Hey parents! Got a teen? A teen who’s drowning in anxiety? An anxious teen who’s taking a bunch of AP classes?
We’ve gotta talk.
Why parents seek help from a teen life coach
When parents reach out to me for life coaching for their teen, they share what they perceive as their child’s greatest struggle. The number one concern: academics. The specifics vary, but they’re usually one of the big four:
- lack of motivation
- failure to turn in work
- disappointing grades
- avoidance through gaming or social media
Why teens want help from a teen life coach
When these parents’ kids come to coaching sessions, they cite a different primary issue: massive anxiety. Which, when the kid is in a bunch of high-level and AP classes, makes perfect sense. They’re anxious because they’re trying to do the impossible.
For everyone but the smallest percentage of students, getting all As in a bunch of honors, AP or IB classes is literally not doable. The research explains why. This will blow your mind, but also duh, why didn’t we all realize it?
What the research says about learning
Research shows students learn best when they focus their efforts on the subjects they most care about — the ones they, personally, view as important for their future career or interests.
This will blow your mind, but also duh, why didn’t we all realize it?
Now get ready to clutch your pearls, because here comes the shocking part.
The research also says that students learn best when they’re allowed to deprioritize effort in the classes that aren’t personally important for them; that they don’t perceive as helping them reach future goals.
Let that sink in. Your child will be more successful in their learning if, instead of expecting them to earn a stack of As, you encourage them to channel their energy into the classes they value, and to be satisfied with mid-level grades in everything else.
The pressure to earn a stack of As in challenging classes is not only creating anxiety, it’s barring students from acquiring knowledge.
Why most teens can’t succeed in all AP classes
Effort and focus are limited resources. A human only has so much of these resources, like gas in a tank. When kids use all of their effort and focus on AP calculus, they’ve got none left for, say, AP Statistics, AP Chemistry, AP Latin, and the whole grueling rest of the list.
If it takes all of a student’s energy and focus to get an A in one class, they’ve got none left in their brain to absorb the next class’s material. They won’t have any more of these resources until they recharge somehow, with sleep or friend time or gaming…all of the stuff many teens tell me they’re not supposed to do until they finish all of their homework.
It’s a double bind. They can’t chill until they’re done learning this challenging material, but they can’t learn because their brain hasn’t been allowed to chill.
The more high-level classes a teen has, the more impossible learning becomes. Even if they do rest, recharge and come back to it, there are only so many hours in a day. Teens tell me they’re up until one, two, three o’clock in the morning trying to get their work done…then going to school on three hours of sleep.
Then, at school, their brains can’t learn because they haven’t gotten any sleep.
Teens will be more successful in their learning if we encourage them to channel their effort into the classes they value, and to be satisfied with mid-level grades in everything else.
Given the expectation of good grades, teens try — most try hard — yet they don’t see the As they want. So they try harder, often perceiving that they’re in trouble for “not trying hard enough.” So their anxiety spikes. And all this brain activity makes it even harder for them to absorb the material and do well in their classes.
From here, different kids have different reactions. I’ve heard all the following from teens living the intense effort//poor results conundrum:
- I have no motivation. All I can do is lie on my bed and scroll TikTok.
- I want to do well, but I just forget to complete or turn in my work.
- My grades started out good, but they’re so bad now, there’s nothing I can do.
- The only time I feel okay is when I’m gaming. In games, I can actually be successful.
And folks. When a kid is at this point? Pressure and threats are not going to flood them with excitement, motivation, and a fertile brain ready for learning. You know what will? Expression of understanding and permission to take their foot off the gas.
Exception to the rule
There is an exception to this cycle, and that’s when a student personally cares about learning the material in challenging classes. If a teen is truly pumped about the idea of becoming a doctor, or going to an Ivy League college, they have legit intrinsic motivation for achieving high grades in all of their high-level classes.
Key factor: these kids have their own motivation, as opposed to an external pressure to achieve someone else’s idea of what’s good. Intrinsic motivation works like fuel. It enables a human to sustain their focus and energy for longer periods of time. If a teen doesn’t have personal goals related to success in AP classes, you can’t beg, borrow or bludgeon them into it.
If your teen has their ideal future mapped out and that vision turbocharges their achievement in high-level classes, thanks for reading! But why are you still here?
If your teen is taking tough classes and struggling with grades, motivation, and anxiety, there’s a fix. Give them permission to prioritize effort in the classes that are meaningful to them, and to achieve mediocrity in the rest. It might sound like academic blasphemy, but in fact, it’s the formula for successful learning.