Senioritis: Keeping 12th-graders engaged is a challenge for schools and parents


“Senior slump seems so much a part of American high school culture that some may assume it is a universal phenomenon,” a report found. “In truth, senior slump seems uniquely American.” (ISTOCKPHOTO)
March 18, 2013

When I was a senior in high school, I remember feeling entitled. I could skip class when I wanted, and I didn’t care about a few lousy grades, particularly after those fat and thin letters from colleges arrived in early April. I just wanted to spend as much time as possible goofing off with my friends before we all went our separate ways, and I felt I deserved it after nearly 12 years of schooling.

College envelopes may arrive virtually now, but “senioritis” still rules for most kids getting ready to leave the nest this spring. In fact, it may be worse than ever.

“As we have ramped up the pressure on high school seniors to get into ‘the right college,’ it’s my distinct impression that senioritis has gotten worse,” says Kris Amundson, senior vice president at the Washington think tank Education Sector and a former Fairfax County School Board member.

Senioritis is a catchall term for the behavior of many high schoolers in the last half or so of their last year. It’s characterized by slipping grades and a devil-may-care attitude that can test the best parents, teachers and school administrators.

So is this just another passing moment in a life trajectory, or are there bigger issues at stake that parents need to be aware of?

There haven’t been a lot of conclusive reports on this topic, but a 2011 study in the Journal of School Health provides warnings about some of the risks. It looked at the effect of truancy and alcohol use on educational aspirations.

Mining a large database of surveys of high school seniors conducted by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center, the researchers focused on 10,833 students surveyed in 2006. They found that those who reported more days of skipped school and more days of binge drinking were less likely to say they wanted to go to a four-year college.

This is important, says the study’s lead author, Adam Barry, an assistant professor in health education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, because “attending college sets a trajectory for earning potential and social status for the rest of life.”

And yet Barry can’t say what comes first. Do students in the grip of senioritis skip school and lose ambition? Or do students already doubting their educational future decide to cut class and drink beers with friends?

Some seniors may flirt with criminal behavior such as drug abuse and not-so-innocent pranks as the impending transition away from required school days looms. They may engage in risky behavior involving sex or unsafe driving, particularly if they are spending less and less time at school. A 1995 Department of Health and Human Services report found that the less time teens spent in school-sponsored activities, the more likely they were to engage in problematic activities such as smoking cigarettes, using drugs and getting pregnant.

“If kids are not in school,” Amundson says, “they’re at someone’s house,” where the potential for trouble is higher.

While it’s easy to brush off pranks, skipping class, falling grades and excessive partying as “just senioritis,” experts caution that slacking seniors can get into bad habits that they will carry on to college or work.

For these reasons, many educators see senior year in American schools as a missed opportunity that should be rethought. In a 2001 report, “Overcoming the High School Senior Slump,” Stanford professor Michael Kirst called for a more academically rigorous senior year to provide a better bridge to college. “Senior slump seems so much a part of American high school culture that some may assume it is a universal phenomenon,” Kirst writes. “In truth, senior slump seems uniquely American.”

Some schools make efforts to help seniors take their first steps toward independence. For example, many school districts offer opportunities for jobs and real-world internships during the school day. Some high schools encourage students to take a class at a local community college during their senior year. Some schools devote the last month or two to special projects, either individual ones or as a class.

“It’s the best approach, trying something completely different,” Amundson says. “Get them out there with adults they don’t know — and doing something useful.”

And while such programs are oriented to preparing students for the future, educators hope they’ll also boost academic motivation by making connections between educational goals and future aspirations. Moreover, by keeping students busy and engaged, these programs also may help prevent dissuade them from making poor health choices.

And then there’s the emotional side of things.

Seniors’ flippant attitudes surely get their parents’ backs up, but counselors and educators who work with lots of high school students advise an extra dose of patience.

Judy Bass, an educational consultant with offices in Vienna and Olney who works with students and their families on applying to college, says that she warns parents that lots of stressful things will happen during senior year.

“Kids go through a lot of different emotions,” she says. Some freak out at the prospect of leaving home and sabotage their grades as a way of avoiding this future. Others misbehave, stay out late and get angry with their parents, telling them they can’t wait to get out on their own.

Parents can have their own emotional difficulties as the end of high school draws near. “Parents often suffocate kids, because they know they’re leaving,” Bass says.

So what to do if your graduating senior seems to have lost all motivation, is skipping classes and seems mindless of the consequences? Bass counsels parents to do their best to keep their kids occupied with more responsibilities at home or a job, perhaps mirroring those school programs that give 12th-graders a taste of real life. Also keep the dialogue open — and stay calm.

“Your son doesn’t hate you; he’s afraid of leaving,” she says. “Don’t react, reassure.”

Finally, remind your teen of his or her most important job right now: graduating. If there are grade or other issues, Bass says, “don’t wait. Deal with them now.” And then encourage your child to look forward with pride and gratification to graduation day.

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