Is Your College Student Making the Grade?

Steps parents can take to promote academic wellness in college

Posted Mar 13, 2016

u4i86/Flickr
Source: u4i86/Flickr

In my 20 years as a college counseling center psychiatrist, I’ve seen an unfortunate story play out all too often. A student arrives to college full of hopes and dreams of being an engineer, a doctor, an accountant, or a writer. They enthusiastically attend their freshman classes, sometimes taking a “weed out” class in their respective majors – usually chemistry for pre-med – and they get a D or F on their first exam.

In an ideal world, freshmen would tell parents if they are struggling academically, and together problem solve on ways to improve. But this often does not happen. Freshmen embrace their newfound independence and want to figure out things on their own. Students think if they study longer, try harder, it will all work out. And then they see the end of the semester grades consisting of C’s, or worse.

In the pre-FERPA era, parents could view the end of the semester grades, and intervene at that point. But the increasingly restrictive FERPA laws limit a parent’s access to educational records. Now, students need to give permission to the university if parents want to view grades. Many students do not grant their parents access.

So when freshmen get bad grades at the end of their first semester, they may not inform parents. They may even lie about grades. I have never seen a student lie out of malice. They genuinely believe they can make positive changes, but sometimes lack the life experience or maturity to make an effective plan.

At this point, you might say that a college student is an adult and should solve her own academic problems. But I would argue that parents taking a hands-off approach could have disastrous results. Students may continue to struggle until they are on academic probation or asked to leave school. Poor academic performance can lead to depression and anxiety, or exacerbate a pre-existing mental health disorder.

Parent involvement is more important than ever, as graduation for many students can take up to 6 years, or may not occur at all.  For the 2007 starting cohort, 39.4% graduated within four years and 59.2% graduated within 6 years, leaving 40.8% taking more than 6 years to graduate, if they do.

What can parents do to promote academic health? How can they support students who struggle academically?

Do’s and Don'ts for Parents Promoting  Academic Wellness

1. Do check your child’s grades at the end of every semester. Encourage your child to sign the form allowing parent access to educational records.

2.  Don’t check your child’s every test grade.

3.  Do encourage your child to obtain tutoring early in the semester if she is having trouble with a class. She can also go to her professor’s office hours for help.

3. Don’t do your child’s work for her.

4.  Don’t call your child’s professor and complain about a grade. Do encourage your child to talk with the appropriate campus advocates if she believes she is being graded unfairly.

5.  Don’t pick your child’s major, but if she asks for your advice, help her review the online course catalogue and explore the possibilities.

6.  Don’t force your child into a career in which she lacks ability or interest. There are jobs in fields other than medicine, law, and engineering!

7.  Do encourage your child to go to the campus career resource center by her sophomore year, to explore what jobs she might pursue in the future, based on her academic interests.

9.  Do encourage your child to meet with her academic adviser on a regular basis. Urge your child to change advisers if she is repeatedly given bad advice.

Steps Parents Can Take to Treat Academic Problems

What interferes with academic performance? Students report stress and anxiety as the top two factors that negatively affect grades, according to the 2015 American College Health Survey. Another study showed that a sense of social belonging and “grit” increase the likelihood someone will complete college. In other words, loneliness and poor coping skills are bad for academic progress.

Other problems that interfere with schoolwork include immaturity and lack of readiness for college, an inadequate academic foundation, ADHD or learning disabilities, substance abuse, and a major life stressor such as a breakup or family illness.

Brainstorm with your child what might be lowering her GPA, and refer her to the people on campus who can help:

1. Academic adviser: A good adviser should be able to refer your child to helpful resources. She also might encourage your child to take a lighter course load or change majors.    

2. Tutor: A tutor can explain complicated material and also build your child’s confidence.   Start with campus tutors, but if they are not helpful, consider paying for a private tutor.

3. Mental health professional: If your child cannot identify the cause of academic problems, a mental health professional may help her sort things out. Is she overwhelmed or lonely?  Does she have anxiety or depression? She may benefit from an evaluation for ADD or a learning disability. She could have a drug or alcohol problem that is interfering with school. A therapist or psychiatrist will work with your child to promote wellness and academic success.

4. Coaching: Most campuses offer some kind of academic coaching from health educators, case managers, or success coaches. The Dean of Students office should be able to advise your student where to obtain this coaching.

5. Disability Resource Center: Students who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition – whether it is ADD, anxiety, or depression – can obtain additional help and accommodations from the college disability resource center. Having extra time on a test or taking it in a quiet room rather than a large lecture hall can make a big difference for some students.

All colleges want your child to succeed and will provide resources to boost her GPA.  As a college psychiatrist, I always ask my patients how they are doing in school and treat any symptoms that are interfering with their academic progress. I want parents to ask about grades, not in a Tiger Mom way, demanding all A’s, but in a supportive way, encouraging the student to take his own academic temperature and follow the steps towards academic wellness.

©2016 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

If you’re interested in reading about a particular topic regarding college wellness and your child’s mental health, please email me at marciamorrismd@gmail.com (link sends e-mail)