Three life skills your kid’s college professor wishes you taught them

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Margaret Dwyer begins her 13th year of teaching this fall at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, a STEM-focused university in the heart of downtown Milwaukee.


The Facebook posts have begun to appear, as they do every summer, of parents getting ready to send kids off to college for the first time. The posts brim with nostalgia, accompanied by pictures of kindergarten pageants, middle school science fairs and high school dances, all starring the newly minted adult who will be leaving in a few short weeks. The theme is the difficulty parents have letting go of children who are children no more.

I don’t join in the nostalgia, because as parents are letting go of their college-bound children, I am awaiting them in their new role as adult college freshmen. I teach primarily freshman courses at a small university. The weeks before the beginning of the fall term are also ones of reckoning for me, involving preparation for the coursework and anticipation of the new students I will be teaching.

I have found that most parents have spent the high school years working with their kids to help them prepare academically, while focusing secondarily on the extracurricular activities that go on the college application. And many parents make sure that their kids know how to do their laundry, how to make their beds and keep their space neat.

But in more than a decade of teaching college students, I have found some important life skills lacking: both “soft” skills that involve direct communication, and the routines that establish independence. These are the skills that will allow for more successful learning in the classroom and a greater sense of belonging on campus and in the greater world.

Addressing others respectfully

Email is a common form of written communication between professors and students, and every year I have to instruct my classes that when they send me an email, they should begin with “Dear Professor” and not “Hey.” Labor Department statistics indicate that the number of teenage workers has been declining for years. Incoming freshmen often have very limited interaction, electronically or otherwise, with adults who are not their high school teachers or friends of their parents. Part of the anxiety I see in those students stems from being unsure how to address and interact with older people and authority figures. This is not about saying “yes, sir”; this is about maintaining eye contact and controlling body movement.

Like most professors, I encourage students to speak to me directly after class or in my office. But many students don’t do it. Why? Those who do visit admit to being anxious about talking one-on-one with a professor because interacting with someone older or “in charge” is not something they did without their parents being present. They are often palpably relieved that doing it “right” isn’t that tough, as long as they choose their words more carefully than when talking to their friends (no dropping F-bombs), and don’t swing their keys or try to put their feet up. They realize they simply need to stay calm and get to the point. They are often following the directions that parents have given them for good behavior; they just had few chances to try it on their own.

Managing their own schedules

My school offers scheduling software (as most do), and I see the telltale color-coding on the screens of my students. Over the years, I’ve asked students whether it’s helpful. Most respond in the affirmative. But they admit it gets harder and harder to follow as the term moves on and the workload increases. For those students for whom self-regulation is new, having the tools doesn’t guarantee success. Those who have organized their own schedules in the past — getting themselves to school or practice, showing up for events or simply getting home for dinner on time — know that things don’t always go according to plan. They make better use of the tools, but they know sticking to a schedule is harder than planning one.

How to help? Let them learn by doing, by managing their own schedules. And if you run into trouble? One parent kept track of the number of minutes spent waiting for her constantly late son, and deducted those minutes, times five, from his weekly screen time. When he had a good (not perfect) week? He got bonus minutes. Screen time, game time, play time — whatever is valued can be used to teach this lesson.

Our student life professionals shared another story about a mother of a freshman who called the school to ask whether someone could wake up her son, “for just the first week or two,” because she had trouble getting him up. Our staffer responded nicely but firmly that the student would need to do that for himself. The good news? He did learn to get up on his own, and most students seem to manage to do so, often within the first few weeks. But it takes some longer than others.

Getting around, especially on public transportation

How many high school students manage their own transportation, whether it’s driving themselves or knowing the schedules of public transport or asking for rides? We’re an urban school, and getting anywhere off-campus, on a student budget, often requires riding the bus. But year after year when I check in with students, they tell me they’ve never ridden on public transportation. Most don’t want to try, especially alone.

It’s not surprising that suburban kids don’t know much about public transport. But if they know they will have no car at college, addressing this should be on the to-do list while in high school.

Obviously, your home community will determine how much exposure to public transportation is possible during the high school years. But talking to your children about investigating buses and subways will at least give them permission to try it out when they move to campus.

Most schools have bus schedule information, and grabbing a few paper schedules while on a campus tour to take home and look at together is a good way to introduce students to the overall area. Once school begins, they can find classmates who are local or commuters: Riding along with someone who rides everyday is a fast, and safer, way to learn about public transport than riding alone.

How would your child fare if college started today?

No matter how smart your kid is, no matter how much they hustled to get into college, no matter how much you love them, if they are trying to learn life skills at the same time they are taking on the load and pressure of college, they will be at a disadvantage.

When students are not able to get to class because they can’t get up or don’t manage their time well, when they miss assignments or take late penalties because they don’t know how to prioritize, when they are not paying attention or are just rude to me or to their classmates because they are distracted by hunger or uncertain how to act, all of those things affect their grades, and my assessment of them.

And so this message is not for those parents who are sending off their children in a few weeks. Those new adults will manage with what they’ve got. This is for parents with kids in high school. Ask yourselves how well your child would fare if college started today. And if the answers make you uneasy, you’ve got time to change them. Let your teens organize their own after-school time, maybe just one day a week. Let them find out the consequences of spending all their time on a phone instead of getting work done. Let them organize their own transportation for one element of their lives.

Maybe you are saying to yourself, “My kid may not have all the life skills mentioned here, but I know my child. My kid is smart. My kid is nice. My kid will figure it out.” You know your child better than anyone. But when a student misses class or assignments and gets a lower grade, it’s hard to feel smart. When a student gets feedback from a professor that indicates lack of effort, or negative peer assessment for missing meetings or not completing tasks, or just not getting along, it’s hard to feel nice.

Every young adult will find his or her own way; every parent will let go in his or her own way. But moving forward is easier for everyone — parent, student and teacher — when life skills are passed on before they are needed.

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