IMPORTANT: It's a Serious Matter of Life

9 Ways to Prepare Your Kids for College

Did you know you can start preparing your child for college before they even start school? No, I’m not talking about teaching algebra to preschoolers or a foreign language to toddlers. You can set your child up for higher education success without ever enrolling him in an academic enrichment program because much of what will make your child successful has nothing to do with academic performance.

Yes, you read that correctly—those who succeed in college do so because they have mastered the fundamental life skills necessary to do so. Here’s my recipe for preparing your children for college, broken down by age group.

Preschooler

Whether you realize it or not, your little one can take the first steps toward a rewarding collegiate career before starting formal education. Here are two things you should be teaching your preschooler.

Place in the family. Between the ages of two and three, the parents should be reorienting their child from the center of the family to the periphery. In other words, the child should no longer be the focus of the family. This crucial change helps the child find his proper place in the family as a whole, moving from being an individual to part of the family unit.

Why is this important for college success? Your child will have a better sense of who he is as a person and be more willing to be part of the larger campus if he’s not thinking of himself as the center of the universe.

Self-care. While you build on this throughout a child’s life, as a preschooler, this is the time when you begin to hand over the care of your child’s possessions to the child. For example, you begin to expect your preschooler to dress herself, pick up her toys, brush her teeth, wash her hands, etc. Why is this important for college success? Young adults won’t have anyone to take care of their things in college, so it’s best if they have had a lifetime of practice doing so.

Elementary School Age

Starting with kindergarten and going through fifth or sixth grade, elementary school-age kids grow and learn by leaps and bounds. Here are two areas your child should master in elementary school.

Homework. Elementary school is the perfect time to help your child develop good study habits, starting with homework. After each of our children learned to read well, we handed off any homework to them. We told their teachers to let us know if our child failed to turn in assignments regularly, but we generally left homework completion to the child. We also did not mind if our children struggled from time to time on a math worksheet, for example, as they needed to learn how to power through tough assignments.

Why is this important for college success? This is the perfect opportunity to let them experience failure, such as not turning in an assignment or getting a “bad” grade on homework. Our kids need to know they can handle these bumps in their academic road—and keep pressing forward. The more your child can figure out how to manage his time and follow teacher directions in elementary school, the more prepared he’ll be for the upper grades and eventually college.

Chores. This is also a time to start assigning chores, so your child contributes to the upkeep of the family home and will have the skills to do so when out of the house. For example, by the time your child enters middle school, she should be able to clean a bathroom and her room; vacuum, sweep and mop floors; do her own laundry; fix her breakfast and lunch; cook a meal for the entire family; care for the family pets.

Why is this important for college success? Our oldest, who just completed her first year of college, told me during her first break last fall how many other students didn’t know how to use the washing machines because they’d never done their own laundry. College is stressful enough without adding not knowing how to wash your clothes to the mix. Mastering essential life skills will enable your student to focus on classes rather than tracking down someone to help them get their clothes clean.

Middle School

As your child gets older, you’ll want to focus more on the softer skills. Here are two things to practice before your child hits high school.

Being home alone. With the Covid pandemic, we’ve all had a lot of togetherness, but if you can manage it, make sure your middle schooler has time alone in the home. It might not seem like a big deal, but some preteens and young teens can be nervous about being in a house by themselves. If your child has never been by himself before, start with short times and work up to longer episodes.

Why is this important for college success? There will be times when your child will be alone in his dorm room. Practicing being by himself now will help him not be anxious when alone, far from home.

Social situations. Many times, middle schoolers can be suddenly shy about social situations, such as meeting someone for the first time or asking a teacher for help with an assignment. Give your middle schooler opportunities to interact with various people, such as emailing a teacher, talking to a store clerk about a product she wants to buy, or asking a neighbor if she can pet their dog. Role-playing these scenarios with your child can help take the edge off potential encounters.

Why is this important for college success? Your student will encounter a wide variety of social situations on campus, so gaining confidence in how to handle those will be good. For your introvert kids (of which I have four), I highly recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet Power: The Secret Strength of Introverted Kids for tips on interacting with extroverts.

High School

While much of high school can be focused on academics, extracurriculars, sports, and other activities designed to boost a college application, there are still some skills your student should acquire outside of a school setting. Here are three final suggestions about how to prepare your child for college.

Work. If your high schooler does nothing else but get a job, he’ll be in good shape for college. Holding a part-time job provides a wealth of knowledge not gained by clubs, sports, or other traditional after-school activities. From babysitting to dog walking, working retail, to in a restaurant, your teen has options for work. Why is this important for college success? Paid work provides a set of learning experiences that will provide funds for college and could spur your child to do well in school in order to get a different kind of job in the future. It also gives your teen the experience of interacting with a wider variety of people from a larger socioeconomic circle.

Money management. This is a very decidedly unglamorous topic, but a necessary one. As your child edges closer to high school graduation, teach him how to make and keep a budget, as well as open a checking account, among other things. A few months ago, we took our high school freshman to the bank to open his own savings account, and soon we’ll be taking our graduating senior to the bank to open her own checking account when she turns 18. Why is this important for college success? Having a handle on how to manage their finances as they enter college will help keep them think twice about using credit cards or overdrawing their accounts. It’s also good practice for living on their own after graduation.

Driving. I’ve been amazed at how many kids my high schoolers know who could get their driver’s licenses but haven’t. Teach them how to drive responsibly, get gas, check the oil and other fluids, put air in a tire, get the car inspected and what to do if they’re in an accident or have a flat tire. Why is this important for college success? Getting a driver’s license is an important milestone for any teen, and it provides another way for them to experience more of life. You’ll also want your student to have more transportation options at college.

We usually spend a lot of time, effort, and money focusing on academics and other activities to get our kids into college, but it’s just as vital to prepare our children for the actual college experience itself through these softer life skills.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images/Highwaystarz-Photography

Sarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She coaches writers, speakers, and parents with an encouraging and commonsense approach. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.

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