As a parent, it can be heartbreaking to hear phone calls from your college student when they are upset, sad or overwhelmed. It is common for students to struggle in college and parents often see the symptoms of their student's struggle before identifying the cause. Read on to learn about 4 common reasons that could be at the root of your student's struggles in college.
1. Learning new "college systems"
It probably took your student 4 years to understand the systems that were in place in their high school and transitioning to college immerses your student in an entirely new network of systems. College systems can include anything from the number of classes your student has each day to how to contact their teachers (email, in person, office hours, etc.). Colleges have systems for how students can pick up and eat their meals (dining halls are open only certain hours and these hours often change on the weekend) as well as systems for how students should submit homework (some professors prefer hard copies in person while others want assignments submitted online). Students with mental health challenges need to acclimate to their campus' wellness support services and may experience struggles in finding and getting to know new mental health staff. Students who participate in collegiate athletics need to learn new practice schedules, conditioning routines, and additional academic expectations. Your student's ability to identify and learn these new systems will determine their ability to 'go with the flow' or stumble with each new system to learn. College freshman, in particular, may face setbacks in their first year related to adjusting to these new systems but excel in their sophomore year as things just seem a little easier.
2. Increased critical thinking & writing demands
College, as an institution, has historically been founded in the belief that student's should develop the ability to question - everything. Professors challenge students to look below the surface and search for connections between ideas, make inferences and suggest alternative perspectives. Bloom's taxonomy identifies these skills as necessary in forming critical thinking skills - which are necessary to college success. In high school, students are often not told about this shift in teaching and learning and they enter college expecting tests that measure students' recall and memory of already learned concepts - high school level skills. This thinking can be misleading when college students are expected to see what isn't there and question ideas they are taught instead of merely regurgitating them. Furthermore, college professors expect students to expound upon their ideas in lengthy written essays. It can be hard enough to understand an ethical theory in Ethics 101 but explaining said theory in 2-3 pages can be painstaking for some students. If your student struggles with abstract thinking or is a very concrete thinker, the increased critical thinking and writing demands of college may be part of their struggle.
3. Executive functioning weakness
New college students, as well as juniors and seniors alike, can struggle equally with time management and organization, also known as executive functioning skills. These skills are often supported in high school by teachers, guidance counselors, special education teachers and perhaps parents - all of whom are absent in college. I know I am guilty of nagging my high school daughter to turn in assignments that I've checked in her online portal in order to remind her of their due dates. This well-meaning behavior on my part is actually undermining my daughter's ability to organize herself and develop the skills needed to manage her time. In college, students are responsible for keeping track of their weekly schedule of classes, all homework assignments, social events and important dates that include financial aid/tuition deadlines, residence life activities, doing laundry each week and medication management (if this applies to your student). In addition, being able to regulate and plan how your student will use their free time outside of class requires a well-developed pre-frontal cortex (the location in the front of the brain where executive functioning skills are housed). If your student struggles to turn in homework on time, forgets to attend class, spends a lot of time playing videogames, or doesn't remember to check their email executive functioning skills may be at fault.
4. Inability to ask for help or self-advocate
Many new college students, particularly those with disabilities who spent many years receiving K-12 special education services, tell me that they "want to do college on their own." I highly respect students who want to be independent and commend them for their determination. However, even with this 'I can go it alone' attitude, when students encounter difficulties in college they need to be able to identify who and how to ask for help. Before starting college, I encourage families and students to identify and make a list of staff and departments at their institution who can help them in various situations. For example, who is the student's academic advisor when academic concerns arise? Who is the Director of Residence Life or Director of Accessibility Services? Where is the Writing Center or Academic Success Center located and is their support virtual or in-person? Where is the Counseling and Wellness Center located and how do students make appointments? Having this information readily available before students need it will increase the likelihood of your student asking for help rather than 'doing it on their own.'
How Can I Help My Student?
There are other reasons that students may struggle in college and these reasons may be related to your student's particular disability, personality, or unique tendencies. Each student will meet the challenges of college in different ways and their ability to cope and adapt to change will be as individual as they are. If you begin to see signs of your student struggling, think about the four reasons mentioned above first. You can ask your student for their own perceptions related to the four areas above - this is an excellent way to build their metacognitive skills (thinking about their thinking). Once you identify the cause of your student's struggle you can try to remediate the concern yourself, reach out to a campus support system, or consider an outside professional such as an executive functioning coach. I guarantee your student is not the first to struggle in college, but using the common areas of struggle mentioned above you can have meaningful and productive conversations that will guide you and your college student toward college success.
A college coach can help parents investigate these four common areas of struggle and offer short-term and long-term recommendations for success. If you have read this article and still have questions about your student's struggles, feel free to contact me so we can brainstorm and investigate together.