Preparing your teen for high school

Looking to give your kid some guidance on what grade nine will be like? Here's what today's teens say the newbies need to know

Aren’t you glad you never have to be a “minor niner” again? Those first few months of getting lost in the endless hallways, hating the dorky jeans your mom bought on sale, and trying to sort out which binder goes with which class. Lucky you — you don’t have to go back to high school. But your kids may be making the leap soon.

And seeing as it’s been, well, a few years since acid wash was in style, you might be a tad out of step with what it’s like to be in grade nine in 2009. So if you want to help prepare your teen for the big leagues, why not ask someone who knows what high school’s like in the era of the iPhone? We talked to teens from across Canada about what they wish they’d known before starting high school.

“Go shopping after the first day of school”

Ignore the ads that make it seem like you have to do all your back-to-school shopping by August 31. Instead, let your teen check out what other kids are wearing before you drop serious cash on jeans, sneakers and coats. Otherwise, he might do what Kevin Tait, a Toronto grade 12 student, did: ask his mom for new clothes halfway through the fall, after she’d bought his wardrobe for the year. “Until you get there, you don’t know what people are wearing,” he says. “There’s an image you want to convey. You don’t want to look like a nerd.” Teens like to walk a fine line between fitting in and creating their own identity.

Cheat sheet Set a budget for the year and allow your teen to spend it gradually, as trends dictate.

“It’s bigger — way bigger”

Your teen may feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the building in the first few weeks of high school, particularly if she went to a small junior high or elementary. This is what happened to Kelti Goudie, an Oromocto, NB, grade 11 student, who went from a school of 500 students to one with more than 1,300 teens. “I was panicking, and getting squished in the hallways. But now I’m used to it,” she says. Katelyn Hughes, a grade-nine student in Smithville, Ont., says it took her months to figure out her school has two lunches and learn what all the different bells throughout the day signify. Halfway through her first year in the building, she still sometimes worried about getting lost. “I knew where my four classes and the auditorium were, and that’s it,” she says.

Cheat sheet Consider calling the school to see when your teen can scout out the empty hallways over the summer.

“There’s more work — but they ease you into it”

Your grade-eighter has probably heard dire warnings about the academic pressures of high school. While some of this may be a ploy by junior-school teachers to get kids to study harder, there’s an element of truth to it, as well. The teens we talked to reported their work is indeed harder, but they also said the expectations built gradually. “In the early part of grade nine, the teachers were really easygoing, and they let us mess up a few times,” says Kelti. Handing in assignments late was OK at the beginning of the year, she says, but teachers took marks off for it in term two. Plus, says Katelyn, “homework is more elaborate.” You’re asked not just to do a science experiment, for instance, but also to write up your method and observations in detail — and then do a good copy.

And just as the students get the hang of it, the teachers start warning them that the exams and essays in college and university will be much harder.

Cheat sheet Tell your teen to try to ignore the pressure (often exaggerated) and just get to work. “If you panic, it’s not going to work. You’ve got to stay calm and keep your cool,” says Kelti.

“You won’t see your old friends as much, but that’s a good thing”

Although your daughter has been friends with Emily from down the street for years, don’t be shocked if you hardly see her anymore once high school starts — particularly if your daughter’s a bookworm and Emily’s into sports. In high school, kids have more opportunity to branch out, and instead of staying with the same group of kids all day, your teen will be mixing with different students in every class. Plus, she’ll be meeting people in extracurriculars like the badminton team and drama club.

These connections take time to build — the first few weeks can be a little lonely — but the new pals your teen does make may be with her for life. “With my new friends, we have a lot more in common,” says Kelti. And, says Kevin, the more you get involved, the more friends you’ll make. “I play basketball and trumpet and just through those things, I’ve made a lot of great friends.”

Cheat sheet You may want to encourage your teen to join activities where she’ll meet smart, interesting people — they’re bound to be a big influence for the next four years.

“There’s more talk of drinking than actual drinking”

Just how much partying goes on in high school? Kevin says the “oh my God, I was so drunk last night” chatter he’d hear in grade nine made him think everyone was bingeing regularly. Eventually he figured out it was mostly hype, but only after he’d attended a few parties himself. And for some peer groups, alcohol isn’t an issue at all; Kelti says she feels no pressure to drink.

Cheat sheet Parents can help demystify booze by talking about how some kids might use alcohol as a crutch (and talk about it to make themselves sound cool) and explaining some of the real physical dangers of drinking too much.

“Few people get into dating right away”

Don’t worry too much about sex in grade nine: Your kid probably isn’t there yet. “I can’t even remember one real couple in grade nine,” says Kevin, who in his last year of high school is seeing his first girlfriend. One or two people he knew dated in the early years of high school, but almost everyone else just hung out as friends. Some teens, like Katelyn, have made a conscious choice to put off romance until they feel really ready. “You have to make up your mind before you go into things like that,” she says.

Cheat sheet Listen to your teen’s opinions on friendship and romance. You might like what you hear. And keep talking about sex; informed kids are more likely to make good choices.

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