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What all freshman (and their parents) should know about entering higher ed.

The Key to College Success

You'll do better at college if you remind yourself of self-regulation theory!

After 30 years of teaching college students (in a typical residential college environment with 18 to 22-year olds) I have to admit that I love teaching fall term freshmen! I do so partially to try and help them avoid making the all too common errors that college students make during their first semester on campus. After so many years teaching college students I believe that I can predict, with a great deal of certainty, the consequences of their choices that will unfold before my very eyes (and theirs) long before they get to the Thanksgiving break.

So, what do I tell them?

Be mindful of self regulation theory!

Self regulation theory, in a nutshell, focuses on how we need to maintain homeostasis for healthy living and that if we allow our bodies, mind, and perhaps even souls to get out of balance we'll pay for it big time later. For college students this tends to manifest within the first few weeks of school with their sleeping, exercise, and drinking behavior in particular.  

First, they will be tempted to go to bed very late and they will become sleep deprived within a few weeks of starting college. They are excited to be in dorms, meeting new friends, and away from the watchful eyes of their parents often for the first time in life. Before you know it, going to bed at 2 or 3am seems pretty normal and since freshmen often have early morning classes this pattern of behavior is surely going to cause troubles. So, I tell them to go ahead and socialize with new friends and enjoy those early weeks of college but be highly vigilant about sleep deprivation being sure that they do not accumulate sleep debt. Quality research tells us that most college age students need about 9 hours of sleep each night yet rarely are any of them getting that level of rest. Before you know it students are falling asleep in class, skipping class, and experiencing all of the troubles associated with sleep deprivation. Sometimes I wonder if colleges should use a "lights out" approach to help socially engineer better sleep behavior on campus.

Second, they will start the school year with good intentions for exercise and the campus workout facilities will be busy during the first few weeks of the term. But as assignments, papers, tests, and work load starts to pile up they’ll stop exercising. Bad idea! Quality research informs us that exercise is not only great for weight control and physical fitness but also helps with stress and mood management as well as self esteem. So, they need to keep the exercise going regardless of their long to do list. Doing exercise in the morning is typically best to ensure that it gets done before the day is finished. Again, social engineering can be helpful here by perhaps signing up for a sports team, exercise class, or doing it together with peers.  

Third, they will likely drink more alcohol than they should. Of course the drinking age in the USA is 21 but somehow drinking alcohol on a regular basis for so many college students is very common…way too common. Research tells us that men shouldn’t drink more than 2 drinks a day while women should drink no more than 1 drink per day for health and wellness reasons. A drink is considered, according to government guidelines, 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, and 1 oz of hard alcohol. Sadly, so many college students drink 10x these levels and often do so on a regular basis. Additionally, about 20% of college students are binge drinkers having 5 or more drinks at a time. They will be tempted to drink more than they should and they need to finds ways to cope with that temptation. Once again, social engineering can help by doing what whatever we can to keep alcohol off campus and find alternative ways for students to relax and socialize.

Sleeping, drinking, eating, and exercising are all part of self regulation that is often highly challenging for new college students to negotiate. If they are attentive to self regulation theory going into college perhaps they can be more mindful and planful to best cope with these challenges.

So, what do you think?  

Please check out my web site at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2013 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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