Coaching for Success

How to talk about success 

Defining “success”

As a parent, you want your student to be successful at Waterloo - but what does “success” mean? When your student begins university your, and your student’s, definition of success may be similar. But that definition may change throughout their time in school. Success can be difficult to describe, because it’s unique to each student.

At the Student Success Office, our definition of student success is when a student graduates having achieved their self-identified goals, actively engaged both inside and outside the classroom, and are ready to apply what they have learned.

We believe that positive behaviours + positive environments = student success.

Whatever their goals at Waterloo are, your student will build their success from three over-arching areas:

Five keys to success

There are five keys to a successful transition into university. We don’t expect students to achieve all five at once – that would be a lot to ask at the beginning of this new adventure! Achieving each key and learning to balance all five takes time. Think of these as milestones in your student’s journey through first year that they will continue to build upon throughout their degree.

  1. Create a network of friends
  2. Balance school work and leisure time
  3. Seek out information and resources when questions arise
  4. Attend classes, labs, tutorials, and office hours
  5. Understand course requirements and faculty policies

Perceptions of success

As students are adjusting to the differences between high school and university, their grades may fall from what they were used to in high school. This is a normal part of the transition to university. As students learn how to adapt to the university classroom and find the study strategies that work best for them, they will see their grades readjust. Part of the university experience for your student will include meeting new challenges as a more independent young adult. Success is not the absence of obstacles, but how your student learns to approach and manage these inevitable challenges.

Students’ ideas of success can sometimes conflict with their parents’ values. If you’re providing financial support for your student’s education, they may feel the need to focus on meeting your definition of success instead of their own.

According to the Canadian University Survey Consortium, 60 per cent of about 18,000 graduating students across 36 Canadian universities rely on family to fund their education. When they do not have financial control, the students may find their interests or academic strengths are not taken into consideration by their families. Rather, parents choose programs that they believe will provide stability and guarantee future employment.

Your student may believe that you hold certain expectations for their success at Waterloo, even if you’ve never specifically talked to them about this. Try to have an open discussion with your student about what your expectations actually are and how they have freedom to determine the direction of their academic career. This can help ease some of their stress and allow your student to focus on courses that they enjoy. Student success is more likely to take place when students find meaning or purpose in their experience, such as when they perceive relevant connections between what they learn in class, their current life, and their future goals.

Self-care for university students

These are some things to remind your student or to check-in about throughout the year. It might be helpful to remind them of healthy habits and to encourage them to take breaks, particularly around higher stress times like midterm and exam periods. Study breaks help students manage stress and mentally recharge for when they return to studying.

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  • Stay hydrated
  • Eat regularly and on a balanced diet
  • Look for meals that remind them of home
  • Work with Food Services to ensure options are available to accommodate allergies or restrictions

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Promote positive mental health

  • Maintain regular sleep habits (six to eight hours of sleep each night)
  • Avoid “all-nighters”
  • Set and keep an exercise routine, or join a campus recreation activity
  • Try meditating to improve focus and stay grounded
  • Multi-faith spaces are available across campus for prayer, reflection, and other faith-based or spiritual activities

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Making friends

  • Connecting with classmates and forming study groups
  • Meeting new friends outside of classes, in residence or through getting involved on campus

Typical behaviour in the first year of university

Trying new things

The University of Waterloo has many opportunities for students to try new things – this is part of the holistic student experience. As a parent, some of the new activities your student may try might not happen at a time that makes sense to you. For example, your student might join a late-night intramural recreation team, or use their time off during Reading Week to travel with some new friends. Trust in their decisions and understand that their schedule and priorities may change in this new environment.  

Making new friends

Trying new things might be how your student meets new friends. Living in residence, participating in class, or getting involved on campus are other ways they might make friends. Your student may find meeting friends easy or challenging. Building a support system on campus is important for your student’s success. Notice the names your student is bringing up in conversation and ask about their new friends.

Questioning previously held beliefs

New students arriving at university are often exposed to new values, cultures, and beliefs. Part of this new experience will be learning how other belief systems coexist with their own and refining theirs accordingly. For example, smaller towns might not have a lot of diversity, but campus does. Students will likely be exposed to political views and ideas that are new to them. Questioning and exploring previously held beliefs is common and is how young adults start to form their self-identity.

Much more – or much less - communication

It’s important to maintain regular contact with your student, but try to create a balance that allows space for your student to approach you and set the agenda for some conversations. Let your student know that you respect and support their right to make independent decisions, and that you’ll serve as an advocate and an advisor when asked. It’s also normal for your student to seek your help one day and reject it the next. This behaviour may be confusing or exhausting for parents, so make sure to take care of yourself by connecting with your own support system.

Behaviours to note

There may be times in a student’s search for identity when they explore a riskier path that can lead to negative consequences. You are your student’s coach, but you’re also their biggest ally when it comes to noticing worrisome behavior. If you notice any of the behaviours listed below, it’s important to have a timely and honest conversation with your student.

