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6 Tips to Prepare Your Kid for College: It’s Not All Academic

The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). Interested in blogging for us? Email here.

As I prepare to send my oldest daughter off to college in a few weeks, I can’t help but wonder whether her mother and I prepared her well enough for the challenges she’s about to face.

6 tips to prepare your kid for college

These challenges aren’t just educational, they’re also emotional and social. So when I read a recent blog post from Andrew McAfee at MIT on how our higher education system is failing our children, I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of the problem is that parents aren’t preparing children for success in school and, ultimately, in their careers. After all, only a little more than half of students who start college graduate—and that’s in six years! Can we place all the blame at the feet of our higher education system? Nope.  

I recall not knowing what hit me when I started college. I was ill-prepared for it. I went from a high school of 2,000 to a college of more than 25,000. I carried a full load and joined a fraternity. It was like stepping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. In retrospect, I made a smart decision to ease into college. I took a couple of the tougher basic college courses in the summer before my freshman year. That decision allowed me to start off with good grades and take a smaller but still full load in the fall, making it easier for me to handle the study load and the time commitment of pledging a fraternity.  

Unfortunately, I can’t remember a conversation with my parents about college—either before or after high school graduation—other than where they could afford to send me. It wasn’t that they weren’t supportive of going to college. Quite the opposite. My father has a Ph.D. and my mother a master’s. I knew they expected good grades and that I would attend. But they didn’t give me much if any guidance on how to achieve those objectives. I can only assume that they thought my success in grade school would magically transform into success in college.

Fortunately, I did well in undergraduate and graduate schools and graduated on time, despite switching majors twice as an undergrad. I graduated with honors at both levels and earned a scholarship to attend grad school. So, to some degree (pardon the pun), I have to give props to my parents for at least instilling in me the value of good grades and higher education.

Nevertheless, I made a lot of mistakes, especially as an undergrad, trying to juggle the educational and social aspects of college life in large part because I lacked an emotional and social compass. It was my first experience with on-the-job training untethered to my home, and I sometimes wonder how I survived.    

In reflecting on how well my wife and I have prepared our daughter, I definitely learned from my collegiate mistakes. I also read articles by people smarter and wiser than me on getting children college-ready. While I agree with McAfee’s advice to recent high school grads (and their parents) to “work hard, take tough classes, and graduate on time,” it is a bit lacking, simplistic, and short-sighted. Parents must start much, much earlier. By time they graduate, it could be too late or, at the very least, a much tougher haul in college.  

Consider the following tips as you prepare your children for the rigors of college life:  

1) Save early and often. 
It might surprise you (or not) that this first tip focuses on money. I can’t tell you how good a decision it was that my wife and I set aside money for our children’s education. While we don’t have it all paid for, we’re a good way down the road. Sending our two girls to college will be financially manageable, barring something unforeseen, because, when our children were very young, we purchased contracts for a portion of our girls’ tuition through our state’s guaranteed tuition plan. Many states offer such plans and other education-specific investment vehicles (e.g. 529 plans). Start saving now even if you can only set aside a small amount of money.

2) If one parent wants to manage your children’s school lives, let them go for it.
My wife comes from a family of teachers—her grandmother, mother, and both sisters are or have been teachers. So when my children entered school, my wife started to manage that part of their lives like a fish takes to water. I let her dive right in. That’s not to say that I abdicated responsibility. I made every parent-teacher meeting, school play, and sporting event that I could. (A key role of mine has been to manage my children’s athletic endeavors.) Indeed, research shows that when fathers are involved in their children’s education—broadly speaking—children get better grades than when fathers aren’t involved. But given my wife’s knowledge and skills in this area, it was a no-brainer to let her take the lead.

3) Focus as much—and more when necessary—on the social and emotional aspects of school life. 
School is a laboratory for life. As such, it teaches children—for good or ill—how to interact with peers and authority figures. Children, as they say, can be brutal. Middle school is a particularly difficult time for girls because of their physical, social, and emotional development at this time in their lives. My daughters hated middle school not because of the academics but because of the way girls treated one another. I had a lot of long, intimate conversations with them about how to navigate friendships that change and dissolve, how to deal with the formation of cliques, how to better understand boys, and how to avoid drugs and alcohol. When children don’t effectively navigate the emotional and social aspects of school—regardless of school level—their academic performance can suffer. If your children need professional help, don’t hesitate to get it for them. Don’t wait for something bad to happen—expect it to happen and be proactive.

