The W-Curve: Supporting College Students for Success
As the fall semester gets underway, fledgling college students are living away from home for the first time and you, the parents and guardians, are learning to let go. In between paying the first tuition bills and shopping for residence hall room supplies, you may be flooded with questions and concerns about your child’s transition and what it will mean for them, your family, and you. You may grapple with how to best support your child and how your role will change as they navigate college.
When I talk to parents and guardians, the first thing I tell them to expect are a lot of ups and downs during the first year at college—it’s critical to know that developmental changes will occur and that these changes can be challenging for both students and families.
A helpful theory in understanding the first-year experience is “The W-Curve,” which highlights the ups and downs you can expect for your child. Students typically start with a high of a honeymoon phase as they find connections and establish new relationships, set and test boundaries, explore interests, and begin to create a new personal identity. This phase presents an opportunity for your child to mature, become a young adult, and be out on their own.
This honeymoon can be followed by the low of cultural shock, a dip as your child experiences some of the first challenges of college life. Through this stage students are trying to weave together intense emotions, the questioning of knowledge, and an understanding of their own personal development. Because family members represent a safe space, students will often share only the negative and difficult stories. It is important to ask your child to share some of the positive things that are happening at this stage.
There is generally a return to a high point as your child adjusts to academics and campus life. It is during this phase that students begin to find a balance between school, personal life, and campus culture. They seize new opportunities for campus engagement, gain confidence, and explore new interests. Reassuring and encouraging your child is essential in this stage to help them realize that they still have a support system at home. Sending mail is one tangible way for students to feel supported.
This high is followed by a period of mental isolation. You should not be alarmed. This fourth stage happens for a number of reasons and is completely normal. Students try to reconcile their home and school lives; as they try to find a balance between two worlds, they may experience confusion and a sense of isolation.
Finally, with supports from home and school, your child may end their year on a high note of acceptance, integration, and connectedness, when they begin calling their college campus “home.” Although you may struggle with letting go when your child begins to refer to school as home, it is a sign of maturation. This is a good thing.
This story originally ran on “UniversityParent.com” in 2018.