Asking about School
The Myth of the Perfect College
Preparing Older Teens for the Workforce
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Should Kids Do Academic Work During Summer?
As the school year draws to a close, many parents
wonder whether it makes sense for teens and tweens to do some sort of academic work during
their summer vacation. There are many reasons to consider this. When teens or tweens have
below grade level reading, math, or writing skills, the summer can be a good time to work
on closing those gaps. The same is true for students who need practice with organizational
or study strategies. If your son typically struggles at the beginning of each new school
year, summer classes could prevent his skills from getting rusty. Similarly, if your
daughter anticipates a harder than normal course load or busier schedule next fall, you may
want her to get a head start on the curriculum.
Or maybe you'd like your teens or tweens to be
productive during long, unstructured summer days, especially if you envision them sleeping
until mid-afternoon, binge-watching Netflix shows, texting with their friends all night, or
remaining glued to the couch playing video games for hours on end. Even if you have none of
these specific concerns, like many parents you want your kids to have every advantage; you
may believe that summer school would provide a leg up on a good education.
Of course, when students are still in elementary
school, it's easier to sign them up for whatever tutoring, summer school, or academic
program you like. But once they reach middle school and beyond, deciding whether they'll do
academic work during their summer vacations—and perhaps enlisting their
cooperation—often becomes a trickier endeavor. Given how busy and stressed-out today's
teens are, their desperation to spend summers relaxing and getting a break from the workload
of the school year is understandable. So is it worth arguing the point or insisting on summer
work? And, will that even be effective? To make this discussion as successful—and
peaceful—as possible, here are some general guidelines and issues to consider.
How to Decide
1. Is Summer Work Required? Sometimes kids' schools eliminate parental stress by
essentially making these decisions for you. The most obvious example is when high school
students are required to attend summer school to repeat core academic courses they failed
during the year. But be aware of other, lesser known reasons why kids might have to take
Amy wanted to participate in a year-long
international exchange program during her junior year in high school. Because she had taken
fewer years of foreign language than the program requested, she signed up for summer school
to perfect her conversational Spanish in the hopes of being accepted. Greg had to take
English during the summer to complete the requirements necessary to graduate early from high
school. Because of a schedule conflict, Kathryn had to do a prerequisite course in summer
school for the full-year photography elective she otherwise would not have been allowed to take.
2. Can It Further Their Goals? With teens and tweens' growing desire for autonomy,
enlisting their input in decision-making is always better than dictating their summer plans.
The first step should be guiding them to clarify their educational goals, and then exploring
together their options for achieving them. Theoretically, that'll make kids less likely to
protest going to summer school and more invested in whatever academic work they undertake.
Carla always hoped to major in foreign languages at
college so she could become a translator. The summer before her senior year of high school,
she realized she would be a more competitive applicant if she attended an intensive language
immersion program offered by her first choice college. Jon, anticipating a hectic first
semester senior year with many high-level courses as well as college applications to complete,
opted to take physics in summer school when it could be his sole focus.
Caveat: this principle works only with kids' own
educational goals, not with what you think they should do. Alisha's parents overrode her
guidance counselor's recommendation and signed her up for advanced rather than regular English.
But when they insisted she take a summer school class to get her ready for the rigorous
curriculum, she refused, claiming she was, "fine with being in normal English."
3. What are their Needs? When you're the one broaching the idea of summer work, things
usually get more delicate. Regardless of how strongly you feel or the validity of your reasons,
don't adopt a general policy for the whole family. Siblings often have unique learning styles,
challenges, and needs, especially as they progress through school. Also, it is equally, if not
more, important to assess kids' social and emotional needs along with their academic weaknesses.
Because she struggled to learn how to read, Sara
attended a special summer school for kids with learning disabilities from grade 2 to grade 5.
Although her parents were sure she'd benefit from the extra reading practice before middle
school, after much deliberation they realized that what Sara needed even more was a whole summer
off from academic work. Jake was intent upon taking an advanced computer class at the local
community college; however, because his parents worried about his awkward peer interactions,
they persuaded him to do a community service program, which focused on cooperation and
leadership skills, instead.
