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HS Series: Students in the Driver’s Seat

Flamboyan has been on a journey to understand what family engagement looks like in high school. This six-part series explores what we’ve learned along the way.

During adolescence, students’ brains undergo a major remodel. The teenage brain matures from the back of the brain to the front. This means that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making, critical thinking, and impulse control, matures last. As the prefrontal cortex develops, teenagers rely on the center of the brain, known as the limbic system, to make decisions and solve problems. This part of the brain is associated with emotions and impulses. This explains some of the stereotypical behavior of teens that can be impulsive, demonstrating addictions to activities like social media, experiencing personality fluctuations, and having a love-hate relationship with parents.

Concurrently, with each semester of high school that draws to a close, students move closer to pursuing their post-secondary path, when they will need to operate autonomously to support their own success. This means teens need to be coached to take responsibility for their own academic progress and responsibilities by the time they graduate.

We believe that this critical teaching moment for teens, with the reality of their brain development and graduation drawing near, has two implications for family engagement in high school:

As students’ brains mature, adolescents should be involved in supporting their own success.

Because the brain is malleable during adolescence, experiences influence how the brain develops. Psychologists emphasize the importance of adults giving teenage students more autonomy and opportunities to make decisions. As a result, family engagement in high schools should include engaging students as active participants in supporting their own success.

One DC parent shared, “In high school, I feel like the onus is on the student, building that relationship with them and then bringing the parent on so we can still have that partnership with teachers. But the main partnership should be with the teacher and the student. They [the students] are old enough to know what’s going on.”

Educators have described families as seeming less involved in their child’s education in the upper grades; however, what we learned from families is that they weren’t necessarily less involved, but were actually placing more and more responsibility on their students to be in the driver’s seat.

For example, one mother said, “When you get those report cards and progress reports, my main thing is, ‘Alright, [student], these ain’t looking too good. You need to figure out what you must do. So, you need to go find out what you have to do to get back on the level you need to be on so you’re not failing.’ And she [my child] does that now. She’s learned how to communicate the things to ask for- if there’s any makeup work, if there’s any extra tests that she could take. And then when she goes to school, she finds out those things.”

Families and educators need to coach students as they take on more responsibility for their success.

In practice, sometimes there can be a full and quick release of responsibility to students as they matriculate from middle to high school. As students’ brains mature, they need guidance and support from families and educators as they learn to support their success in school more independently. Students need coaching to make decisions and think critically as their prefrontal cortex, or the critical thinking center of their brain, is still developing.

A DC mom said, “in ninth and tenth grades, you still have to be somewhat involved because they’re still young and learning. Eleventh and twelfth grades are when it becomes more of a student thing. I bounce everything back to [my student], so I feel like I don’t have to communicate with the teachers as much because I’m putting the responsibility on [student]. So it’s important for her [my child] to start learning how to communicate for herself with her teachers.”

In the previous entry in the series (hyperlink), we shared five roles that families can play to support student success from PreK to high school-communicating high expectations, monitoring their child’s performance, supporting learning at home, guiding their child’s education, and advocating for their child. In elementary school, families play these roles for their child directly. They may help with homework on a nightly basis and communicate with the teacher to solve problems or advocate for their child’s needs. Conversely, in high school, families coach their child to play these roles more and more independently. They ask their child questions about their progress and classes and coach them to set goals, plan, and advocate for themselves. They discuss high school, college, and career options with the student and guide them to make choices that support their goals.

High school families stressed the importance of relationships and consistent communication with their child. One family described, “I also talk to my daughter every day like, ‘How do you think you’re doing in school? What are your grades looking like?’ The report card’s coming. I need to know what I’ll be looking at, so I won’t be shocked and surprised. So, talking to her …and asking her about it is most important. Because it’s a reality check for them [the students] like, ‘I need to make sure I’m on top of my grades…’ just to let her know I didn’t forget about it.”

Growing up is hard work. In high schools, educators must partner with families to coach students through transitions and to take ownership over their education. Tune in next week to learn about some common barriers to effectively engaging families and how schools can work to overcome them.

Jacqueline Pratt-Tuke is the Senior Director of Secondary Partnerships in our Washington, DC office. Learn more about her at .