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

As we continue navigating our way through an evolving global pandemic, we welcome in the new school year. We hope that over the summer, you and your family had a chance to relax, refresh, and even change the scenery for a while. Perhaps you were able to take a step back from your Zoom calls and experience some quality time in person with friends and other loved ones.

Now that we are heading into a new fall, you may have resumed turning in superior assignments, participating diligently in all your classes, and generally staying on top of the ever-increasing mountain of responsibilities coming your way. It might be much more likely, however, and completely understandable and acceptable, that things are not necessarily that perfect for you — nor, in fact, for anyone else.

This year will bring some big changes in what you are expected 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 own class. Additionally, you are juggling new extracurricular and social commitments with shifting safety limitations and requirements, possibly in a socially distanced environment. This is a recipe for higher stress and the feeling of being at the mercy of a situation you did not design.

You may have a few questions about making the best of your year. 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 some of my activities may be virtual or limited?

Despite these and many other challenges, you do not have to be a passive 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 or distanced 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 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 you might otherwise feel about all the things happening around you.

Conversely, the more external a person’s locus of control (in other words, the more they place the responsibility for things happening or not happening 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 overcome, rather than as an outside frustration that is something you must endure.

We cannot stop many of the adolescent rites of passage or the national or international challenges that you may currently be 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?