Starting High School: Helping Your Teen to Avoid Failure and Maximize Success


My son just entered his freshman year in high school. He’s so different from his older sister – I think I’ll be having a very different experience and I want to be proactive from the start. What are the most important signs I should look for that would indicate that he might be in trouble and need help?


Your son’s entering the world of high school is a major transition, similar to other big transitions, like a young child’s starting first grade, or even an older teen’s going away to college.  Each one of these transitions presents new challenges for the individuals going through them, requiring a certain amount of cognitive, emotional and social “stretching” in order to meet the challenges and to be relatively successful in the new environment.  Regardless of the age of the person making the transition, any adjustment to a new environment also requires a certain amount of supports along to way, supports that help to offset the new and demanding challenges being faced.  In your question about your son’s entering high school, you state that you “want to be proactive from the start.”  Being proactive in this situation means trying to anticipate what specific supports your son will need in order to maximize success in his new school.  Common supports for any new student could be any of the following:

  • Help him to organize and structure his use of time.  Usually, the demands of high school are dramatically different from those of middle school.  He is likely to have more homework, and possibly, more commitments such as athletics, or meetings after school.  If he has other engagements, such as music lessons or a town soccer league, these add to the mix of demands he will be expected to manage.  These expectations add up, and amount to the “new challenges” mentioned above.  Any increase in support you can provide will help him to offset these demands, increasing the likelihood of his success.
  • Be in touch with his advisor or guidance counselor to establish a relationship of mutual support.  While most of high school is about your son’s taking ownership of his own life, early ninth-grade is still closer to what he is used to from middle school.  It is OK for you to engage key adults at school, even if it is to let them know that you are watching your son’s school experience closely, and that you will be curious about how this advisor or guidance counselor sees your son, too.  Establishing this kind of relationship up front is a proactive move.
  • Talk to your son as often as he will let you!  Look for opportunities to “take a pulse” on his school experience, particularly in these early fall months.  As much as possible, keep the connection alive between your son and you.  THIS CONNECTION allows for easy and ongoing communication about his whole experience.  Keeping the conversation going with him is a very proactive move.

You ask about “the most important signs that would indicate trouble.”  Good question.  The real answer is that all ninth graders are not the same, so when they are in trouble, they will look different.  However, presumably, you know your own son.  You know what he is like when he is NOT in trouble.  I would say that “the most important signs of trouble” for your son are CHANGES in his daily functioning that you can not explain.  For example, if your son is usually an outgoing guy, but you notice that he seems to be withdrawing from friends or from family dynamics, THIS would be a “sign of (possible) trouble.”  Of if your son is ordinarily a serious student, or a committed athlete, and he seems to be avoiding his school work or seems less interested in his sporting activity, then THESE would be possible signs of problems.  The key here is to look for changes that seem out of the ordinary, or patterns of behavior that seem different from the way your son has usually done things.  Obviously, if you observe more drastic changes, such as a sudden pattern of lying, or you notice that his “new friends” make you feel suspicious, THESE too, could be signs of possible trouble.  If and when you notice these changes, talk to someone as soon as possible.  This “someone” could be a friend, a counselor at school, or a psychologist – anyone who you think will be a resource to help you interpret your son’s situation.

In general, recognize that this transition is all about your son’s trying to meet new challenges.  In order to meet them successfully, he will need to stretch his own internal resources AND he is likely to need some additional supports that you or other key adults in his life can provide.  If he is having a hard time, his behavior is likely to change in some way, even if he is not able to tell you more directly about his experience.  PAY CLOSE ATTENTION!  If you notice changes you can not explain easily, talk with your son…and/or consult a professional who can help you interpret your observations.


Hope this helps!

David L. Gleason, Psy.D.