What “Level” Course is Right for Your Teen?

Now that school is in full swing, your sons and daughters may be complaining about certain courses or wondering if they chose wisely when planning this year’s schedule. Usually the dilemma is whether to be in regular-level classes or step up to APs and Honors. This decision, which is rarely as straightforward as it might seem, can trigger stressful dilemmas. And if you disagree with your teen and/or the school about what level is best, it’ll be even harder for you to figure out what to do.

Because there’s still time to make changes, though, considering the options is probably worthwhile. In my experience, teens can feel tortured all school year by even one “wrong” class. If assignments are too hard, demanding, or time-consuming, for example, they have less time to unwind, socialize, exercise, and do other healthy activities. Students become stressed-out, exhausted, and demoralized, more so if their grades suffer. If your teen has a hard time expressing what she’s thinking—or perhaps isn’t that aware of his true motivations—these scenarios may give you some helpful insights and springboards for discussion:

A. “I want to be in the Honors (or AP) class!”

At first blush, you may think it’s great that your teen is so motivated to take more challenging classes. Knowing you have such a serious and studious teen is probably gratifying. But what if deep down you’re not sure this is wise? Maybe you’re concerned about your son or daughter’s already high stress level, past struggles with the subject, difficulty juggling assignments, or number of other commitments. To make matters more confusing, what should you do if your teen’s teachers are recommending the regular-level class?

There are many reasons—some perfectly valid, others not so much—why your teens are asking to be in a higher-level class. The first step is to hear them out. Listen carefully not just to what they say, but also for more hidden motivations and concerns. These are the most common reasons I hear from teens in my practice.

  •     “It looks good for college.”

Hopefully, you’re already serving as voices of reason by urging your kids to spend their pre-college years exploring their true interests and inclinations. In my opinion, devoting four years to doing whatever they guess will impress admissions officers is neither the best college strategy nor the healthiest use of their time. Plus, as college advisors say, advanced classes are an advantage only if kids do well.

But too often, this is teens’ main goal. Kitt is a good example. As an ambitious junior, he is relentlessly determined to go to a “good college,” which for him means a prestigious one.

When Kitt wanted to jump up a level in math, his parents had mixed feelings. Although they admire his drive, they worry that his intensity is detrimental. I suggested they consider first whether Kitt was truly interested in math, and then if he had the conceptual ability and foundational skills to be successful. They decided he probably did meet these criteria. But when we turned to how he might perform under even more pressure, they felt he was better off where he was.

Talking about these issues up front may help your teens see the big picture, but if not you may need to warn them that taking harder classes only to pad their college resumes usually doesn’t pan out well.

•     “I want to be with the smart kids!”

This is a big issue for many ambitious teens I see. Good grades and advanced classes help them to feel smart and confident. In fact, some kids who struggle in school have a hard time feeling good about themselves. This is especially true (and unfortunate) in some communities, where being average is thought of as a disability. So if your students say they want to be with the “smart” kids, your first reaction might be to reassure them that they’re already smart. But actually your son or daughter may be referring to valid preferences that are worth considering.

It had never been particularly easy for Jonah to learn foreign languages; he had to work at it. Although his B in freshman Spanish didn’t qualify him for honors the following year, he wanted his parents to override the school’s recommendation. Jonah argued that he really liked Spanish and didn’t mind working harder in the honors class because “kids aren’t fooling around all the time. The teacher isn’t focused on discipline, so we have more conversations in Spanish and do fun projects.” Jonah’s willingness to do the extra work for a clear payoff made his parents feel comfortable about advocating for him, a decision I supported.

  •    “I just want to be in the Honors class!”

Sometimes teens simply insist on this without having clear goals. For me, this raises a red flag. If you’re seeing this, I’d advise you to proceed cautiously. First help your kids figure out why this is so important to them. Most often, it has to do with social perceptions and/or inclusion. Students may want to be in classes with their more highly achieving friends or seen as part of an academically elite group.

When Lauren, a junior, told me that she was desperate to be in Honors English, I asked why. She’s a bright, hardworking student for whom math and science come naturally. But language has always been a struggle because of her dyslexia. Plus, she reads so slowly that it’s always stressful for her to finish all the work that’s assigned in her academically rigorous private school. Lauren’s answer was: “It’s just what you do in my school. People judge you on whether you take a lot of APs.” It was easy to understand why the prestige of this class appealed to her after all her years of being self-conscious about her learning differences. But it made no sense for Lauren to take an advanced English class that would surely exacerbate her workload and anxiety—a conclusion she eventually reached with the help of a favorite teacher.

