Making the most of the new school year

Who says resolutions are just for Jan. 1? Here are 4 steps to school success this year.

Although school may seem tough to you, often adults have happy memories of their school days. Frequently, though, they wish they had done things differently – excelled in their courses instead of just getting by, tried out for that sports team, or learned a language instead of opting for an easier course.

One way you can make sure you don't miss out on opportunities this school year is to make resolutions. They're not just for Jan. 1.

What kind of resolutions should you make? We asked a few kids and teachers for their advice.

Resolution 1: Try your best.

"Be yourself, put forth lots of effort, and ask questions when you don't understand," advises Kimberly Oliver of Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., National Teacher of the Year for 2005-06.

Julie Van de Valk, who is an eighth-grader at a private school in Kitchener, Ontario, points out that a consistent effort to get homework done on time (or even – gasp! – early) not only "makes you feel good, but [makes] your teachers trust you."

Resolution 2: Get organized.

If you manage your time well, you'll be able to participate in and accomplish lots more things that you want to do – from schoolwork, sports, and music lessons to doing things with family and friends.

In order to maximize your homework time, eliminate unnecessary distractions, recommends Donald Asher, author of the book "Cool Colleges: For the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different." That means turning off instant messaging, music, TV, and your cellphone while you concentrate on homework.

Seem impossible? Most kids are convinced they work better with lots of things going on at once. But once distractions are eliminated, two hours of studying can often be compressed into a concentrated 15 to 30 minutes, Mr. Asher says.

Staying organized usually starts with planning ahead. For high school kids who will be looking for jobs next summer or thinking about applying to colleges, now is the time to start planning. But the same idea works for any project that needs to be accomplished in the future. Try mapping out the next 12 months on a calendar, choosing realistic deadlines and writing them down.

Think about getting together with several friends to work on a long-term project, rather than going it alone. Kids who do things in teams are more likely to follow through on their goals, Asher says.

He breaks down the process of achieving your goals into three steps: Decide how much you're going to do (quantity), what you're going to do (action), and when you're going to do it (deadline). Once you have those steps clear, you're ready to work toward the goal.

Resolution 3: Be active.

Trying out for a sports team is a great way to make friends and practice perseverance, teamwork, and leadership. Those are useful qualities that will be helpful in every aspect of school and life.

But what if you think you're really not good at a sport? Consider trying out for a team anyway, suggests Ms. Oliver, the teacher of the year.

"Try not to limit yourself, and be open to trying new things," she says. "Know that sometimes we can be our own worst critic."

If your school doesn't offer a sport you're interested in, organize your own "team." Depending on your interests, you can join a group of like-minded friends once a week at a skate park, a tennis court, or a golf course.

Simply limiting screen time (in front of the computer or the TV set) and regularly going outside to play can also help you stay in shape and be active, notes Barbara Roth, who's with the Early Childhood and After School Programs at YMCA of the USA.

Ms. Roth also suggests getting your whole family involved in your goal of being more active. It doesn't have to be organized or take a long time. Maybe you can go for an after- dinner stroll or walk to the store together instead of driving. Another option is starting a neighborhood dancing or walking club.

Resolution 4: Find your passion.

What do you really like to do? If you don't know, now is a good time to find out. High school teacher Rolf Thiessen of Kitchener, Ontario, encourages his own three kids to get involved in student politics, clubs, drama, or music.

As a geography teacher, Mr. Thiessen also stresses the importance of debating and strategizing about environmental topics such as global warming, and making a resolution to be a steward of the environment.

One thing he regrets not doing when he was a kid is "getting more into the out-of-doors, like cycling and backpacking – getting into nature and out of the city."

In the end, specific resolutions aren't as important as the experience of making and keeping them.

"Making goals is a sign of an achiever," Asher says, "and even though you may do something different in the end, by making a goal you're creating a successful future with you in it."

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