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6 Tips to Help Your Student Take Ownership

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

The Most Common Question I’ve been Asked….. 

I recently had a student who was struggling to find motivation to study for the ACT. She didn’t want to put in the work, didn’t want to do outside time, and simply went through the motions. In reflecting on how to best support her, I had to take a step back and figure out what it was that she wanted and most important, why it was so important to her.  Encouraging students like her to take ownership over goals rather than apathetically following the written out steps is one of the most important things we do, and yet it can also be the most difficult. 

This story is not an unusual one, as one of the most common questions we’ve received from parents throughout the past twenty years is, “How do I get my student to take ownership?” When your teenager doesn’t feel personal connection with the goals and expectations that have been set for them, motivating them to get their work done and make progress can become a daily battle. It’s exhausting for you, and it can be frustrating for them. As Benjamin Franklin put it so aptly, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” That sense of involvement is what we strive to impart at Future Focused not only for educational goals, but for many aspects of life. Unfortunately, inspiring a student to take ownership is easier said than done. Here’s a few tips we’ve found to be the most successful. 

1. “I want you to get good grades so you can go to a great college” is usually an unsuccessful motivator for most students. It innately begs the question, “Why do I need to go to a ‘great’ college, and what makes a college great in the first place?” Students need a defined, intrinsic why in order to take ownership of the process and the end goal. Sometimes it can be a lot easier as a parent to simply communicate expectations without explaining why those markers are important, and that early disconnect between what you expect and what your student values can be very detrimental to your teenager’s sense of responsibility towards goals. At the end of the day, students have to know why they are doing something; otherwise, getting good grades, test scores, and extracurricular involvement can become an arduous task rather than steps towards a future they care about. Defining that why can happen in many ways. A great opportunity to do so is while visiting colleges. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, drive around schools like LMU, UCLA, Cal State LA, Claremont Mckenna, Pepperdine, Biola, and USC, and discuss what’s important to your student in a college, and what they personally want in their future. Conversations like these allow teens to reflect in a concrete way about what they see the next couple years looking like, and articulating that future can internally spark action and responsibility. 

2. Truly get to know your student and give them the chance to know themselves. While defining your expectations as a parent is important, teenagers also need some room for personal discovery as far as figuring out who they are and maybe who they want to be. Taking ownership of their education and their lives is nearly impossible if teens struggle to identify a sense of self. As a parent, asking good questions about their values, interests, and struggles not only helps you understand their perspective and their person, but also prompts them to think about those things for themselves. Having conversations like this from an early age allows students to take ownership over goals you’ve set together while mutually considering your respective and shared values. 

3. Show interest in their passions, interests, and strengths. Not all of us are natural students, but all of us have natural intelligence in a given area. That includes a wide range of skills from social to emotional intelligence, as well as abilities in music, visual arts, or athletics. I recently had a parent whose daughter showed interest in gardening, and so she brought out a horticulture expert to encourage her daughter’s passions. Students are a lot more likely to take ownership over their classes and their learning when they first are inspired to take ownership over their natural passions and interests. Finding success in those areas gives them the confidence to take personal responsibility in other areas. 

4. Set goals with your students that respect their developmental age. For example, college is four years away and feels like a very distant prospect for a high school freshman. You can discuss the bigger vision of college and have that conversation, but setting meaningful goals that are closer to their immediate thought process are usually more effective. For example, ask your teenager what they want for the upcoming semester. Broader goals can be mentioned, but visualizing short term goals and values is more concrete and reasonable. It also prevents students from feeling overwhelmed and out of control. 

5. Create the structure for your student to succeed.  If you know they really want to get an A in math this year, but it’s always been a subject they’ve struggled in, you may want to get them a tutor. High school freshmen especially are usually more focused on the social side of life, and providing your student support to accomplish their short term goals, even if it’s simply making a strong group of friends, is incredibly important. Sometimes support can mean giving them advice or following up on difficult situations, and sometimes that can mean providing them with a counselor or a mentor if they are continuing to really struggle. Ownership is not the same as total independence, and it’s a sign of true responsibility when students are able to openly ask for help and support when they need it. 

6. Celebrate even their smallest victories. By reinforcing success, your student will build confidence and motivation. As they see success, they will strive for bigger successes. 

Taking ownership is a gradual process, and the timeline is different for every student. For our student struggling with test prep motivation, it took identifying her why for ownership to kick in and progress was made as a result. She identified the school she wanted to go to, decided upon her goal score, and completely turned it around. She knew why it was important to her to raise her score and locked in to achieving her goal. She’s now headed to her dream school this fall. As with any learned skill, there’s always ups and downs, but affirming your student every step of the way and reminding them of your support is important on your student’s path to independence. 


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