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Building your teen's work ethic


Published on: January 01, 2010

The news must have come as a shock. This summer, 23 students looking forward to their freshman year at the University of Washington received a letter which shattered all their plans. The letter informed the teens that their admission to the U.W. had been revoked because their performance had dropped off during their senior year in high school. It was the first time the university had taken such an action.

Some of the teens had let their grades slide from A's and B's down to C's, D's and F's. Some had failed a required course. And others dropped or failed to complete challenging senior courses they had listed on their applications.

The message is clear: Students who want to get into the college of their choice must demonstrate a good work ethic, right up to high school graduation.

Building a work ethic

Measuring work ethic can be tricky. There are the obvious ingredients, such as good grades and high scores on standardized tests. But work ethic can include so much more.

"I think standardized tests alone don't show their heart, their character, how teens generate new ideas, how they give back to others. It doesn't speak to their breadth of character," said Kelly Herrington, director of college and career services at University Prep, where 100 percent of the students go on to college.

Herrington says work ethic can be demonstrated in the myriad of ways a teen spends his time outside the school curriculum, in athletics, artistic endeavors, volunteerism -- even in how summers are spent. When parents ask him how their teen can best prepare for the future, Herrington says: "work ethic."

Working at McDonald's or bagging groceries exposes teens to a variety of people, and can remind them of why they want a college education.

Of course, a great work ethic doesn't necessarily lead to college. Bob Dannenhold, a college advisor for 35 years, tells the story of two siblings: the sister, who did everything right in high school and went off to a prestigious university, and her younger brother, who struggled in school. Finally, the boy was drawn to a journeyman electrician program, and that's when he began to shine.

"He showed up to work on time every day, loved his work and couldn't wait to learn something new. He's making a lot of money, now," Dannenhold said. And his sister, the college graduate, is a barista at Starbucks.

Re-inspiring adolescents

Experts agree that parents shouldn't be surprised when their once-motivated students seem to lose all interest once they hit adolescence. Don't panic, they advise.

"The single biggest way to help teens and their work ethic is to find something they're passionate about," says Jake Guadnola, upper school admissions director and college advisor at Annie Wright School in Tacoma. Student athletes often struggle with grades but work long hours on the football field. Others hate to come to class but stay past closing at their after-school jobs.

"You can have the most sullen or angst-ridden teenager. If you find something the teen cares deeply about..., they'll start taking pride in it when they become successful. Success really does breed success." Dannehold agrees. "To me, the work ethic in younger people is a shaky bridge to walk on," he says. "Sometimes kids just get stuck. It's like they have a slide show in their heads and one slide gets stuck. They just need to turn it into a movie in which they're seeing themselves with more potential."

Wendy Krakauer, head counselor at Roosevelt High School, says parents also need to put responsibility for doing the work squarely on the shoulders of the student. Avoid the urge to write an excuse to the teacher for missed homework or to offer to type a paper at the last minute. "You can't rescue them," she says. "You want the teen to understand that, at this age, they're in charge of their own lives. It's their responsibility to negotiate with the teacher, find out what they need to do and to do the work themselves."

Giving teens responsibility for work ethic and planning their own futures after high school is a cornerstone of Navigation 101, an innovative program originated in the Franklin-Pierce School District. In the program, small groups of students work with a teacher who mentors the teens throughout their middle- and high-school years. Students work with a portfolio planner to set goals for their lives after high school. "We encourage students to go to the highest skill level possible," says Dan Barrett, state Navigation 101 coordinator. "We don't tell them what they should do. We allow them to decide what their goals are." Karin Engstrom, career specialist at Garfield High School, agrees. "When a teen takes responsibility for their learning and they understand that responsibility, then they have a good work ethic."

Elaine Bowers, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle with her husband and teenage twin daughters.

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