Life Skills Your High-Schooler Should Learn Before College
September 07, 2011
by Molly Driscoll
They are routines you probably take for granted-throwing in a load of laundry, keeping track of your debit card statement, remembering to eat vegetables with dinner so you get nutrients.
Then you realize your college-bound high-school senior has used only paper money, eats three meals of Pop-Tarts and may not even know where the washing machine is.
Rather than frantically trying to teach your teens life skills as they're packing up next August, college staffers say it's best to start the instruction now. Then your son and daughter will be a pro by the time they head off on their own.
Doing laundry is one of the weaknesses that Pauline Dobrowski, associate vice president for student affairs at Stonehill College in Easton, says she sees in incoming freshmen.
"It seems simple," she says. "But a lot of (students)might be used to throwing their laundry in the big family laundry bin and having it magically appear in their room folded two days later."
David Zamojski, assistant dean of students and director of residence life at Boston University, says it's a problem he sees popping up again and again as well.
"I've seen my share of freshmen arrive who didn't know how to do laundry (and) who were very confused when they pulled out a (damaged)load that was washed in hot water with whites and colors," he says.
For kids who know how to operate the machine already, Dobrowski suggests stressing how often some objects should be washed, so that mildewy towels aren't being used over and over again.
Freshmen often struggle with financial tasks like balancing a checkbook or using systems in place at many schools through which parents can add money to a student debit card, according to Elizabeth Cleary, assistant director of parent services at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Cleary says she herself struggled her freshman year when her parents put all the money for the first semester on her school debit card.
"September and October were great," she says. "November and December, not so much."
Students who are now paying for car insurance or their cellphone bills become used to going online to see payment information, Dobrowski says, and miss paper notifications that come in their mailbox.
Cleary suggests sitting down now with a student and making a budget sheet or mapping out in another way the money he or she will have to spend and how long it needs to last.
Beyond money management, there is time management. College officials recommend getting students used to better time management this year, preferably by buying them a paper planner or setting up an electronic one. Richard Shadick, director of the counseling center for Pace University in New York City, says he often sees freshmen struggling when teachers don't remind them five times about a due date.
College "faculty members tend to be a bit more hands-off," he says.
Janet Logan, a Cotuit mom who has one daughter at Harvard University and one entering Boston University this fall, agrees.
"Preparation for time management is something kids can never get enough of," she says. "That's huge. The parents aren't there anymore."
Besides academics, Cleary says she sees students struggle with keeping dates straight.
"Even if students are more comfortable using a calendar on their phone or online ... they should still plug in school dates: when your classes are canceled, when Thanksgiving break is," she says.
Cleary has seen UMass students suddenly realize that Thanksgiving is the following week and they never bought a plane ticket home.
"Students are still adjusting to the fact that their parents aren't booking these things for them," she says.
Students should also start focusing now on eating right, which can be a health and a financial issue, Dobrowski says. She says she sees students' diets change as their sleep schedule changes.
"A lot of students are up later," she says. Discuss "what it means to tack on a fourth meal" late at night, both for health and wellness but also in terms of cost.
In a senior year that's already full of college applications to fill out and school celebrations to participate in, teaching your child these skills can seem like another chore to check off the list. Shadick recommends linking learning these skills to the fun idea of going to college.
"Play on the student's excitement," he says.
Bring kids along the next time you go food shopping or show them how you pay the car insurance, Dobrowski suggests. "There are natural times when these things are happening."
Cleary agrees. "When they take the credit card out to pay the (college) application fee, that's the time to have the budget conversation," she says.
Approach the whole idea of life skills casually, Zamojski says.
"Make it light, make it enjoyable," he says. "It can be a bonding experience."
He suggests that teens participate in any overnight programs the college offers so they can see students doing laundry or going to an ATM to take out money for pizza.
"That may open students' eyes to realities at college," he says.
And college staffers say that parents should emphasize to students that this teaching will help them in the long run.
"It's a life skill, not just a college skill," Cleary says.
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