My 7th grade brother took the SAT in January. Does that catch your attention? Perhaps I should have started with this instead: My 7th grade (much younger than me) brother just outscored the average high school senior on this January’s SAT. Perhaps my preoccupation with college readiness with my own students for the past decade has been a bad influence on him. I know that many reading this are horrified that I’d encourage a 12-year-old to study for and take the SATs. How obsessive! Am I right?
Would it make you feel better if I shared that I did not encourage my younger sister to do the same? She instead took Dual Enrollment classes at her local community college during her final two years of high school. These classes meant that she could complete both her high school and college math requirements, English, history and so forth, allowing her to graduate high school with over a year’s worth of college credits under her belt. Her motivation? With 30 college credits, she could bring her car on campus and avoid living in the freshman dorms… We each have our own intrinsic motivations, apparently.
If you’re struggling to find the key to encouraging your child to work harder in school, then identifying and supporting his intrinsic motivation will get you part of the way just like it did for my sister. The other part, however, is identifying and supporting your child’s cognitive skills. My brother, for example, is a phenomenal test taker. With only 4 hours of tutoring in essay writing, he earned almost a perfect essay score on the SAT. Meanwhile, the mere thought of standardized tests make my poor sister cringe in ways that only the intense flight–anxiety side of my personality can identify with. She’s clearly not a good candidate for AP classes that would have hinged her entire capacity for doing well on one test at the end of a school year.
Not everyone has the same skills.
When I say cognitive skills, I am referring to a set of skills known as executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills are the manifestation of the brain’s processes to regulate behaviors that allow us to set goals and achieve them. These goals may be something as simple as waking up on time in the morning. That, though, requires prior planning, the ability to task initiate to set the alarm, and the follow-through to not hit the snooze button and instead get out of bed. While these tasks may sound easy to you, they actually involve quite complex cognitive developments and your teenager may not yet be caught up to speed on all of them.
For our military children who are scooted east, west, and across the ocean, the development of some of these cognitive processes may be quite advanced, such as the ability to think flexibly—or in other words, they can shift plans at a moment’s notice. So, when dad receives orders to move from Florida to New York mid-year, your flexible-thinking child can plan for participating in cold weather sports instead of the outdoor tennis team he was on down south.
Given more erratic academic careers than most students, however, many military children struggle with other executive functioning skills: Time management, task initiation, task completion, and organization. College readiness is challenging as is, but when students struggle with at least one of these skills, the challenge becomes an outright struggle. Fortunately, these are learned skills that students can develop with sufficient support.
That’s why it’s important to start college planning early.
Should a 7th Grader Take the SAT?
I’m not encouraging you to order an SAT prep book for your 7th or 8th grader now—in fact, don’t do that; your 7th or 8th grader will not take the current version of the SAT—but I am encouraging you to take time to assess your child’s strengths and weaknesses. What skills can you help your child develop, and what strengths can you nurture? Can your child manage his day-to-day schedule? Great! If not, that’s a skill to focus on right now.
If you can help your child learn to master his daily schedule—that includes homework, studying, and preparing for the next day’s activities—then you can eventually move on to helping him master longer-term goals, such as planning out a timeline for a class project. Once he can manage that, you can then move on to the big long-term goals; he can lay-out a long-term plan for his high school classes, so that in his freshman year, he’ll be able to identify what classes he needs to take to set himself up for his senior year classes and eventually pursue his dreams.