3 Things Every Grade 9 High School Freshmen Should Know Before The First Day Of School

3 Things Every Grade 9 High School Freshmen Should Know Before The First Day Of School

I recently spoke to a group of soon-to-be high school freshmen and their families, on the eve of their official first day of high school.  As expected, they were excited, nervous and a bit tired after plunging into the cold bath that is an eight-hour school day after an eight-week hiatus.  I remember my summer prior to my freshmen high school year, known as grade nine in Canada, where I grew up.  It was a time of serious decision-making for me: Should I break up with my grade 8 sweetheart? Should I try out for the midget (also known as grade 9) basketball team? Should I order the crew neck sweater to accompany the rest of my school uniform, or, should I wear this throwback uniform sweater vest that I found at the Salvation Army thrift store?  I had to say “yes” to the sweater vest!  I also recall never getting any real advice before entering high school, unless I count my older brother telling me, “Ian don’t date any girls at that school”.

When I spoke to this group of ‘miner-niners’, an affectionately coined name given by grade 10s since, like forever, I didn’t mention the “don’t date any girls”, advice, even though I did follow it--by default.  Instead I decided to share three "tips" that would have been useful for me--and studies have shown--to build high school careers on.

Fixed versus Growth Mindset

By the time we are on the way to high school, many of us start to believe the labels that are placed on us, whether we deem them ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.  Well-meaning parents and teachers say: “you’re brilliant”, “you’re smart”, “math isn’t your strong area”, “don’t worry, I’m no good at math either, give it to your dad he’ll do it for you”.  Though, comforting at times, these sayings represent a fixed mindset.  People that have a fixed mindset believe that they are inherently great or flawed.  On the other hand, when a student’s parents respond to an academic failure, for example, a poor test grade in a new course, with “you should start studying a little earlier next time”, “keep working on it," “maybe we can think of some creative ways for you to study."  These comments represent a growth mindset, believing your greatness or flaws are because of your actions.  Both fixed and growth mindset are terms that were coined by the author Carol Dweck in her book Mindset.  During my talk, I brought the importance of the fixed versus growth mindset to life by asking students, “is anyone here not good at English?” A young man’s hand shot up, he said, “Ian, I suck at English”, right then, his friend lightly elbowed him in the side, turned to him and said, “dude, you gotta have a growth mindset”.  I totally agree with that dude’s friend, practice on your writing, get a writing partner, start a blog about a subject you consider yourself ‘great’ in.  I don’t expect any kid to move from barely passing a subject to an A plus, this is real life not a corny after-school special. It’s going to take time and focused effort. There’s a quote that I love that says, “Everybody overestimates what they can accomplish in a year and greatly underestimates what they can accomplish in 5-10 years with focused and planned effort”.

Get uncomfortable by getting involved

What I observed in this past assembly is that a lot of the soon-to-be grade nines knew each other from elementary and middle school.  Before I started my presentation I could see that they were jovial, humorous and relaxed, it was so cute!  They were in their, ‘comfort zones’, feeling they had a sense of control and expectation in their relationships. They knew their role and their friends did too.  But come tomorrow, the first real day of school, that will all change and they will know it once they step into the cafeteria to see the diversity, selection and opportunity there is to meet new friends and step outside cozy-comfort zones.  The reason I encourage new high school freshmen to step out of their comfort zone, though often scary, is that comfort zones get boring and there is such a variety of people to get to know. It’s simple to step out of your comfort zone, but not easy. Usually, the more a student accepts who they are and on the road to becoming, the easier it is for them to build new friendships. Most schools have a way for students to work on being themselves at school--it's called getting involved.  Getting involved not only grows a student’s comfort zone, but it helps them to make friends, have a lot of fun, and, as I've experienced, become inspired to evolve their vision, standards and expectations for themselves through involvement.  Getting involved is an ideal way for students to have fun in high school while learning about who they are and seeing what they are made of.  Just to back up my point with evidence, here’s a quote from an fancy pants researcher in Time Magazine: “Giving students occasions to learn through play not only fosters creative thinking, problem solving, independence, and perseverance, but also addresses teenagers’ developmental needs for greater independence and ownership in their learning, opportunities for physical activity and creative expression, and the ability to demonstrate competence”. Therefore, let’s encourage our grade nines to get involved, have fun and play.

Learning How To Cope With The Stress of High School

Today, many students face elevated amounts of stress compared to their parents and grandparents. A recent survey found that 45 percent of students between the ages of 12- to 18-year-olds said school pressures stressed them. I recently sat down for coffee with a principal friend of mine, he’s working on losing 20 pounds, his trainer told him, “you are fighting in the gym, but now you have to battle in the kitchen”(referring to his eating habits).  This is hard for him--his spouse is Italian and a great cook and so this means no more of that triple cheese and sausage lasagna for breakfast.  This notion of winning the battle in different arenas got me thinking, this is the same for grade nine students, we prepare them to fight the battle in the classroom by spending $500 at Staples, but not on the pillow and in the kitchen where the coping with stress, anxiety and worry’s battle is won.  When I say, pillow, I mean sleep--yes sleep. Were you expecting something deeper than that or more risqué? Nope, sleep is that essential. Lack of sleep can have some surprising effects on students, including: increased aggressive and inappropriate behaviour, eating too many sweets and fried foods, depression, anxiety, increased likelihood of smoking, loss of motivation and poor grades. Pillow is starting to sound more important now, right? Studies have found that 1 out of 3 students 12 to 18-years-old get 6 hours of sleep or less when they should be getting 8-9 hours. 

The second battle is the kitchen--eating healthy and balanced meals. Studies show that students who eat nutritious meals and who exercise a minimum of 60 minutes a day remain more alert during the school day and experience improved academic achievement and grades (thank you Mrs. Obama).  They also experience fewer incidents of anxiety, risky behaviours, low self-esteem, depression and stress.  When I showed this study to my principal friend, he made it a priority to have a talk with his cafeteria staff and conduct a student survey to see if the pasta, pizza and French fries(no vegetables in sight, other than the tomatoes that sauce was made of ) students eat Monday to Friday are on ‘fleek’ these days.   This begs the question: why invest largely in mental health programs on one side and on the other feed students meals that do not nourish their full potential?

This last ‘secret’ weapon is particularly important, at the high school level, where much of the stress comes from being overscheduled.  But Ian, didn’t you say “the way to have fun is to get involved”, sure did, but this is where our teens learn how to develop time management skills, including making sure they know how to set realistic schedules, how to create prioritized to-do lists, and how to say no to tasks and activities that aren’t important to them.  Our grade nines will learn healthy coping by observing adults, be a good example.

Finally, establish some time to regularly check-in with your grade nine; this could be regarding homework, sports, volunteer commitments, or other school activities. Often, students are reluctant to share difficulties they may be experiencing with their parents, especially if they were 'good' students in grade eight. The transitional year from middle school to high school can be especially tricky, as students are faced with new academic and social challenges. This year, make sure your student is equipped with 8-9 hours of sleep, a healthy lunch bag, the courage to get involved and the readiness to go further than their past achievements with a growth mindset.