Your Best School Year Yet


You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Successful high school students need breakfast in order to perform at their peak. Studies show the link between a healthy breakfast before school and improved concentration. Many teens don’t sit down for breakfast like they did in elementary school. Because high schools have earlier start times, they often resort to on-the-go breakfast substitutes.

“Teens think they can make do with an energy drink to get them through the day,” says Maya Ramagopal, MD, a specialist in pediatric sleep medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Group at Rutgers University. “If they don’t have much time between wake-up time and school, they should have a smoothie rather than a Red Bull. Energy drinks make [teens] jittery.” Make sure your teen has a breakfast that’s high in fiber and protein, like oatmeal made with milk or yogurt with fruit.


From homework and after-school activities to part-time jobs and busy social lives, successful high school students have a lot on their plates. As a result, the amount of time they sleep is decreasing across the board due to busy schedules. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics considers teen sleep deprivation an epidemic. Even though school starts earlier, teens often go to bed later, causing a sleep debt, which is why some NJ high schools are experimenting with later start times (see story on page 16).

According to the National Sleep Foundation, this diminishes the quality of a teenager’s shut-eye. Even if your kid thinks he’s too old for a bedtime, his body and brain disagree. “One of the important things that happens during REM sleep is memory consolidation,” Ramagopal explains. “REM typically happens in the early morning hours, so if you don’t sleep long enough, you miss out. Academic success is all about consolidating memory.” A good night’s sleep and a consistent wake-up time pay big dividends in school.

Help your kid get the quality sleep she needs by making sure there’s no light coming into her room at bedtime, Ramagopal says. “That means from the TV, iPad and cell phone. All of that light suppresses melatonin, which is a sleep-inducing hormone.” If your teen’s having trouble sleeping, talk with her doctor. Sleep problems can be signs of narcolepsy, sleep apnea, depression or anxiety.


Where students sit in the classroom has a lot to do with academic performance, experts say. Sitting up front encourages participation. Kids in the front row “are the students I see,” says Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “[I] make eye contact with them, and they tend to ask more questions.”

Successful high school students will also likely be more engaged in the classroom once they forge bonds with peers. “Teens tend to make friends with [those] they’re in class with,” says Mullan Harris. “If that’s where their friendships are formed, it’ll promote academic achievement. They might study together [or] talk about how they’re going to get a project done by a certain deadline, which reinforces responsibility.”


Whether it’s sports, the school play or marching band, after-school activities improve the quality of a teenager’s life. Successful students have a tendency to spend their time out of school in extracurricular activities—athletic, artistic and vocational alike—according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Extracurriculars decrease dropout rates and strengthen a student’s connection to her school.

After-school sports and clubs enhance social skills, too. They’re a great way for teens to make friends with mutual goals while promoting academic achievement, says Mullan Harris. A bonus for student athletes: They reap the physical advantages of exercise and the academic benefits of competition. One study found student athletes perform better in school and have better study habits than their peers who don’t play sports.


It’s no surprise adolescents with a happy home life and involved parents who don’t argue in front of them are better students. Kids become distressed when their parents fight and focus less on school work, noted Anna Sutherland, a writer for The Institute For Family Studies, in a 2014 article. Mullan Harris adds, “When there’s a divorce in a marriage with a lot of conflict, there’s even evidence that kids [can] do better” once issues at home are settled. Of course, you’re still going to nag your teens—that’s normal and expected—but it’s important to keep in mind that “marital conflict definitely affects the mental health of adolescents, and by extension would affect academic achievement,” says Mullan Harris.


Teens who believe they have bright futures ahead of them are more likely to do well than those who don’t have a clear idea about what it takes to succeed. Setting goals can actually lead to more success in the future—especially if your goals are learning based, according to a study published by psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. For example, if a student makes it a point to learn something ambitious (such as how to network or challenging course material), it could have positive, longterm effects, like an increase in her GPA.

Read More: Your Best School Year Yet