How to Take Control in High School (Even During a Pandemic)

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After a very different kind of summer, a new school year has begun. We hope that, despite the pandemic, you and your family had a chance to refresh and maybe even change the scenery. Ideally, you were able to take a step back from most of your scheduled Zoom meetings and experience some quality time with friends and other loved ones.

Now that we are well into the fall, maybe you have resumed turning in superior assignments, participating diligently in each of your classes whenever possible, and generally staying on top of the ever-increasing mountain of responsibilities coming your way … It might be more likely, however, and completely acceptable, that things are not necessarily that perfect for you or anyone else.

This year will probably see some big changes in what you are expected to do and how quickly you are expected to do it. You have several teachers, each of whom expects the same level of commitment and attention to be spent on their individual classes. Additionally, you are trying to juggle extracurricular and social commitments with brand new limitations and requirements. And, of course, all of this is taking place while you’re still operating in a largely virtual and socially distanced environment. This can be a recipe for a lot of heightened stress and an increased feeling of being at the mercy of a situation you did not design.

Questions you have right now might include, how do I deal with the constant pace of assignments my teachers keep sending me? What can I do to find the time to study or practice? How can I keep up with the new faces and new dynamics of my new grade and/or school? Where can I find the time to see my friends? How do I maintain my enthusiasm and focus when I must incorporate a link of some sort into so many of my activities?

Despite these and many other challenges, you do not have to be an unwilling participant in this chaotic maelstrom of high school. Let’s discuss a few ways that you can help yourself minimize the additional stress that comes with remote learning while also making sure that you continue to get things done.

A Sense of Control

In the 1950s, as part of his work on social theory, psychologist Julian Rotter first discussed the concept of the Locus of Control. A person’s locus of control refers to the place — internal or external — where they place the responsibility for their life’s events. If a person places or assigns control more internally, that person puts the responsibility for things on themselves, while someone who places control more externally tends to put the responsibility for events and circumstances on someone else.

Generally speaking, the more internal a person’s locus (that is, the more that they tend to put the responsibility for things happening or not happening on themselves), the more they see themselves as the director of events in their life, and thus, they feel more in control of their lives. Therefore, creating a more internalized locus of control can help to limit the emergence and effect of the stress someone might otherwise feel about all the things happening around them.

Conversely, the more external a person’s locus of control (in other words, the more they place the responsibility for things happening and not on other people and places), the more they see themselves as a character in life’s events, impacted and moved by forces that are completely beyond their control. It is easy to see in this situation that if someone or something outside of you is largely responsible for what is happening to you, you will probably feel at the mercy of those forces that remain beyond your control.

Where is My Locus?

So, is each individual too insignificant to make any meaningful change in their life, or do each of us play a small but real part in how the world actually operates?

Take a moment to think about how you perceive things. “Did the test go poorly mainly because the teacher is tough or more because I did not make enough time to review my study guide?” “Was I dragging today because school can be boring or because I stayed up a little later last night?” “Did the teacher not give me the extra half-point simply because she is rather strict or because I rarely ask for help, and when I do my work, it’s usually at the last minute?” With the answers to these kinds of questions, you’ll probably also have a good idea about where you land on the control spectrum: internally or externally focused. (If you’d like more help, though, you might like to try the actual scale based on the work of Julian Rotter).

Reframing: Creating a New Narrative

If you find yourself stressed about many of the things going on in your life, perhaps you can try reframing or redefining each situation as an opportunity or a challenge that you can take concrete steps to take on, rather than as an outside frustration that is something you must endure. Instead of worrying about passing a difficult class, why not seek out the teacher on a regular basis or form a study group with a classmate or a friend? Instead of feeling stressed at the beginning of every week, why not use your phone to give yourself 10 minutes of planning time on Thursday or Friday night so that you have a clear roadmap to follow when you begin to feel overwhelmed on Sunday or Monday night? Instead of waiting for someone to befriend you, why don’t you reach out to someone who could use a friend? Instead of getting tense about Mom or Dad reminding you to study, talk to them before they have the chance to ask you about it and let them know part of your plan to get your assignments done on time. You might be surprised to learn how quickly a parent or older sibling can turn into a devoted ally (which they secretly already are) when you simply take the time to clue them in to your existing plans.

We cannot stop many of the adolescent rites of passage or the once-in-a-lifetime worldwide challenges that you are currently confronting, but we can certainly take steps to determine how we will prepare for them and how we will respond when they do occur.

So now it’s your turn — how can you adjust your locus of control to better help you direct this academic year?

John Jones

Tutor & Director of Quality Assurance

John Jones has been ACT and SAT tutoring at PrepMatters since 2001. He prepares students for the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, SSAT/ISEE/HSPT, PSAT, and ACT.  Mr. Jones began tutoring in high school, serving as Vice-President of Tutoring for a high school service organization. His tutoring experience continued through college and has also included work with the AmeriCorps National Service Program...

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