Eight Self-Disciplinary Skills and Readiness for College

Managing college takes more self-management work than simply studying

Posted Mar 04, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

It’s a question many parents are pondering along about now as their senior’s high school graduation looms into view and leaving home for college a few months thereafter.

The question is: “Will my teenager be able to manage more independent responsibility and academic engagement living more on her (or his) own?”

Entering the fourth and last and most challenging stage of adolescence, what I call Trial Independence (ages 18 – 23), the change-demands can feel awesome and even overwhelming. Consider a few “deal breakers” that can interfere with catching hold, many that I listed in my 2011 book, Boomerang Kids:

  • Missing home and family,
  • Self-supervision responsibility,
  • Dealing with college coursework,
  • Getting along with a roommate,
  • Coping with more social partying,
  • Increased social substance use,
  • Living on a budget,
  • Fatigue from high demand,
  • Emotional duress from unhappiness,
  • Uncertainty about the future,
  • Boredom from studying one doesn’t like,
  • Insufficient self-care and wellness,
  • Tempting escape into Internet entertainment.

Going off to college requires much more than simply meeting a new set of academic demands. It takes a lot of work on many fronts  Work is the process of investing energy and effort on a task to achieve some desired or demanded outcome. 

And now the young person must act as their own authority. No longer relying on the authority of parents for direction and motivation, the older teenager must now rely on themselves. Thus the younger cry of protest against parental demand for work, “You can’t make me!” becomes the older cry of frustration, “I can’t make me!” As it turns out, running one’s own life isn’t easy. In the words of cartoonist Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.” Independent self-management responsibility can be hard to bear. 

Now, part of what is needed by the entering freshman is a well-practiced work ethic of self-discipline to help them catch their footing in college. And as any college will tell you, the retention and graduation rates don’t lie: This is a hard transition for many young people to make right away out of high school. 

If you don’t believe me, ask your college of choice: What percent of freshmen return sophomore year? What percent who do return graduate in four years, in six years, or fail to graduate at all? In addition to other factors, the data affirms the honorable personal struggle going on in the student. It also illuminates the hard non-academic challenge of colleges to help these last stage adolescents engage, stay in gear, get through, and accomplish more growing up.

In loco parentis, colleges are doing their best to further educate young people at an age when personal insecurity is more common, social life becomes more chaotic, and (compared with high school) an increased incidence of .substance use occurs. 

So: back to the parental question about their older teenager’s readiness to successfully cope with college. For a partial answer, consider work ethic and eight components of self-discipline that can make a positive adjustment difference to college. When present these work habits can prove very helpful; when absent they can prove very costly indeed. Take them one at a time.

  • COMPLETION: does the young person have a work habit of finishing what they start, or do they easily get bored or tired and disengage, lacking needed capacity for follow through?
  • CONCENTRATION: does the young person have a work habit of focusing on the task at hand, or do they become easily distracted by more entertaining activity, lacking needed capacity to pay sustained attention?
  • CONSISTENCY: does the young person have a work habit of maintaining continuity of effort to keep up with significant routine demands, or do they often let important recurring obligations and needs go unmet? 
  • CONSEQUENCES: does the young person have a work habit of learning from the errors of their ways, or do they deny responsibility for the outcomes of their choices and often repeat unwise decisions made? 
  • COMMITMENT: does the young person have a work habit of keeping promises and agreements to self and others, or do they treat these verbal contracts as casually made and easily broken? 
  • COOPERATION: does the young person have a work habit of setting some self-interest aside and accepting shared responsibility, or do they insist on doing it their way with no accommodation o others at all? 
  • CONTROL: does the young person have a work habit of timely accomplishment of tasks, or do they lack the capacity to delay or deny tempting gratification and escape into a habit of procrastination instead?
  • COMMUNICATION: does the young person have a work habit of telling themselves and others the truth about what is happening, or do they lie to themselves and others to avoid encountering hard realities? 

All eight of these self-disciplinary behaviors can be learned through practice. And I believe parents should be promoting this work ethic education from the outset of adolescence, around ages 9 – 13 so that by the time the young person graduates parental care at the end of high school, these work habits are firmlyl in place. This means the young can say with confidence:

  • “I can finish what I begin,”
  • “I can focus on what needs to be done,”
  • “I can maintain important continuity of effort,”
  • “I can learn from the outcomes of my choices,”
  • “I can keep my promises and agreements,”
  • “I can give to get along working with others,”
  • “I can respond to obligations in a timely way,”
  • “I  can be honest with myself and others about what’s going on.”

If you have a college-bound senior who does not have all these components of self-discipline in functional order, it's best to pay attention. At least let the young person know how these basic skills will be needed to successfully cope with the major transition soon to come, much of which will take a lot of work.

Finally, If you have an adolescent who has been derailed into excessive substance use, you may have noticed how some self-discipline has eroded or been undeveloped. This is why, in treatment or in twelve-step assisted abstinence programs, most recovery from substance abuse and addiction requires the practice and strengthening of these essential self-management skills.  

Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents and How Much to Control