How best to motivate student? Back off a little

A few months back, a parent requested that I send her sample essay prompts, those asked frequently on college applications. She wanted her son to get a head start on writing his personal statement. He was 12 years old.

And then, it happened again. This time, the call was from a frantic mother.

"I want to register my daughter for test prep," she said. "She's a terrible test taker and needs all the help she can get."

After further discussion, I learned that the daughter was a fifth-grader.

I can't seem to get away from it, even when I am picking up my daughter from preschool.

"Where should I send Johnny to school where he'll have the best chance of getting in to a 'good' college?"

Ay, yay, yay.

While the above examples might seem extreme, it's easy to fall into this frenzy. There are test prep companies who exalt the value of SAT prep beginning in fourth grade. There are others where students literally prepare for 12 hours every Saturday for months prior to each college entrance exam. And when Johnny did those things and scored a 2,200, parents salivate. What Johnny learned there, my son can too.

Test prep should be gradual. Most students won't even have the content under their belt until the junior year of high school, when they learn the curriculum in their high school classes.

Careful planning and preparation are certainly keys to navigating the college admissions process with less stress. Of course it's important for students to pace themselves. But more often than not, I remind parents that this rule applies to them as well.

It doesn't all need to come together at once and so early. Keep in mind that the goal here is to get your child across the finish line. The earlier the pressure starts, the sooner the burnout and apathy will begin. Moderation is key.

Of course, you should expect apathy every now and then. They may not have feelings about college right now. Their teenage lives might be consumed by breakups, caddy friends, and prom dates.

I often hear: "She's not ready to talk about that yet."

Good. Respect that. Take a step back. Get your own insecurities in check. It's not about you — it's about them.

Beware of information overload — don't expect your child to know everything about college admissions right away. And certainly don't relay every detail you heard from Johnny's mom in the school parking lot. The more you compare your child to Johnny, the more your child's confidence will dwindle. No one wants that.

Establish "college free" zones where college talk is off the table. You can't get it all in over dinner — even if it's a five-course meal.

The successful parents also understand that the process is fluid: just like when your child was in preschool, loved dogs, and wanted to be a veterinarian, but that career goal changed in middle school, after a Shamu show at Sea World, and then in high school, a show on the Discovery Channel inspired a new interest in archaeology. Let their imagination run away with them.

Allow them to change their minds, and understand this is all part of the process. Seventy-five percent of college freshman change their majors after the first year. They've got time to figure this out.

The same goes for their college interests. They might start off wanting to go to UCLA, but as they feel more academic pressure and see what they're up against, less-competitive options might suit them best.

Some months, they'll want to pick up the pace. While others, they'll slow it down to barely a crawl. Your job is to keep the momentum going.

Help your child take the reigns by handing over pieces, a little at a time. Don't let go too fast or pull in too often. Stand back and watch them struggle a bit, and if they become overwhelmed, help them break down the process into manageable chunks.

And there's nothing wrong with encouraging a complete break from the pace altogether. This is advice for parents as well. Keep in mind that it's rare for a student to drift seamlessly through this process without feeling anxious, so be prepared for those bumps in the road. Get your own anxieties in check since you are, after all, modeling good behavior.

Slow down your own pace to keep your child's momentum going. You'll not only feel more empowered as a parent, but also be preserving the relationship with your child during the last days she or he is living under your roof.

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