How to Support Your Tween as they Transition to High School

Guest Post by Jay Bacrania of Signet Education

The transition to high school presents students with both significant opportunity and responsibility. What a student does in 9th grade and beyond is really what matters to colleges. On the one hand, this allows students who may have struggled or not taken school seriously up to this point to press the reset button. On the other hand, students need to focus on their academics and ask for help when they need it, because even in freshman year, a student’s choices can have lasting repercussions. High school is also the time when students begin to act more independently: think of it as training wheels for adulthood. Students and parents can use this time wisely to prepare a student for the responsibilities that lie ahead; not taking conscious steps toward that preparation may make things difficult for students down the road.

Parents and students should keep in mind that high school is different from middle school in a few key ways. These differences allow students the chance for reinvention, but they can also expose weaknesses or deficiencies that need to be addressed. The three key ways high school is different are:

Environmental - This is the most obvious factor, but it’s worth noting that when students enter high school, they are encountering a new campus in a new location. High schools are often larger and more spread out, and class sizes may also be bigger.

Social - High schoolers are in vastly different stages of development: think about freshmen, who are still pre-teens in many ways, and seniors, some of whom essentially present as adults. This can affect social dynamics, which can also be impacted by the fact that students may not be in the same high school as their middle school friends. On another note, students who struggled socially in middle school may find that high school, with its wide array of extracurricular activities, presents opportunities to connect with like-minded people who share similar interests.

Academic - Students can expect their coursework to be more demanding in high school, peaking in intensity during junior year. Teachers will also expect students to be more independent, particularly around completing homework and studying for tests. This is not to say that teachers aren’t available to help (they are), but students need to be proactive in reaching out for assistance when it’s needed.

With all of these changes occurring simultaneously, it’s only natural that some students will hit rough patches or take a little while to adjust. Parents should do the best they can to allow students to work through their challenges without interfering too much. Many students will settle into the rhythm and routine of high school on their own, and will learn valuable skills in the process.

However, some students face obstacles that become extreme or enduring. In those cases, parental guidance is valuable and needed, so parents should stay alert and keep an open dialogue with their student about how the year is progressing for them. If intervention is required, it should happen before a student starts to shut down or develops negative feelings around school or their own abilities.

Offering the right amount of support as a parent can be difficult. Regularly checking in with students (how regularly will depend on the individual student/parent relationship) and approaching conversations with curiosity, not an attitude of “I know best,” is vital.

When a student does need support, the first place to begin is usually with the student’s teacher. Parents can advise students on how to ask for help from the teacher, especially if doing so is a new experience for the student, but note that students, not parents, should make the initial approach. Occasionally a parent will be the right person to help in a particular subject area, but again, parents should make sure to draw a line between helping and doing students’ work for them.

Parents may also be able to help students by influencing other area of their lives or addressing non-academic factors that could make a difference in student performance. For example, a student may be struggling with finishing homework, and a parent might notice that the student lacks a quiet workspace, likely contributing to the difficulty completing assignments. The parent could help create a dedicated study environment for the student and also allow that student distraction-free time away from other family members.

If the student’s difficulties extend beyond the scope of what a parent or teacher can address, it may be time to bring in a trusted third party. Many families love this option, not only because of the expertise the third party provides, but because it help alleviate familial tension and reduces the overall level of drama and stress between students and parents.

Depending on the circumstances, a student may need to work with a subject tutor (for specific academic challenges), an academic coach (for skill-building or executive functions, discussed more below), or a mental health professional such as a counselor or therapist (for a wide range of concerns).

Executive functions are one area where some students will need extra help. Executive functions are tricky because some students pick them up naturally, while other equally bright students need explicit help building these skills. Parents should keep in mind that executive functions, which include advance planning, organization, time management, working memory, and other skills, may be obvious to adults but not necessarily to their kids. Executive function deficiency is often misinterpreted as a student being lazy or apathetic, so this is where parents need to reserve judgment and instead get curious about the challenges their student is facing.

Parents may be able to help boost a student’s executive functions skills by supporting their student without taking away his or her agency. For example, instead of keeping track of a student’s schedule, shop together for a planner and show them how to use it. Review the planner together for several weeks to refine a student’s process and then transition them to using the planner independently. If this isn't an option (and for many parent-student relationships it isn't), consider bringing in extra help early on. These kinds of challenges can be overcome, but if they aren't overcome they can quickly become deeper emotional challenges.

There is no doubt that high school students have more demands on their time and energy than ever before. This may lead to a few bumps in the road during the high school transition. But if parents and students stay open and keep communicating with one another, students should be able to settle in and enjoy the ride.


Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. He has taken a broad academic path, ranging from a degree in comparative religion at Harvard to studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music. Jay believes that education and career are twin pillars vital to building a meaningful life. He continually experiments with how best to promote deeper learning and personal growth for himself, his staff, and the students who work with Signet. When he’s not at the office, Jay can be found at his home in Somerville, finding new and better ways to make a cup of coffee and spending time with his family. www.signeteducation.com


PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.