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Patterson: Your teen can do anything, just not everything

I’m a sucker for inspirational memes.

Lately, I’ve taken to posting them on social media.

Last year, while working as a school administrator, writer, speaker and advocate, I reached a tipping point. I was buried under so many responsibilities that I wasn’t performing them to my full capacity. I was overcommitted and out of balance.

So like any responsible adult, I complained about it to a friend.

After listening patiently, my friend replied, “It’s time to take some of your own advice.”


“Your post; you need to follow it.”

“Which one?”

“You can do anything, but not everything.”

Message received. It was time to create more balance in my life.

The same premise is true with teenagers. Teens are capable beings who can accomplish most academic feats with the right combination of effort and focus. But their academic eyes are often bigger than their stomachs.

So, as students begin the registration process for next year’s courses, it’s vital to approach it with the mantra they can do anything, but not everything.

So what does that look like?

Have a plan. A common trap when selecting courses is making hasty choices rather than slowing down to take a look from 30,000 feet. Effective academic planning consists of big picture thinking; it outlines all course progression scenarios (think dominoes).

Specific courses open certain doors in the future that others cannot. For example, challenging courses generally lead to more, while less-rigorous classes lead to less. Plans are fluid, but mandatory to fully understanding how today’s choices impact tomorrow’s opportunities.

Play to strengths. Students typically have specific subject areas that complement their natural interests and abilities. A student may prefer math-science courses over English-history courses, or vice versa. When students selects honors or AP-level courses in one area, they may scale back in another to increase the likelihood of success. Not to say that students shouldn’t extend their academic comfort zones, but taking difficult courses void of passion and simply to line-item a resume is risky.

Factor extracurriculars into the equation. Students are knee-deep in sports, theater, dance, leadership groups, church and community service; it is crucial to acknowledge these obligations when building an academic schedule. It’s delicate: do too much and risk not keeping up, but do too little and run the risk of becoming pigeon-holed as a one-trick pony. Finding and remaining committed to a few meaningful activities far outweighs a frenetic spattering of activities over the course of high school. Again, balance.

Fight the urge to comply with others’ expectations. Your child is your child; they may or may not be blessed with the same academic, athletic or artistic DNA as your neighbor’s child.

Knowing what your friends’ kids are taking is a dangerous game. I get it; you want to scope out the competition. There are two flaws with this strategy: viewing the admissions process as a competition, and mistaking their child’s path for your child’s.

Your child should only be competing against the contrast between their potential and their results. Results from previous courses paired with college goals should dictate next year’s classes, not what you’ve heard others are taking. Your child is unique; if you attempt to cram them in the box of another student’s pedigree you will trigger revolt, apathy or unhappiness.

Focus on the whole child. Many times it is the child who requests the overly demanding schedule. If that’s the case, utilize a school counselor to talk through the cost-benefits of the proposed schedule. What is the upside? Drawbacks? If determined to be best for the child, look for other places to lower obligations to balance the demand stemming from this rigorous course load. Ultimately, parents may need to exercise the power of veto in order to keep balance for their child.

A final thought. Remember, students can do anything, but not everything, and something’s gotta give. If you don’t identify that give now, the give will show up unannounced and wreak havoc.

So in planning, view your options through the lens of balance.

DANIEL PATTERSON, a former Newport-Mesa Unified administrator, recently launched Patterson Perspective Inc., a consulting company.