Fewer students than ever are taking the direct path from high school into college with graduation in four years from the same institution. Students defer enrollment, take a gap year before starting, take a gap year during college, transfer, stop out, or simply do not finish. Some college officials refer to this process of student movement as “swirling.”
Although the majority of students still enter college and remain until they graduate in four or five years, some students decide to take a break from school at some point. For some students, this is a thoughtful decision. Other students may not have a choice as they do not succeed and are dismissed, or have health, financial, or family issues that force them to stop out for a while.
If your student is one of those who may be taking some time away from school, you may have questions and concerns. You and your student will need to discuss these concerns, as well as his reasons and his plans for using this time away.
One of the most common concerns about time away that some parents have is that their student will lose momentum and not return to school. This is always possible. Some students who withdraw from school do not return – at least until many years later. There are no guarantees. But some students find that a semester or year away from school helps them understand the value of school, find their direction, and return with a new motivation and drive to succeed.
It is important that you talk to your student about your fears and concerns. You may find that your student shares those concerns. He may also wonder whether it will be difficult to re-enter school after some time away. Acknowledging these fears and talking about them will help both of you.
What can your student do with this time?
Once your student has decided to take a break from school, he will need to decide what he is going to do with this time away. It is important that he have a plan so that the time feels purposeful and he can maximize this time. Of course, finances are always an important concern. Perhaps your student will need to find a full-time job and work during this time. This can be an important and beneficial experience for him.
The reasons that your student is taking a break will also influence what he chooses to do. Does he need to address health concerns – either physical or mental? Does he need to strengthen his academic skills? Does he need to investigate his interests to help him find purpose and direction?
Once your student thinks clearly about the reasons for this time away, he will be in a better position to determine how he will spend his time. He might consider a job, an internship, some low-risk, transferable courses at a local college, an experiential program such as Americorps, travel, or even staying with friends or family members in another part of the country for a new experience. Whatever your student chooses, he should have a plan.
What should you and your student be thinking and talking about?
As your student enters her break from school, keeping the dialogue open will be important. You will need to support your student, but you may also need to help her clarify her goals and plans. Here are a few things that you may want to discuss:
- Be clear about the process of leaving school. Has your student been dismissed? Is she taking a Leave of Absence? Is she Withdrawing? What are the possibilities of returning later? Talk to school officials. What is the process? Is there a time limit?
- Suggest that your student investigate fully the re-entry process even before leaving school. You don’t want your student to lengthen her time away simply because she doesn’t know how to go back. Having this knowledge from the outset will help remind your student that her plan is to return.
- Discuss with your student her reasons for taking time away. Encouraging her to articulate her reasons will help her clarify them. If she has been dismissed, help her think about what went wrong and how she can use this time to prepare for success next time.
- Ask your student to establish goals for this time. What does she hope to accomplish? Then ask her to create an action plan to achieve those goals. What specific actions will she undertake? What steps will get her there? When and how will she review her progress toward those goals?
- Agree on a timetable for this experience. Is the plan for one semester? A year? If your student is unsure, make a plan to sit down together in a certain amount of time to reconsider. Perhaps plan to look at the goals and action plans again in six or eight weeks.
- Talk to your student about living plans. Is she returning to live at home? Will she live somewhere else? Does she have a budget? If she will be living at home, talk specifically about any “house rules” or expectations. Will she have responsibilities? Pay rent? Address these issues early in the process.
- Help your student not to romanticize the experience of being home. Remind her that many of her friends may be away at school, that she will be expected to be working toward a goal, and that she will have responsibilities. There may not be the built in social network that she had at school.
How can you support your student?
Your student on a break may need more support than he anticipates. You will need to walk that balance between support and interference. Let him know that you are there when and if he needs you, but, as always, stand back and let him find his way. Although it is sometimes difficult for parents to watch, if he struggles, that may be a good thing. Remind him of his purpose and goals and that he will need to stay motivated.
This is a change of direction, a new path – perhaps unanticipated, but it can be a time of great learning and growth.