1. They Eat Breakfast
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: teens need breakfast in order to perform at their peak. Study after study shows the connection between a healthy breakfast before school and improved concentration. Many teens don’t sit down for breakfast like they used to in elementary school. Because high schools have earlier start times, they often resort to on-the-go breakfast substitutes.
Maya Ramagopal, MD, a specialist in pediatric sleep medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Group at Rutgers University, says, “Teens think they can make do with an energy drink to get them through the day. 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.
2. They’re Engaged in Class
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.”
Teens 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.”
3. They Sleep Well
From homework and after-school activities to part-time jobs and busy social lives, teens 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 is calling teen sleep deprivation an epidemic.
Even though school starts earlier, teens often go to bed later, causing a sleep debt. 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 cellphone. All of that light suppresses melatonin, which is a sleep-inducing hormone.” If your teen is having trouble sleeping, talk with her doctor. Sleep problems can be signs of narcolepsy, sleep apnea, depression and anxiety.
4. They Get Involved
Whether it’s sports, the high 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 extra-curricular activities—athletic, artistic and vocational alike—according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Extra-curriculars 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. A 2013 study found student-athletes perform better in school and have better study habits than their peers who don’t play sports.
5. They Have a Happy Home
It’s no surprise adolescents with a happy home life and involved parents who don’t argue in front of them all the time are better students. Kids become distressed when their parents fight, resulting in a decreased focus on school work, Anna Sutherland, a writer for The Institute For Family Studies, noted 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 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 it would affect academic achievement,” says Mullan Harris.
6. They Visualize Success and Set Goals
Teens who believe they have a bright future ahead of them are more likely to do well than those who don’t have a clear idea about what it takes to succeed. According to a study published in 2002 by psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, setting goals can actually lead to more success in the future—especially if your goals are learning-based. For example, if a student makes it a point to learn something ambitious (such as how to network or master challenging course material), it could have positive, long-term effects, like an increase in her GPA.