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College Transitions…How You Can Help!

By Dr. Geri Markel On 

A Parent Primer to Help Your Child Ace Freshman Year and Beyond

Did you know that as many as 1 in 3 first-year college students won’t make it back for sophomore year?   Why?

  • They may encounter financial, academic, social, or emotional difficulties.
  • Often, they fail to use their families or school resources to decide if and when to drop a course, ask for extensions, or deal with illness or roommates.
  • Sometimes, they just stop going to class and fail the semester.

How can parents help students survive the transition to college?

Initially, the parents’ goal is to help their children survive the first semesters. Some of the ways in which parents help are: listening, suggesting times during which to reach out, and encouraging balance when participating in extracurricular activities.  Below you’ll find 10 vital elements to assisting your child in having success through his or her first year, which will set a foundation to help them FINISH all four years of college.

1-Listen and support

It is important to schedule a regular time to communicate, especially during the first weeks. Decide on the time and format; phone, text, email, Skype.  Remember, the amount of listening and supporting during the first part of the fall semester often lessens as students become more familiar with routines and classes.

Spend the first few minutes just listening. The conversation may begin with mundane events and then perhaps, move to issues and feelings. It may be difficult, but it is important to just listen and talk in a friendly way. You need not solve problems. The greatest help may be to listen and refrain from nagging. Just help keep spirits up and allow time for your child to come up with possible solutions.

2-Suggest Times to Reach Out

If things don’t resolve, then suggest accessing college resources.  Students need encouragement to access resources: office hours, math labs, writing centers, advisors, health or mental health services, computer services. Students fail to understand the number and types of resources that are available. Reaching out helps keeps students in school and sets the stage for expanding skills and dealing with problems.

Support regular visits to office hours: the traditional opportunity for student-instructor interaction.  Such interactions solve problems, but more importantly, establish rapport with instructors and set the stage for any difficulties that may come up later in the semester. For example, students can pose a question, clarify an issue, and get feedback about a paper, or request samples of tests questions.

Fitting it all in:  One strategy is for the student to rotate going to office hours; go to English the first week of the month, Astronomy the second week, and so on. In that way, the instructor is visited at least three times during the semester.  Instructors often have study tips about their courses, including how to take notes or memorize. The earlier the student goes for help the better.

Assure your child that he or she is not supposed to know it all. College is a place of learning and scholarly pursuit; therefore, it is important to ask questions. If discussing problems, ask questions, “What do you think the instructor or advisor said? Did you follow up with an email? Do you have the catalog information? Are there study groups?

3-Help students balance participation in extracurricular activities.

If you believe your student is isolating or “hiding” away college might be feeling, to them, like a painful, friendless experience.  Ask them, “What groups are you joining or meetings are you attending?”

It is useful to engage in at least one non-academic activity, although it is also important not to take too much time with it during the first semester. When it comes to extracurricular activities, less is more. Students are advised to select one activity that involves their interest and develop leadership skills and friendships in that one. Also, it is important to encourage a student to leave the organization, if things don’t work out.

4-Help students gain accommodations for learning or attention difficulties.

Often, learning, attention, memory, and emotional problems surface during college. For some students, accommodations for disabilities were not needed in high school, but are needed in college given the increased pace and complexity of college courses. All universities have programs and resources to deal with disabilities. At the college level, students are responsible for requesting such accommodations.

5-Help to find mentors and role models.

It may require a parent’s suggestions to find special academic or mentoring programs. For example, is there someone at church, work or community group who might be contacted? Can you make the first call or contact?

6-Be a role model and provide consistency.

Hand in any legal, health or other papers on time. The college and career game now more than ever, requires paper work, promptness and vigilance. Parents can model the prompt submission of health insurance or financial papers. Have an accordion pleated folder to organize important legal, health, insurance or financial information.

7-Expect ups and downs during the semester.

Commonly, students confront difficulties with instructors, horrible roommates, sleep problems, allergies or other health problems, and general academic overwhelm. Are unhealthy habits beginning involving gaming or drinking? Perhaps what’s needed is a talk with the residence hall advisor or a visit to health service.

8-Use prior positive experiences as a basis for encouragement.

Athletes (and those in the performing arts) have shown disciple, commitment, focus, high energy, work ethic, ability to handle pressure and resilience. Parents can encourage their child to apply these same skills to academics. Parents can remind their child about their prior work habits. It isn’t just brains that enable a student to succeed; it is the development of effective college level work habits.

9-Deal with myths.

Myths and unrealistic expectations contribute to poor decision-making and problem-solving. For example, students who didn’t have to study much to get good grades in high school, think they won’t have to increase their study time at college.  The fact is that the level of expectations in college presumes your child is entering an adult world with adult-level expectations.  But don’t worry, college professors do understand that freshman year is a vital time of transition.  Some are more lenient and accommodating than others, but all have high expectations that their students will rise to the challenges.

10-Discuss ways to relax.

Provide some lighthearted humor; send a joke, cartoon, YouTube, or magazine. Whether with an actual visit, phone call or Skype, ask about the funniest thing that happened or share interesting parts of your life.

Transitions may be traumatic to student and parent. The parent, however, can be the stable and supportive factor that helps their child meet the new challenges confronted during the transition from high school to college.  Your stability and solid connection with your child is a key ingredient to their success and with a little planning and practice, you’ll be there for your child in the most important ways possible.


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