A good friend of mine called recently to vent. Her daughter is a freshman in college a few hours away from home and by all accounts is doing well. Except for this one class, my friend tells me. The freshman (as well as her mother) is frustrated because the class is about how to succeed in college–what we call a “student success” or “freshman-year experience” class–and she is failing it.

“I don’t get it. How can she be failing a class that is supposed to help her be successful in college?” she asked.

“Well…there could be several reasons,” I started to say. I teach these classes and I see every day how good students can fail a class. They don’t go to class; they don’t like the course content so they don’t invest in learning it; they struggle with staying on top of their work because their other classes demand more of them. These are just a few reasons.

“She can’t seem to tell me what she is doing wrong; maybe she doesn’t understand what the professor wants. We can’t afford for her to fail a class. I am thinking about emailing the professor myself to get to the bottom of it. ”

As her friend, I want to empathize and be supportive of her frustration. I know what it is like to have capable kids who stumble in some areas of their lives. I have watched my own kids struggle in classes that they should (We will come back to that word later) be able to do well in. It feels efficient and helpful to “get to the bottom of” a situation. And it seems less stressful, right?

But the most efficient route is not always the best most effective long-term strategy. Case in point: As an educator with over twenty years’ experience, I know too well the other side of the story. Sometimes students don’t do well, and it has nothing to do with their academic abilities. And most of the time it is not because the teacher or professor is doing something “wrong” or “doesn’t care about their students’ success.”

Students who have difficulty in a class, especially first-year students, are struggling with managing their time and tasks, with finding the motivation to do the work, and with adjusting to the fast pace of college. And all of these issues can be solved by the student.

What I told my friend is good advice for any parent who is facing the same issue:

  • Don’t email the professor.  Enough said here. I should add “Don’t email the department chair, dean, or president of the university” as well.
  • Do help your student diagnose the issue. See my examples above for why students struggle. Yes, sometimes the content of the course is difficult, but the same strategy is needed: Find out why. Why is your student struggling and what do they say about it?
  • Do listen to what your student says. Sometimes struggling in class is a signal that something else is going on. Take the time to have a conversation about how they are doing in all areas of their life.
  • Do coach your student to talk to the professor. Help them develop questions or draft what they want to say about their progress in the class. If they need it, role play with them so they can practice.
  • Do encourage your student to handle issues themselves. Want to show your student you believe in them? Let them talk to the professor. While it may be hard, it is crucial to their development. You may also be surprised that they want to handle these things themselves without your intervening.

Now, let’s go back to the word “should” as in “My student should be able to pass that class [or earn X grade].” Maybe that is true, but it doesn’t meant that it will happen. Plus, focusing on “should” keeps your student from working through the what, why, and how of being successful. According to my doctor, I “should” be able to lose 20 pounds. But I am not going to accomplish by focusing on “should” instead of what I can be doing, why I want to lose weight, and how I am going to do it. The same is true of your student: Redirect the conversation around helping them problem solve, reminding them of the resources they have, and handling issues on their own.

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