is the parent protocol in a high school environment?

When Dr. Carmen Mombourquette was a high school principal, he found parents tended to be one of two extremes. “Parents would either take a hands-off approach – sink or swim – or would be far too involved at a time when the teenager is craving independence.”

While research supports that being involved in our children’s education contributes to their success, what is less clear is what type of involvement works best for high school students. This led Dr. Mombourquette, now assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge, to study the relationship between the type of parent involvement and the impact it has on high school students. His study focused on four areas: student engagement in school-related activities, academic achievement, attendance and attitude toward school.

The research uncovered something surprising: Parents being active volunteers or more visible within the school didn’t translate into their kids having better grades or better attitudes toward school. In fact, his research of 500 high school students showed there was a negative relationship between the two. This runs counter to what is known about parental involvement at the elementary level.

Does this mean parents shouldn’t venture past the high school parking lot?

Not exactly. Dr. Mombourquette encourages paying special attention to what your teenager is doing at school through ongoing conversations and rich dialogue. “By keeping a solid understanding of what’s going on in their lives, parents can continue to play a signifi cant role without being actively involved, without being bossy, but maintaining an active interest.”

When asked how parents should deal with the ubiquitous one-word answers to “How was school today?”, Dr. Mombourquette suggests taking a back door route. “Talk about what’s happening with the playoffs, in your community, world events and from there, tie that in with what they’re doing at school.”

The type of parent involvement that had the most positive infl uence came from a combination of what parents did at home and in their participation in the more formal decision-making process of the school (PTA, School Council, sports governing bodies). Student attendance was the only area where the type of parental involvement didn’t seem to have any particular impact.

In short, it’s not how much you are involved in your teenager’s education, but rather, how you are involved. For positive ways to be involved, see sidebar.

In case you’re wondering how I handled the case of the missing bacon, I decided not to report it. I chalked it up to a lapse in judgment and told my son if he wanted to bring bacon home, it had to be the kind we could put in his bank account.

Here's how you can stay positively involved in high school

  • Set up the house to support the extra workload and establish basic house rules. Create study spaces and set time limits for digital devices and TV. It’s okay to be flexible with the rules as long as the exception doesn’t slowly become the norm.
  • Ask about homework assignments and classroom learning – not by doing it or correcting it – just be up to date with the topics discussed in class. Pick up on cues to further the discussion about topics you may know something about or inquire about the ones you don’t; your teen may just bring that question back to class.
  • Attend school information sessions, meettheteacher night and sporting events with your teen. Encourage school spirit and belonging by attending cultural and variety shows put on by the students. Check out the school website for photos and videos of events you are unable to attend.
  • Set expectations and goals, and keep an ongoing dialogue about the future and what that may include, whether it’s work, college or university.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2013.

By Voula Plagakis| July 24, 2013

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