Stop Running After Kids

Crabby refuses to exercise…

Many years ago when Crabby counseled overprivileged students at an academically constipated private school, a Frantic Mommy arrived at his office and said, “You’ll have to run after Clark to get his college applications done. He really needs to be reminded of things all the time.” After thanking her for the heads up, Crabby responded that he didn’t run in the hall, a habit ingrained in him from his own long-ago elementary school experience, and that Clark would need to take some responsibility for getting his college application work done.

Hurt and confused, Frantic Mommy retreated, complaining to the school head that Crabby wasn’t being “service-oriented” enough. Called into the head’s office, Crabby was told that “You’re in a service industry,” implying that Crabby should “give the lady what she wants” rather than endeavor to put responsibility where it belonged. No doubt Crabby signaled the beginning of his own separation (read: release and rush to freedom) from the school when he replied that he provided a service but was not a servant.

Too often Crabby has seen or heard of college counselors who proudly brag that they spend nights and weekends answering their cellphones to have long conversations about college with anxious parents; that they will do anything and go anywhere to help a student complete an application; and will “hold a student’s hand” to get him through the college process. Crabby’s former colleague rarely left her office so she could always be available for her students, sipping protein drink lunches and spending hours with individual students as well as parents so they would never have to do any real thinking or laboring on their own.

Crabby, on the other hand, kept fairly regular office hours and took lunch as needed, refusing to answer parents’ calls on weekends or evenings. He did not then and does not now believe there is any such thing as a “college admission emergency” that can’t be dealt with during normal non-Vampire Diary hours. (His belief was usually confirmed when, calling the parent the next day, he would find that the “crisis” had been resolved without any after-hours intervention.)

Crabby’s philosophy is that he has already been to college and if you want to go, it’s up to you to do the work of getting there. Crabby is there to help explain what needs to be explained, to contribute his expertise about and knowledge of colleges, and to let you know what you have to do to plan successfully. The execution is up to you. If you claim you want to go to college yet do nothing to move in that direction, who is Crabby to push you?

Although some (perhaps many) may say that Crabby is being mean or abdicating his “responsibility” to oversee the process, a new book lends support to his refusal to run after students. Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success is one of the most significant books to be written about the college process in many years. It should be required reading for any college counselor, new or experienced, because among other things it places the process in the context of adolescent development and underscores its importance to the continuing growth of our students.

In their book, authors Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard remind us that the process isn’t simply about getting students into college, it’s about acknowledging the importance of other factors such as “identity development, motivation, peer relationships, and other developmental processes that are so central for adolescents.” If college access work focuses too narrowly on the process itself, they argue, we can miss important opportunities to enable students to learn skills and outlooks that are inherent in the college process:

In order for young people to set future goals, make informed choices, and succeed once in college, they need opportunities that support their holistic development. They need additional developmental supports that work in tandem with–not instead of–… academic, aspirational, informational, and financial supports…

The book is clearly and helpfully organized around the developmental aspects the authors consider important and intertwined with college going activities. Chapters include “Envisioning” oneself in college, “Believing”, “Aiming,” Organizing,” and “Connecting.” Each chapter is divided into an overview of the elements being considered, an outline of what will be discussed, excellent and clear discussions of those elements, and then possible ways to put ideas into practice. It says and demonstrates many of the things we may believe instinctively, but in ways that enable practitioners to move forward.

In the “Believing” chapter, the “Opportunities for Practice” section contains this suggestion: “Be mindful of approaches that undermine the development of self-efficacy.” It explains some of those approaches: “Not assigning challenging tasks, constantly offering unsolicited help, and doing things for youth rather than allowing them to demonstrate and experience mastery of a skill will all subtly undermine their ability to feel effective at a given task or set of tasks.” [One report the authors cite found that “many strugglers felt that adults ‘coddled’ them in high school and did not adequately prepare them to assume the levels of responsibility and self-management needed in college.”]

Building young people’s capacities for self-regulation, mastery, and self-eficacy takes on an even more urgent sense when working with students outside the primary circles of college going. Those who have little or no access to college process information often come from situations where they have seldom been asked to do more than follow the rules and simply graduate from high school. Their ability to see themselves in college and be successful there is often hampered by low expectations and little help from their schools. It is these students who can benefit most from Ready, Willing, and Able’s comprehensive look at adolescent development.

It is often the case that well-meaning schools take their urban students on campus visits (Crabby knows one that takes its second-graders to Northwestern University) without providing any real context about what they are doing there. The idea of college is imposed on students rather than inculcated over time. “College” is presented as propaganda, not progress. (For the second graders, Crabby suggested they learn about the schools’ mascots instead–beavers, wolverines, banana slugs, bulldogs, cardinals, etc., and write stories about them instead–a more developmentally appropriate activity.)

The authors stress the importance of developing an environment that supports students’ being able to discover and set their own goals around college. Doing so takes time and careful planning on the adults’ part, of course, since the “individual has to be an active agent in constructing the goals, seeing the supports from the environment, and interpreting her experiences and abilities and how they influence the likelihood of success. Motivation ultimately has to come from within.”

What would have happened if Crabby had done as the Frantic Mommy had asked and run after Clark to hold his hand as he does his applications? He would have learned nothing except helplessness. If Crabby had done his work for him, he would have undercut the notion that “The ability to make plans and to organize behaviors in service of those plans is…central to the college going process.”

Again, this is especially important for low-income and first-generation students to learn. It is a longer and more complex road, but the essentials are the same: They must become, in Crabby’s own terms, “Applicants, not Supplicants,” which means that they must learn to stand on their own two feet, speak aloud their dreams and goals, and offer their talents to colleges rather than begging to be let in.

Recently one of Crabby’s advisees from a low-income non-college going family came in with an essay about his childhood written in second person, which touched upon his abandonment by his mother and his unknown father. He had been being raised by his grandmother, whom he called “mom.” When Crabby asked him about it, Juan said his school counselor had said it was boring and wanted him to rewrite it in first person. Crabby disagreed, saying it was an exceptionally well-done and unusual piece. (Crabby knows, having read thousands of them during his time in college admission.)

Because of the different opinions, Juan was at a loss and wanted a definitive opinion. Crabby refused to oblige, asking, “Which version do you think is better?”

Hesitating, Juan finally said, “I like the way I wrote it better.”                                                          “Why?”                                                                                                                                     “Because it sounds more like me and how I wanted to do it.”                                           “Then that’s what you should submit,” Crabby responded.

Juan’s face actually lit up–he had made his own decision rather than simply following directions. Crabby sees more good writing in his future that relies on his own instincts and abilities rather than on the opinions of others, a big step toward self-efficacy and confidence.

Wonderfully readable and nearly entirely jargon-free (“planful” being a notable weed in the garden), Ready, Willing, and Able distills knowledge gained from studies and observations, and presents it clearly, with constructive and doable suggestions for implementing developmentally-oriented activities revolving around the college process. The book emphasizes ways to incorporate this developmental approach into what may already be a strong college process program, making it easier to consider doing so. It will make any program that works with students and the college going process, from whatever background, richer and more valuable in the long run.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to Stop Running After Kids

  1. Barbara Dix says:

    WOW! I mean it! Crabby hits a grand slam!!!! Thank you for sending this. Love everything about this. Crabby’s voice loud and clear. And amusing! And pointed! congratulations!!!!

    PS Typo/edit below: > > i > ndividual students as well as parents so they wold never have to do anything real thinking on their own. >

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