By Ben Bernstein, PhD., Performance Coach
Lizzie was a junior at a competitive urban high school. She had a 4.0 GPA, was the captain of the soccer team, and had a raft of impressive extracurricular activities. But her SAT scores were sub-par. An independent educational consultant (IEC) referred Lizzie and her parents to me, a clinical psychologist specializing in coaching teens and adults with performance issues—people who are underperforming for a variety of reasons, including test anxiety, cognitive issues, and lack of motivation.
When I met with Lizzie and her parents in my office, I asked her, “Do you know why you’re here today?” She quickly glanced at her parents and said, “My mother wants me to get higher SAT scores.” There was a pause, and I noticed Mom slightly shifting in her chair. Then Lizzie leaned in and shot me a zinger: “And I don’t want to work for it.” Now Lizzie and her parents all leaned in, challenging me with probing looks, as if to say, “And what are you going to do about it?” My immediate, unvoiced reaction was, I have no idea what to do! The kid’s telling me she won’t work to get a higher SAT score. What can I do? Then I saw a bottle of gold glitter on the shelf next to my chair. I picked it up and shook it.
“Do you know what this is, Lizzie?” She was not amused. “Duh…It’s glitter.” “Oh no,” I said, a little dramatically, “this is magic dust. Take this home and right before you go to bed, sprinkle a little over your head, three times, clockwise. Do this every night until you take the SAT and maybe your scores will go up!” Lizzie started laughing. She got the joke. Her parents looked mortified. Their facial expressions spoke volumes, “Who is this joker? We’re paying him for this?”
Without further conversation, I showed them to waiting room so that Lizzie and I could talk alone. We had an animated conversation. She was smart and funny, and we had a good rapport. I gave her an assignment related to the SAT.
When she came back the next week she sat down and said, somewhat defiantly, “I didn’t do anything you told me to.” I wasn’t surprised. Students aren’t sure what I’m up to or if they can trust me. We had another good conversation, and I gave her another assignment. When she returned a week later, she sat down, folded her arms, and said, with a dare-me look in her eyes, “I didn’t do anything you told me to.” I paused and smiled. “You know, Lizzie,” I said, compassionately, “You’re a great kid. I like you a lot. But this is the last time we’re going to meet.” A big question mark came over her face. I continued, “I don’t struggle with the students I work with. I can’t make you do anything. If you don’t want to do the work why waste your time, my time, and your parents’ money?” She looked shocked. I wondered if anyone had ever “fired” her before.
At that point, I purposely shifted gears and I asked her questions about her college of choice, a small, highly regarded liberal arts school. “Do you know what SAT scores they require?” She knew and answered immediately. I raised my eyebrow and looked at her. Her eyes opened and I could see the penny drop. At that moment she realized that getting higher SAT scores was not her mother’s goal or my goal or anyone else’s goal. Right then it became her goal. With that realization we moved forward and looked at what she needed to do to achieve the scores she wanted: clearing up issues of unfamiliarity with the exam, test anxiety, and low motivation. Working through those roadblocks took four months. Lizzie retook the SAT and got the scores she wanted.
What’s the lesson here? As we all know, a goal must be the student’s—not the parents’ and not yours. If you are working with a student and you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know what to do with this kid,” realize that you’ve just been caught in a trap. I call it “the induced reaction.” You’re being pulled into the family dynamic: the student doesn’t own her own goals and you’re the one who has to solve the problem. You can’t. That’s not your job. When a student says “My mother (or father), wants me to…” it’s a red flag. As the IEC, your job is to empower the student, not become another parent.
Goal setting is an important and necessary challenge in the college application process. It’s also a thorny one. Today’s students live in a culture of high stress brought on by the competitive culture, social media, and parental expectations. In this over-the-top stressful environment an all-too-common student reaction to goal setting is to sit back; fold their arms; and, in effect, say “tell me…make me.”
How should you respond? First, understand that when a student adopts an “I don’t care” attitude, she may well be signaling that her stress is over the top, and in effect, she’s bowing out: “I can’t handle this, it’s my mother’s problem.” As the college advisor, you will do your students a service by appreciating how much stress he or she is dealing with (junior/senior year grades, extracurriculars, competition, and so on). With the student, focus on what specifically is stressful about any particular part of the process. For Lizzie it was the SAT. Through our interaction, once she owned the goal of getting a higher score, she was able to buy in to what she needed to do to reach it: she committed to learning about the test, filling in her gaps of knowledge, and practicing test items.
When you lead a student through this three-step process—owning a goal, defining the steps to reach it, and being accountable for taking each step—you are giving them a gift that that will serve them well past the application process. It is the experience of self-empowerment. As students work with you to step out of the family nest and into college, ahead of them is a lifetime of defining and setting goals and working to achieve them. At this vital moment in the students’ lives, you are providing a bridge to their future. You can’t walk it for them, but you can show them how to build it.
Ben Bernstein, PhD, is a performance psychologist in Oakland, CA, and can be reached at. www.DrBPerformanceCoach.com. He is the author of Crush Your Test Anxiety (Familius 2018).