A+ Advice for Parents

Setback Causes Freshman to Question Academic Success

Q: My son Ben, a rising high school freshman, had an academic setback this year. I know he can do better, but he now thinks he's "dumb." He's dropping his old friends and hanging out with slackers. How can I help get him back on track?

A: First, friends matter. A recent study from the National Science Foundation suggests that good grades are "contagious." Researchers found that students whose friends' average GPA score was higher than their own at the start of the year were more likely to improve their grades. Conversely, students with higher GPAs whose friends had lower grades saw their own grades drop over the year. So encourage him to retain healthy friendships.

Second, read "Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain," by educators Eric Jensen and Carole Snider (Jossey-Bass, 2013). While written for teachers, parents will find plenty of help in it.

The authors explain in plain English what recent research tells us about our brains. They offer actionable advice and suggest strategies to help teens develop an important understanding: Intelligence is not fixed. Hard work, effort and determination are key factors in getting good grades, and they often trump talent.

Third, let Ben in on what Jensen and Snider call the "great attitude secret." Cynical teens may not want to believe that our attitudes, negative or positive, have a tremendous influence on academic success, but the research is persuasive.

Jensen and Snider suggest three techniques to teach teens the art of attitude adjustment:

-- Maintain learned optimism. This means monitoring negative self-talk and being able to honestly "reframe" an event. ("I messed up this test, but I'll do better on the next one.")

-- Assume personal accountability. Learn to stop the blame game and begin to own one's success. ("I'm sorry! I forgot to write down that assignment. I will finish it in study hall.")

-- Develop a growth mindset. Recent research into the brain tells us that intelligence isn't fixed; it's malleable, and the brain grows and changes every day.

"This means that students aren't stuck where they are," says Snider. "There's always hope. Students need to know this."

Integrate the following approaches into your conversations with Ben:

-- Avoid labels such as "smart" and "dumb." Instead, discuss progress in terms of benchmarks, says Jensen: "Here's where you are now. Here's where we want you to be next month. What do you need do next to get there?"

-- Affirm signs of a positive attitude. If he has succeeded at something, praise his optimism. ("That powerful attitude kept you going and helped you succeed.") If he stumbled or made a mistake, let him know it's OK. ("It's all right to fail. We all do now and then. It's what you do after a failure that determines success.")

-- Make praise specific. ("I'm impressed with how well you researched your report!") When you praise for effort you foster perseverance, says Jensen.

"You're pointing out the steps to success," he says, "and showing him that continued hard work reaps untold benefits."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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