In helping your teen to think through this decision, look at the big picture. How will this course and its requirements affect your son or daughter’s entire schedule? Is the class a necessary part of a long-term academic plan—for example, an area of special interest or prerequisite for more advanced classes (e.g., studio art, photography, lab sciences)? If so, it might be worth the extra time. But teens should know that Honors and AP classes are taught at a faster pace; and the curriculum for AP classes, which is usually structured around the AP exam, requires about 40% more work.

B. “I just want to be in (or drop down to) regular classes!”

If your teen is recommended for Honors or AP classes, but is reluctant to take them—or wants to drop down to regular classes after a few weeks—that presents a whole different set of issues. Like most parents, your first thought might be that your daughter isn’t challenging herself enough or your son is just being lazy. You might argue that because their education is so important, they should take advantage of all their opportunities. You expect them to work hard. But once again, learning what’s underlying teen’s concerns makes it easier to know how to respond.

   •  “This class is too stressful!”

Most teens who shy away from advanced classes are afraid of not doing well. They fear not keeping up with classmates who seem smarter or more highly achieving. If your son or daughter typically needs your reassurance before new challenges, your usual pep talk—with reminders of previous successes—might be all that’s needed. But if they’re digging in their heels with unusual resistance, this may call for a different strategy.

Sam is a star athlete in his high school and community. He’s a capable student, but he feels most comfortable and confident on the field rather than in the classroom. Because he tests well in math, he was placed in an advanced algebra class. But after the first round of tests, he told his parents he wanted to return to the regular class. Sam couldn’t explain how he felt. His parents, figuring he just didn’t want to put in the time, were inclined to insist he stay in the higher class. But they soon began to recognize that Sam wasn’t as happy. As the stress ate away at him, he was starting to doubt himself and growing tired and irritable.

Psychologists call this common phenomenon the Big Fish in a Small Pond effect. Students who feel at least as capable as their classmates, if not smarter, have higher self-esteem and actually get better grades. Those who think their classmates are smarter than they are feel less confident and do more poorly. (High school students developing their lists of potential colleges should keep this fact in mind!) When Sam’s parents realized that this class was not in fact serving their son well, they agreed he could drop it.

  •      This isn’t what I signed up for!”

In the hope of racking up “easy” AP credits, some high school students sign up for classes such as Environmental Studies or Government—only to be deluged with time-consuming assignments and far more difficult tests than they expected. If your teens say they want to quit, you might think “Not so fast.” You want them to learn how to cope with challenges. But once again, it’s important to look at the whole picture.

 Zander, a quiet and hardworking senior, was taken aback by the list of assignments he got the first week in his AP Economics class.     Although he was soon falling behind, his pride prevented him from acknowledging it was a mistake and dropping the class. Instead, Zander asked his parents for a tutor. The only problem was that with all his other subject tutors and SAT prep coach, he had no time in his schedule. Fortunately, his parents saw the wisdom in letting him drop the class.

  •     “Something’s not working for me.”

When classes aren’t a good match for teens, it isn’t always due to difficulty level. Sometimes other factors are involved. Janelle signed up for an AP class her junior year. At the same time, she was chosen for a lead role in her school’s fall musical. Janelle was thrilled but also scared of how much time she would have to commit to the play. After the first few days, she started to dislike the class and considered dropping it.

After asking her daughter some questions, Janelle’s mother realized it wasn’t the work that was weighing on her. Rather, the teacher was coming across as rather disorganized and  unclear about assignments, tests, and quizzes. This didn’t bode well for Janelle, who already struggles with keeping track of her work. Her mother knew that with the extra demands of junior year, she would do better in a class with a more structured teacher. Janelle was relieved.

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Decisions like these are so hard because there’s rarely a clear right and wrong choice. Consider what’s going on right now in your teens’ lives, their backgrounds, and their temperaments. Think long and hard about forcing (or bribing) your kids to take higher-level classes; that strategy has a way of backfiring and coming back to haunt you. Pay close attention to their schools’ recommendations. Teachers and guidance counselors are in a better position to judge your teens’ readiness for certain courses because they’re more objective and work with hundreds or thousands of students. On the other hand, you know your teen better than they do, so fill them in by sharing any pertinent information.

If you and your teen disagree, suggest a trial period of a few weeks in a class to see how things go. But at the end of the day, you’re the parent. If your gut feeling tells you a class isn’t right for your teen, just say no.

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