The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness.—Lao Tzu

51+XSdHdy7LThese Duke booties are a sports-fashionable way to launch a diehard fan who can dream in his or her parents’ arms of an exciting college future. From early on, parents are conscious of the transition and promise that college holds for their children. As we and our children follow the NCAA brackets or enjoy college reunion weekends, the paradox of college looms large: the wonder of potential and the challenge of gaining acceptance at the school of our child’s dreams. In recent time, this paradox has generated significant anxiety among college-bound students and their parents alike.

Recent New York Times articles highlight some patterns observed in college counseling offices and on campuses across the country. Turns out (and is it really any surprise?) that the college years are replete with stressors, be it routine ones like adjusting to lecture halls and the dorm room; unexpected losses like saying goodbye to a chronically sick pet; or the issues around work, money, and relationships that arise throughout adulthood.

College as the Promised Land
By the start of upper school, most adolescents crave a positive college experience. As they slog through readings about the French Revolution and master the Spanish preterit, they overhear siblings and friends sharing stories about their college experiences, and they can’t help but yearn for their turn. So they manage the academic demands of reaching that goal, while close friends and family around them are so encouraging of their efforts that they may overlook or minimize the stress and anxiety that accompany them. College is idealized in our culture as the promised land after high school, and yet so many young people are faltering at its threshold, as well as once over it. What is it about the exertions required to get into college, and to thrive once there, that overwhelm the excitement and expectations of this much-anticipated time?

Every new life stage brings challenges, and therefore growth opportunities. But the trend of intense anxiety among college-bound high schoolers and students on campus is a truly worrisome development. As one head of college counseling put it: “Anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students.” Lost in our discussions and concern is a recognition that Upper School could be (1) a time for inculcating thinking skills that lead to independence; and (2) a training ground for stress management techniques that can ease the transition into the greater expectations of college life.

At Ivy Prep, we work with students, families, schools, and other specialists to help students optimize their pre-college time—at home or at boarding school—toward preparing for this transition. We promote solutions and strategies to ameliorate their anxiety and stress because they exist and they are available. We owe it to our kids, whose booties and toddler-sized college jerseys hang framed above their desks, to teach them these tools and help them anticipate the bumps that are a given in any big life-change. There are strategies you and your children can learn and practice right now—from both the brain-behavior world and straight out of the Citifield dugout—that can help you prep for this change with confidence. Our approach to college planning is based in the here and now, meaning, getting students skills and tools starting today, and which they can hone and use for the rest of their lives.

College is often the first real transition students encounter, and it can be needlessly tougher if students or their parents have spent the high school years focused primarily on mastering information or relearning course material rather than also on acquiring strategies and systems for independence and growth. While our children are in high school, with faculty who know them well and provide guidance and support, there is a unique opportunity to coach and expose them to metacognitive strategies, that is, methods for self-awareness of one’s own thought process.

Research in learning and emotional development suggests that if we are aware of how we think and approach an experience, we can use those insights to aim for other goals with success. Not surprisingly, self-awareness, plus lots of practice, is also the theory behind training on the sports field as well as managing sports-related stress. Training students in self-awareness and managing stress in the high school years results in new skills that will pay off in college, and in life beyond.

Executive Functions—Learning to Learn
Thinking about stress management is the first step to achieving this goal. Pre-college students are used to strategies that help them learn information “for the test.” They typically don’t care about the theories behind what they are learning—if it’s not on the test, there’s no room for it in their brain. But pre-college time is also when students can begin to work on their executive function strategies so they can transfer them to a college setting later on. Students need to shift away from test-oriented performance and toward a broader vision that emphasizes how to actually think. Students can move from merely acquiring information to developing an internal instinct for approaching any stage of the learning process if their routine includes:

  • Review of content and skill-building within the basic 3R’s
  • Understanding how to attack a task.
  • Awareness of your learning style.

Research in transfer of training strategies, plus feedback from former Ivy Prep students out in the work force, demonstrate that metacognitive approaches work. The strategies transfer as self-awareness and skills increase, and honing those techniques reduces stress so the path toward college and professional development is more enjoyable than burdensome.

Ivy Prep’s next post will share tips on how to make this critical shift in thinking—a shift you will be glad you made for yourself, your child, and your family.

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