They might be taller than you, but high schoolers, says Rebekah Dixon, are still kids.
For the past three years, Dixon has been dealing with the ups, downs, ins and outs of high schoolers as academic services manager for the Wade Edwards Learning Lab in Raleigh. The lab offers tutoring, academic and enrichment programs for all Wake County high schoolers whether they're in public, private or home schools. It also serves eighth graders who are taking high school courses.
The teen years can be a trying time for many families as teens learn to assert more and more independence (as they probably should) and parents wonder how to handle it.
So, seeking some tips, I checked in with Dixon, who offered some great advice and reminders.
Parents: Pay Attention
Parents of high schoolers often think that their kids have everything under control, Dixon said. But, in many cases, they don't. Or, at the very least, they need some guidance along the way.
"A lot of parents of students I work with are very hands off and they don't really know what's going on in the academics," she said. In some cases, parents had no clue that their kids weren't turning in their homework or hadn't completed the required community service to finish the year, she said.
Right now, parents should check their child's high school website for a month-to-month guide, which outlines exactly what students should be doing. Parents should be referring to those guides and having conversations with their child regularly to make sure their kids are on track, especially if they are college bound.
"Of course things aren't going to be perfect, but it gives them guidelines," she said.
If college is in the future, parents should know the dates for standardized testing and set their kids up, as best they can, for success. The learning lab offers some free programs, along with a fee-based boot camp for the ACT and SAT to help prepare students. (Scholarships are available). Parents can start looking for those resources and programs now and sign up.
They also should keep track of their student's grades through Power School, which is part of a statewide initiative called HomeBase, Dixon said. The online program lets parents see their student's daily grades to make sure they're not falling behind.
Finally, go meet the teacher. Parent participation often drops off at high school open houses and meet the teacher nights. In fact, Dixon goes to the open house at Southeast Raleigh High School where her goddaughter attends. (The teen's mom works nights and can't go).
"It's really minimal compared to how big the school is," she said.
At a recent freshman orientation where she spoke, she could count the number of parents who were in the room. Even if you think you know it all, "it's still a lot of information that could be helpful," she said.
Allow some independence ... but not too much
When it comes to school, juniors and seniors should have it down. They should be scheduling meetings with their counselor or talking with teachers when there is a conflict on their own (unless things have gotten out of control), Dixon said.
But freshmen and sophomores need a little bit more guidance. Those first two years also are key to creating the positive study habits that will carry students through high school and beyond, Dixon said.
"If they start off rocky, you’re setting a tone for the way it’s going to be," she said. "If they have a bad freshman, sophomore year, they are going to be playing catch up in their junior and senior years. ... It's hard to play catch up."
What's more, if students are college bound, parents and students need to start thinking about those college requirements during the freshman year. Because college send out admission letters long before the senior year is wrapped up, a student's grades during the first three years of high school are very important, she said.
"It only takes one mess up to set you back," she said.
Parents need to be sure they are checking their student's grades online and communicating with teachers at least once a quarter. Don't wait until the third quarter to seek help if there is a problem, Dixon said. If students are falling behind, sign them up for tutoring (the learning lab offers tutoring and homework help). A lot of teachers also will help students before or after school, Dixon said.
"Use those opportunities to keep them on task," she said.
Help them develop study habits
Students typically develop the study habits that will carry them forward during their first two years of high school.
"With me, my parents had to push me," said Dixon, who is now pursuing her doctorate in education leadership - K-12. "I really didn't have a study habit."
Dixon recommends parents set aside two hours a day where students should be focusing just on their work. During that time, take away their cell phones and access to social media.
"I know, for me, for my studies, I have to move my phone or cut off my social media so I can concentrate on my school work," she said. "Cell phones are really a distraction for our youth today."
Sports and Clubs
Dixon said college admission officers aren't just looking for good grades, but also well-rounded students. While many students are involved in sports, Dixon said they also need to consider joining clubs that they're interested in at their high school.
If a student is interested in a particular career, join a related club, for instance. If they have a hobby, find a program at your school or in the community.
"It helps build the career-minded mind," Dixon said. "It also builds a community at the school that you attend."
Many high schools have club fairs at the beginning of the year so students can see what's available on campus.
Parents are still important
There will likely be plenty of eye rolls and slammed doors during the teen years, but, believe it or not, teens do listen to what their parents say.
"I think the main thing is parents have to be prepared to hear some things that they're not really wanting too," Dixon said. "Students now deal with way more issues than I know I dealt with in high school - like sexuality and pressures of various things. I feel like keeping an open dialogue with them will allow them to feel comfortable talking about certain things."
Parents still need to be parents to their teens, she said, but they also need to be open to hearing about the issues their teen is facing without just getting upset with them. It can be hard to do without finger wagging, but if teens trust that you'll listen and help them through issues, they are more likely to come back for more conversations.
"Just being a parent, you have to prepare yourself for discussions about sex, sexuality, alcohol" because they are dealing with those topics at school, she said. "You have to be opened minded for that."
"You can't start waving the finger," she said. "Teens shut down when you start talking like that."
The Wade Edwards Learning Lab, across from Broughton High School, offers a variety of academic and enrichment programs.