Jeannine Jannot, Ph.D. has worked as a school psychologist, a psychology professor, and an academic coach. In The Disintegrating Student, she holds the hands of parents with formerly stellar students who’ve started to fall apart. Rather than immediately dispensing her “77 Tips to Be Productive and Well,” Jannot takes a back-to-basics approach, walking through common parenting missteps and the science of how each good intention backfires: being permissive, controlling, overprotective, enabling, and more. Cultural forces—including kidnapping fears, the movement to boost self-esteem, an emphasis on testing, and hyperconnectivity—also contribute to students melting down when they hit a “rigor tipping point.” In other words, they can swing academic success despite skill deficits and counterproductive habits, but only temporarily. At some point, students will need to rethink how they approach organization, time management, studying, mindset, stress, sleep, and screens.
Jannot wants parents to understand how one’s self-concept is impacted “when smart kids start getting bad grades,” and why disintegrating students “will often reject well-intentioned offers of assistance,” even going so far as to create a “decoy explanation for their declining performance.” Importantly, she calls out perfectionism (“Students most at risk of disintegration tend to experience or perceive pressure coming from everyone, everywhere, all the time”) and negative attribution (“The inner monologue of a disintegrating student often defaults to negative explanations for events and outcomes—‘I’m stupid, everyone is stupid, everything is stupid’”). Kids need early experience with autonomy and failure, she concludes, in addition to our undivided attention, active listening, empathy, acknowledging the good, knowing our triggers, and being vulnerable. Oh, and our patience:
The chemical reaction caused by [the fight or flight response] normally lasts about 90 seconds…. In practical terms, this means that when you and your child are having an intense emotional reaction to something, responding within the first 90 seconds is a bad idea.
The ask of parents is both complicated—with loads of best practices and common pitfalls to consider—and simple: “[M]aintain a positive attitude and be more tolerant of normal adolescent behaviors.”
Only after parents have been duly coached does Jannot turn to the 77 practical tips these kids need, including “declutter” and “start something, anything.” (“Once you’ve started the term paper, your brain is going to keep working on it subconsciously,” she explains. “You’ve started an open loop in your brain … and your brain will be itching to close that loop by completing it.”) From as general as “monotask” to as specific as choosing between one of four note taking strategies, Jannot hits many of the essential bases. Remember that stress response? She says it can work for your kid: “Instead of being scared that you’re going to fail a test, be excited to take it and grateful that your body is giving you the energy you need to perform at your best.” In a similar line of thought she asks students to picture two people in line for a roller coaster. One is scared and one is excited. “The fascinating thing is that the people feeling excitement and the people feeling fear will all be experiencing similar physical effects like a rapid heart rate, sweating, and butterflies in their stomachs.” Moral of the story? “There’s a fine line between excitement and fear, and that line is drawn by your thought processes.”
I would have liked to see issues of race and gender raised, particularly the concept of stereotype threat. Not acknowledging the various forms of disadvantage and trauma that can derail a child’s academic performance is a decision that will, either intentionally or accidentally, limit the book’s audience.
Still, Jannot offers much of value. If caregivers and students try the strategies, and stick with them long enough to give them a chance to work, she assures, “struggling students [can] get back on their feet and back on track stronger than ever.”