How to Support Your Student Who May Be Taking a Break from College

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 your student’s reasons and plans for using this time away.

Parent concerns

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.

Talk to your student about your fears and concerns.  You may find that your student shares those concerns.  They 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, they will need to decide what they are going to do with this time away.  It is important that your student have a plan so that the time feels purposeful and they can maximize their use of this time.  Of course, finances are always an important concern.  Perhaps your student will need to find a full-time job and work.  This can be an important and beneficial experience.

The reasons that your student is taking a break will also influence what they choose to do.  Do they need to address health concerns — either physical or mental?  Do they need to strengthen academic skills?  Do they need to investigate interests to help find purpose and direction?

Once your student thinks clearly about the reasons for this time away, they will be in a better position to determine how to spend this time. Your student 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, they should have a plan.

What should you and your student be thinking and talking about?

As your student enters their break from school, keeping the dialogue open will be important.  You will need to support your student, but you may also need to help clarify 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?  Are they taking a Leave of Absence?  Are they 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 their time away simply because they don’t know how to go back.  Having this knowledge from the outset will help remind your student that the plan is to return.
  • Discuss your student’s reasons for taking time away.  Encouraging your student to articulate their reasons will help clarify them.  If they have been dismissed, help them think about what went wrong and how they can use this time to prepare for success next time.
  • Ask your student to establish goals for this time.  What do they hope to accomplish?  Then ask your student to create an action plan to achieve those goals.  What specific actions will they undertake?  What steps will get them where they want to be?  When and how will they review 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.  Are they returning to live at home?  Will they live somewhere else?  Do they have a budget?  If your student will be living at home, talk specifically about any ”house rules” or expectations.  Will they have responsibilities?  Pay rent?  Address these issues early in the process.
  • Help your student not to romanticize the experience of being home.  Remind them that many of their friends may be away at school, that they will be expected to be working toward a goal, and that they will have responsibilities.  There may not be the built in social network that they had at school.

How can you support your student?

Your student on a break may need more support than they anticipate.  You will need to walk that balance between support and interference.  Let your student know that you are there when and if they need you, but, as always, stand back and let them find their way.  Although it is sometimes difficult for parents to watch, if your student struggles, that may be a good thing.  Remind them of their purpose and goals and that they 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.

Related Posts:

Should My College Student Withdraw from College?

What to Do If Your Student is Academically Dismissed from College

Academically Dismissed from College?  Ten Steps to Move On

Helping Your Student With Goal Setting – and Action Plans

Boomerang Kids: When Your College Student or College Graduate Moves Back Home

How – and Why – To Help Your College Student Create a Budget


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2 thoughts on “How to Support Your Student Who May Be Taking a Break from College”

  1. A lot of the western students living in SE Asia take a year off between high school and college. The gap year is used to study, travel, veg out, or work. Students who work or travel tend to have more fulfilling university experiences.

    Every Singaporean male must do national service for 2 years after high school, before starting uni. They don’t get into college until they are ~20 years old. The two years are spent running in the jungle, play war games, and learning discipline. Those kids do really well in college.

    Taking a break isn’t always a bad thing, as you mentioned. But planning and preparation are VERY important.

    • Great points, Craig. We have an earlier post about a Gap Year, so I was thinking mostly here about students who start school and then need to take a break. But you’re right, whether it is a Gap Year or a break once you’ve started, careful planning, preparation, and communication are key.


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