Getting Reluctant Students Onboard
Even after much thought, research on available summer
programs, and careful discussion, your biggest challenge may be to get teens and tweens to buy
into doing summer schoolwork. If they absolutely refuse to participate or are likely to passively
resist learning, you may have to accept that they're unlikely to benefit much from the experience
you're offering. Here are some strategies that could help:
Enlist teachers or tutors they like and trust. It's helpful to get advice from adults who
regularly work with your child and know him well. If they confirm that summer learning would help,
your teen or tween might see her teachers' or tutors' opinions as more impartial and therefore
more credible than yours.
Acknowledge their fatigue/need for relaxation. Instead of insisting teens didn't work that
hard during the school year, empathize with their understandable desire for a break. In making
plans, be sure to build in enough downtime to prevent burn-out.
Negotiate. Indicate your willingness to give a little to get a little. For example, maybe
teens will agree to take a class or work with a tutor for one month if they're allowed to do an
athletic, art, or music activity for the other month.
Be creative about how they'll do academic work. Teens and tweens who resist summer
school may not realize how many options there are, from reading books on summer lists, doing math
packets, working with tutors, enrolling in intensive remedial programs, taking courses at community
colleges, living at universities, and combining academic work with travel, sports, or the arts.
They may become more amenable once they find out they can live like a college student at a
university they'd love to attend someday or do workshops with peers—or, conversely, work 1:1
with adult. Maybe sweeten the deal by suggesting they go with a friend.
Write out a contract. Once you come to an agreement about what the summer experience entails
and its expectations, spell it out on paper as clearly as possible. Have everyone involved sign the
contract so there's less chance of any later confusion or misunderstanding.
Less is More
As a general rule, summer work should make the fewest
demands needed to accomplish academic goals. You want to help your students flourish, not cause
them to burn out before September. Make the experience as pleasant or at least as tolerable as
possible rather than a punishment. Try your best not to let summer work interfere with your kids
doing activities that mean a lot to them, like going on a planned whitewater rafting trip or
accepting a friend or relative's invitation for an out-of-town visit.
Know When to Back Off
As a parent, it's often difficult to see our kids squander
what we see as valuable opportunities. When we strongly believe they could benefit from summer work
if only they saw the light, we can become relentless in our urging, coaxing, cajoling, etc. until
they acquiesce. But in my experience, sometimes it's better to accept partial success—and know
when to stop pressuring kids.
Daniel is just finishing eighth grade in public school,
where he is an average student. His parents, who believe he is capable of higher achievement, note
he typically gets his worst grades on writing assignments. They were thrilled to find a tutor who
would work with him for three hours each morning to improve his writing skills by September. When
Daniel found out, he became inconsolable about his parents "ruining" his summer. Daniel is content
with his grades and writing skills. In this case, his parents had to adjust their expectations;
their son simply isn't interested in perfecting a skill that's adequate but not stellar. Instead,
his parents were advised to propose a compromise. Daniel agreed to meet with the tutor one hour per
week to discuss the books he will read over the summer and to go over the journal he's willing to
When she had trouble managing her senior project before
high school graduation, Saralyn's mother became concerned about her ability to function independently
at the college she will attend this fall. To give her more practice and confidence in managing her
time effectively, Saralyn's mother convinced her to take a six-week pre-college summer program.
Saralyn began researching the catalog to find the two most appealing courses. But her mother insisted
she take math, which would satisfy a requirement. Although this is a valid argument, if Saralyn
chooses courses she truly enjoys, she's more likely to stay focused and keep up with the
workload—which is the primary goal. It would be wise for Saralyn's mother to recognize the
victory in getting her daughter to do the program and back off from pressuring her further.
Whether they live at home or away at a program, teens and
tweens can learn much beyond the content of summer courses. They get additional practice in using
self-discipline to motivate themselves and resist distractions as well as manage their
time—lifelong skills that will help them succeed at any point. But remember to insure that kids
have time to themselves and to have fun with friends, as well, which are just as important to their
development. It also might be your best opportunity to finally do that enjoyable project or take that
great trip you've been planning with your teen or tween—before they grow up and leave home.