4) Stalk your children’s grades as if they were a Facebook account.
Let’s face it, grades and GPA matter when it comes to competing for a spot in the freshman class at many colleges. Moreover, good grades and a high GPA can help pay for college through public and private scholarships. This fact is especially important if your family won’t qualify for financial grants or aid (e.g. free grants or low-cost loans). Many school systems have an online service that allows parents to monitor their children’s grades throughout the year and in real time. This service helps parents know immediately when their children struggle, get their children help (e.g. tutoring) when needed, and to correct grading mistakes, which occur more often than you might think.   

5) Help with subjects you’re good at, and get your children help in others.
My wife and I have different strengths when it comes to helping our children with school subjects. Unfortunately, neither of us are whizzes at math, so we’ve encouraged our children to get help in that subject from teachers, tutors, and peers (e.g. in study groups). There’s no shame in telling your children you don’t have the answers and getting them help from elsewhere.

6) To ease the transition into college, enroll your children in college courses while they’re in high school.
Fortunately, my daughter made the same decision that I did to take college courses before starting college, but she started her junior year of high school. She’ll carry a full load as a freshman, but not as full as she would have otherwise. That’s critical because she’ll have to achieve balance between her school work, holding down a job, and using her spare time to take advantage of the growth opportunities her program will offer that are outside of class time. This tactic saved us money, as well, because she took the courses at a local community college that had a lower per-hour fee than the college she’ll attend. Before enrolling your children, make sure that the colleges your children are interested in will accept the coursework (i.e. it will transfer) and on what basis (e.g. pass-fail or a minimum grade).

What advice did your parents give you about college?

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image: iStockPhoto

The Missing Piece in Education Reform—Dads

classroom, education, fatherhoodWriting for CNN’s Schools of Thought blog, NFI's Christopher Brown and Vincent DiCaro reveal the missing piece of education reform. Brown and DiCaro point out that "There is no shortage of answers about how to improve our nation’s schools, including more charter schools, school vouchers, standardized testing, lower teacher-student ratios and performance-based hiring, pay and promotion of teachers. However, what we find lacking in almost every debate about education reform is the role of families - especially fathers - and the support they can and should provide to ensure children’s educational success. If parents, educators and reformers are to make a difference in improving children’s educational success, we must expand our definition of education reform."

They continue, "children in two-parent homes were more likely to stay on track in school and have higher literacy, both of which are critical to overall educational success." 

Pointing to research on marriage from Pew Research Center saying barely one-half - 51% - of adults today are married, down from 72% in 1960, the article says, "The decline of marriage, the rise of divorce and the increase in out-of-wedlock births - now 40% of all births - has contributed to the reality that more than 24 million children in America live in homes absent a biological father."

Brown and DiCaro do not write only to complain, but to offer real solutions for educational improvement. They point out several real-life things fathers can do at home and in school to help their children succeed:

  • Attend school and class events, or even spend a day in the classroom—your presence communicates something to your child and to their teachers. 
  • Read to your children every day. 
  • Help with school work. 
  • Don’t let mom do all the work. 
Some believe that school is “mom’s territory,” but fathers are just as important to their children’s educations as their mothers. Brown and DiCaro add that schools can help to create father-friendly environments by:
  • Including posters, reading materials and visual cues that show dads are welcome. 
  • Distribute parenting resources targeted to dads, as well as moms. 
  • Hold seminars for staff members to remind them how important it is for dads to be involved. 
  • Create dad-centric events, like “Dad and Donuts Day” where fathers join children at school for breakfast.

Brown and DiCaro do well to explain, "Changing parents’ and schools’ views of parental involvement are part of education reform. But most importantly, we must also address and reverse the two most disturbing trends of the past half-century - the increase in the number of children growing up in father-absent homes and the decline in marriage. These two issues are inseparable and have a direct impact on our children’s success in school."

Read the full article at CNN's Schools of Thought.

