It’s about that time—back to school time—and if you’re a parent of a child who is either going off to college or staying home for college, you may be wondering what you can do to help with your child’s success. After all, the first year is the most difficult. It’s when students are most likely to drop out, and your child’s experiences this first year will go a long way in shaping how they succeed in college overall.
I feel I have a unique perspective to offer worrying parents. I was a college professor for nearly 20 years, and I specialized in teaching freshman writing courses. I have taught thousands of freshman! I’m also a mom, and my oldest just finished his first year of college at the University of Maine. So I’ve learned a few things about that critical freshman year of college.
1. Know that your child will need some help with the bureaucracy of higher education.
When my oldest started college last year, I was shocked at how the paperwork is even worse than it was when I was in college. When I was helping my son navigate the piles of paperwork and online forms last year, I was quite overwhelmed, and I have a PhD!
Know you’re likely going to have to help your child handle all the paperwork the first year. There are many hoops to jump through, and when you add the anxiety of starting college to the mix, it’s easy to see how younger students can struggle. Be prepared to step in and help with the paperwork, especially at first.
In fact, right now is the time to check to make sure financial aid is set, immunization forms are in, and health care forms are signed.
2. But don’t be a helicopter parent.
Now, here’s where my professor side comes in. While your child will need help getting the paperwork complete, they don’t need your involvement in the classroom.
Don’t be a helicopter parent because it hurts your child in many ways and will just wear you out. In college, FERPA laws make it so professors can’t talk to parents about grades or homework or tests. Take this as a good thing.
Students can sign a FERPA waiver to allow parents to have access to their information and to make it so parents can talk to professors, but I’m strongly against this. Professors want to be able to treat students as adults.
3. Be aware of resources that can help.
Colleges and universities offer some amazing tutoring resources in almost all courses to help your child have a successful first year of college. Sometimes, you might just have to help nudge or remind a little bit, but if your child starts to struggle, there are some resources on campuses that can make a difference.
I made it a goal to have a short, not-too-invasive conversation about grades with my son about once a month during his first year of college. I wanted him to feel I trusted him, so I didn’t want to ask him about grades too much; however, I also knew that my son, being shy, would have a hard time asking for help if he needed it. When he told me he was struggling in a programming class, I had him look up how to get tutoring for that class and attend.
There are also some online resources that can help if your child is struggling with some basics like writing or math. Khan Academy offers interactive support for all levels of math, and the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab is a media-rich interactive writing support site. Both of these sites are free!
4. Do what you can to encourage healthy eating and sleeping habits.
If your child is away at school, this one is difficult, but send muffins—or something—if you can. When students get their first taste of freedom from mom and dad, a lot can happen. But eating food-like substances, such as Laffy Taffy and Pepsi for breakfast, is one I witnessed a lot. For real—Laffy Taffy. I don’t care who you are or how young you are, you can’t concentrate and learn with that in your tummy!
The sleeping habits are also difficult to help with if your child is away, but try to remind about sleep. If you’re like many families and your college student is living at home to save money, I fully support the nag. I know I used it many times. My son didn’t like it, but I just keep telling myself he would thank me later.
5. Help prepare for the semester cycles of college.
After students get a year or two under their belts, they should be fine, but the first year is kind of a crazy one for many students because of the differences between high school and college in terms of homework, projects, and key deadlines.
Many college classes will have smaller amounts of homework and fewer tests throughout the semester. Then, the end of the semester hits, and your child will likely have a big project due in every class. Do what you can to help prepare them for this by just talking about it. You really shouldn’t help with the work, but you should remind them of the patterns of due dates. Help your child plan ahead for the end-of-the-semester crunch time.
Of course, the best advice I could give that generally just sums up this whole list is this: Be supportive as much as you can without doing too much. It’s going to be a tough transition for most young students going to college for the first time this fall, and they will need your guidance and support.