Preparing high school students for independence after graduation: What one psychologist wants educators to know

Graduation day: the ultimate “end goal” that all of our collective K-12 efforts are moving towards. We hope that our students can walk across that stage at the end of 12th grade with accomplishments to be proud of, a plan for their next steps, and the skills to find success in whatever they plan to pursue. 

For many students, college is that next step. Schools are invested in “college and career readiness” to make sure that students not only graduate, but get into the school of their dreams. And many do! Almost 70 percent of students attend college in the fall after graduation. (EducationData.org, 2021) But when we looked at the stats of what happens during that college experience, the insights were alarming. 

According to a September 2021 report, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40 percent. And 30 percent of students drop out before their sophomore year. (EducationData.org, 2021) Why are we seeing such high dropout rates? For many students, it’s not a lack of academic preparation. Financial strain, adjusting to a new structure, building a new support network, and adapting to a complete change in lifestyle and responsibility contributes to the reasons why students dropout of college. 

We recently spoke with Dr. Amanda Fialk, the Partner and Chief of Clinical Services at The Dorm, who works with young adults to support them through challenges and help them navigate a path to independence. She’s seen firsthand the importance of social and emotional preparedness to help students become independent and successful after high school graduation, and she helped us further understand the crisis our students are facing after graduation – and what she wishes all high schools would do to better prepare students. 

MTW: Thank you for speaking with us today! Oftentimes, when educators hear “social emotional learning” they think it’s for elementary school. What social and emotional skills are developed throughout the teenage years? 

Dr. Fialk: The better question is what skills aren’t still being developed. Families and communities focus on preparing students academically for college – they know how to write a paper, write for a test, but they don’t know how to navigate on a college campus. They are like fish out of water, which can be overwhelming. SEL in kindergarten is great, but the learning doesn’t stop there. Life throws things at you all the time – and we need to keep practicing skills like conflict resolution and communication. 

There is so much debate in K-12 over the finite amount of resources – how do you spend the money? When it comes to academics, all of our kids are going to learn. That is a given. So why not put the resources into helping to prepare them to navigate life in a way that they feel emotionally and socially secure? If they don’t feel good mentally or emotionally, they won’t perform well academically anyway. 

MTW: That’s a great point. We spend a lot of time and resources to prepare students academically for college, but if we also aren’t preparing them socially or emotionally then how prepared are they, really? What skills help students develop independence after high school? 

Dr. Fialk: What happens when you get to college and your parents aren’t around to help you anymore or you’re developing a new peer network? Communication skills and conflict resolution are key – how to be assertive vs. aggressive or passive; learning how to regulate your emotions if you’re getting heated; how to be mindful and experience your emotions in a non-judgemental way; navigating stress in social situations and conflicts. Mindfulness is so key. I think about what happens when suddenly kids don’t have curfews and are trying to fit in – it can be really easy to rely on social lubricants instead of social skills. 

MTW: It sounds like that social preparation is definitely critical, but often at the high school level adults don’t want to interfere or influence social aspects of a student’s life. By that age, a student’s social life can feel quite personal. What role can educators play in supporting students’ social development or promoting healthy social habits? 

Dr. Fialk: Educators are involved in a student’s social life whether they want to be or not. For teenagers, their peer group is the most influential group of people in their life at that age of development, and school is their main social environment. That’s where they are spending the majority of their time, and that’s where they’re spending their time socially. Whether educators want to be involved in students’ social lives or not, they just are. It’s imperative not to turn a blind eye to that. 

We want to teach social skills because they’re skills. Any type of skills you get better with practice, and if you don’t practice they atrophy over time. How can you teach students to be more socially aware or competent? You can teach them about eye contact, personal space, filler words, how to be active listeners, how to reflect, how to validate others. These will help them thrive in their jobs when they’re 40 years old! They are skills that make people feel heard and understood. 

MTW: Considering how much our lives have been disrupted over the past 18 months – especially socially – how has the pandemic impacted your work and what you’re seeing as the needs of young adults during this time? 

Dr. Fialk: We’re in a mental health crisis. We’re seeing spikes both in populations with preexisting mental illnesses and without. There is more anxiety at a higher acuity – if they were coming to us at a 7 before, now it’s a 9 or a 10. We have been removed, forcefully removed, from natural support networks and from community and consistency and routine. That takes a toll on mental health. With SEL and social emotional skill building, some of it you can do on your own – like mindfulness or meditation, for example – but a lot of the learning takes place in a group setting. Having people to practice with and practice on is critical. 

MTW: What do you think are the top 3-5 skills that you wish all teenagers entered adulthood with in order to live healthy, independent lives? 

Dr. Fialk: That’s a big question! I’m a huge fan of the DBT modules, and there is a huge overlap of DBT and SEL. The 4 major categories of the DBT modules are: 

  1. Mindfulness 
  2. Emotion Regulation
  3. Distress Tolerance
  4. Interpersonal Effectiveness

MTW: Given your current work with The Dorm, what is one thing you would advocate to a high school teacher to help them better prepare students for independence? 

Dr. Fialk: I would advocate that high school teachers educate themselves on this critical work – in the long run, social emotional learning will make their jobs easier. If they have a classroom full of students who have this really solid set of skills that gets developed through SEL, they will become much easier to teach. They’ll be more present and able to focus. I like analogies – if you want to be a bodybuilder, you’re not going to be able to start lifting a lot of weights if you don’t have the good form and the basics first. You might need to spend 6 months stretching and building mobility so that when you do lift, you’re maximizing your potential. If you just start lifting, you won’t be able to perform as well as if you put in the building blocks. SEL is a skill and will make academic learning easier. 

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Amanda Fialk, you can read about her work with The Dorm here or read her recent article for Psychology Today, Why Social-Emotional Learning Belongs in School Curriculums

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