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photo credit: dcJohn

My Biggest Fear As My Daughter Starts Kindergarten

I didn’t cry at school this morning. Nope, I did great. But today is still not a normal Tuesday for me. As my wife and I dropped our firstborn at her class and turned away, there were no visible tears from me. I saved my tears for the drive to my office.

school bus

It was Darius Rucker who put me over the edge. You know, Country Darius not Hootie Darius. His song, “It Won't Be Like This For Long” made me think. It hasn't been long since we brought Bella home from the hospital. It hasn’t been long, looking back, when we were waking up at night and wishing she would sleep more than two hours at a time. It wasn’t long ago I picked her up and tossed her in the air with ease.

Time sure flies and as a dad to a daughter who started school this morning, some of my thoughts are as follows:

1) How will we deal with the increased expenses of school?
2) How will we manage busier schedules and still create time for fun and travel?
3) Will bears steal my daughter and try to raise her as one of their own because she’s so sweet and cuddly?
3a) Perhaps bears trying to raise my daughter wouldn’t be all that bad. If they are bears that love sweet and cuddly five-year-olds, perhaps they are like a group of real-life Pooh bears and we’ll love them as we do our daughter. They can live with us and we can all enjoy eating honey together….

These are some of my thoughts. I told you; it’s not my normal Tuesday.

So being stolen by a family of kind-and-gentle bears isn’t the most accurate worry as a parent. Besides, bears are probably more apt to steal children in the Shenandoah’s, not closer to metro-Washington, right?! I will Google “bear attacks in greater DC area” later. For now, know that my biggest fear as my daughter starts school is that others will influence her.

See, I have one of those good daughters. She’s sweet, really, she is. She’s kind too. She’s not like your daughter. I have been at parties and Chuck E. Cheese’s with your daughters (and sons) – they aren’t as awesome as my daughter! ; )

Aside from if she’s sleepy or hungry, she listens to her parents. She is a good big sister too. She considers her sister. Just yesterday (at Chuck E. Cheese’s, where else?) she “won” enough tickets to get two packages of Smarties. What did she do with the extra pack? Yep, she shared with her sister. I didn’t have to tell her and her sister didn’t even have to ask.

Bell had other tickets; what did she do with those? She picked an extra set of glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth. Yes, an extra set. You see, Bell has carried around glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth for some time (she may be running around the school with them right now!); but her little sister hasn’t had a set. After yesterday, all that changed. It was Bella’s idea to take the seven million tickets and pick a set of vampire teeth for her little sister. I haven’t seen a better example of sacrificial love in a long time.

I’m focusing on the wrong part of the story. My point is my firstborn is an awesome and considerate big sister and human being. Why? Because my wife and I have worked with her and molded her into this person. Over five years, we have created this machine/human being who says “thank you” and “may I” and “please.” This is no small accomplishment considering I rarely say these things.

But still, my biggest fear is other-lesser-well-meaning individuals will now influence her. Yeah, so maybe I can trust her teacher, but what about those other 20 rascals in her classroom? My wife and I are creating something here, and we don’t need others getting involved and messing it up!

Truth is, other kids will influence my daughter. She will learn to navigate her way through now unimaginable drama. One day her “best friend” will probably lie to her. One day she may be shunned by “the cool kids.” This will hurt her until one day she realizes that “being cool” only comes when you blog for a living and use social media to talk about them. I kid; but seriously, one thing is certain, while we at National Fatherhood Initiative teach about the impact of father absence, we also teach about the impact of involved fathers. We talk about how the lack of a father changes the lives of children and a society, but the truth is that active, involved and committed dads change families and societies too.

With all of our research on absent dads, we hold to the fact that parents are the number one influencers of their children. Did you hear that? Parents are the number one influence on children, not mean girls or sweet boys.

We know that children whose fathers are stable and involved are better off on almost every cognitive, social, and emotional measure researchers have developed. My biggest fear shouldn’t be the influence of fellow students and friends on my daughter. My biggest fear should be how I am influencing my daughter. There will definitely be a test. While I am nostalgic today, I know that this phase is flying by. My wife and I will keep “holding on” as the song says. We will keep hugging, kissing, loving and training our daughter. Because we know, as Country Darius sings, “it won’t be like this for long.”

What's the one thing you fear the most as a parent?

 photo credit: Carmine

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