How to Take Control in High School

Originally published January 10, 2019

Welcome to the new year! We hope you and your family had a wonderful holiday season! Ideally, you are continuing to turn in superior assignments, participate in every class, contribute to your extracurricular activities, and generally stay on top of the ever-increasing mountain of responsibilities coming your way. Much more likely, things are not necessarily that perfect for you or anyone.

This year has probably seen big changes to what you have to do and how quickly you are expected to do it. You have a bunch of 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. This can be a recipe for heightened stress and an increased feeling of being at the mercy of a situation you did not design.

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 before the summer?

Despite the many challenges, you do not have to be the unwilling participant in the chaotic maelstrom of high school.

A Sense of Control

In the 1950s, as part of his work on social theory, psychologist Julian Rotter discussed the concept of the Locus of Control. A person’s locus of control is the place where he or she puts responsibility for life’s events: toward the more internal or toward the more external end of the spectrum. Generally speaking, the more internal a person’s locus, the more they see themselves as the cause and director of events in their life, thus limiting the creating and effect of any nebulous cloud of despair. Conversely, the more external a person’s locus of control, the more they see themselves as a character in life’s events, impacted and moved by forces beyond their control. Of course, it is easy to see that if you think someone or something outside of you is largely responsible for what happens to you, that will make you feel at the mercy of forces beyond your control.

Dude, Where’s Your Locus?

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?” “Did the teacher not give me the extra half-point because she is strict or because I rarely ask for help, and when I do my work, it is at the last minute?” You probably have a good idea about where you land on the control spectrum. (If you’d like more help, maybe you’d like to try the actual scale)

Is each individual too small to make meaningful change, or do each of us play a small but real part in how the world actually operates?

I Am in Control Here.

If you find yourself stressed about many of the things going on in your life, perhaps you can try reframing each situation as an opportunity or a challenge. 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. 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 ask and let them know part of your plan to get your assignments done. You might be surprised to learn how quickly a parent or older sibling can turn into a devoted ally (which they secretly already are).

We cannot stop many of these rites of passage during adolescence, but we can determine how we will prepare for them and how we will respond when they do occur down the road.

How can you adjust your locus of control to better help you direct the second half of your freshman year?