What to watch for:

  • Overloading day-to-day life by getting involved with everything, and failing to consider how that might make the transition to university more difficult 
  • Focusing only on academics and refusing to take breaks, because of an overt concern about how difficult the work might be
  • Skipping classes excessively; you’ll only know this if your student tells you, but it might come out as “I don’t need to go to class today” or “I already know the material, it’s okay for me to miss that class”
  • Substance abuse; the University will contact you in an emergency, but watch out for early signs of substance abuse
  • Lack of academic integrity, like working with peers to complete individual assignments or cheating on tests
  • Financial concerns, such as rapidly decreasing funds or running down the balance on their WatCard early in the term
  • Consistent or recurring illness may signify physical health concerns, such as not eating a proper diet, not getting enough exercise, etc.

Adapting a growth mindset

Try to accept that your student will make mistakes, just like parents do sometimes. When we look back at our own biggest mistakes, we often realize that having the space to grow and learn after a misstep motivated some of our greatest advances in personal growth and maturation.

It may be difficult for you to see your student struggle, but try not to do everything in your power to protect them from set-backs. Life is a series of challenges, and these hurdles are opportunities for them to grow and develop as adults.

You can help your student through difficult situations by validating their feelings, and disclosing your own difficulties with learning and growth. Have you ever had to adjust to having your plans completely disrupted? Change, and the challenges that come with it, is the norm. Having an easy ride from start to finish is rare - and probably non-existent!

Remember, success is not solely determined by results and outcomes. As your student progresses through their degree, their goals and ideas of what their success looks like will change and develop as they do. Part of student success is actively engaging both inside and outside the classroom. What counts aren’t so much the challenges a student faces, but how they choose to confront those challenges and what they learn from each experience.

When to talk to your university student

How often should you talk to your university student? Each relationship between a student and parent is different, so there’s not a universal answer to this question. Work together with your student to determine how to manage communication while they’re at school, whether they’ll be moving away or continuing to live with you at home.

In the summer months leading into your student’s first year, start to consider how often you want to check-in with them. Have a conversation about how often you want to contact each other and how you’ll communicate, and create a plan together. For example, you may decide to call each other twice a week, to have regular video chats on Sunday evenings, or to have lunch together once a week. It’ll be important to manage your expectations while you create this plan together. You may want to talk to your student every day, but they might not want or be able to do so.

If your student will be living away from home for the first time, communication may be more frequent early in the first term as they get used to their new “second home.” Let your student lead this.

However, letting your student lead communication doesn’t mean that you need to wait for weeks between phone calls. Your student may get busy with their studies and new friends, but having an agreed-upon communication plan allows them to develop their independence while you stay updated on the new experiences they’re having.

While working on a communication plan, consider the following:

  • Email is a great way to let your student know you’re thinking of them, because they can read and respond on their own timeline.
  • Video chat is a great way for your student to see home if they’ve been missing it.
  • You can set dates or times to text or instant message while watching a television show that you both enjoy.

What coaching for success looks like

Becoming a coach

Parents often worry about how their parent-child relationship will change when their young adult becomes a university student. Rest assured that though students are generally developing their independence at university, they’ll still turn to you for advice on decision-making. However, the way you offer your student support may present a large shift for you through this transition.

You may be accustomed to offering your advice or opinions on the choices your student makes, maybe even without any prompting from them. Now, you might need to take a step back and watch how your student navigates life on their own. Your role will become that of a consultant, mentor, or coach.

We go to consultants, or coaches, when we need information, resources, and expert advice or options. Once we’ve gathered all of the necessary information, often from several sources, we make our decision independently. Advice from a consultant is always given non-judgmentally, in a “take it or leave it” manner.

As a coach, you certainly hope that your student will succeed. You’re also aware that their success depends on their ability to take what they have learned from you during “practice” and put it to work on their own during the “game.” If your student begins to struggle, they know that you’re there on the sidelines, willing to provide encouragement or ideas on how to approach difficult situations.

This shift in how your student relies on you is part of their learning curve. This can be difficult for parents, but respecting your students’ new boundaries is very important for their growth. Here are some tips on how to coach for success:


  • Invite your student into dialogue regularly so they know they can come to you.
  • Practice empathy and acceptance, and suspend judgement.
  • Let your student guide the conversation, rather than leading it yourself.

…then talk

  • Reflect: Repeat back what your student says in your own words to show you’re listening. Think of yourself as a sounding board for your student. They don’t always need answers – just someone to talk to.
  • Affirm: Highlight your student’s positive efforts and questions they come up with.
  • Inquire: Ask what your student thinks and needs from you. It’s best to stick with open-ended questions, like “what’s helped in similar situations in the past?”

A combination of these strategies will increase your student’s sense of empowerment and positive communication flow in your parent-child relationship. You’ll begin responding differently to your student than you may have in the past, particularly when making use of these tips. Remind your student that you’re there for them and are serving as an advisor when asked.

If your student is stuck or isn’t sure how to solve their problem, don’t be afraid to refer to them to one of the resources available on campus. Encourage them to reach out to the service themselves to help maintain a sense of empowerment.

While there may be a shift in your role as a parent of a university student, remember that your student will still require unconditional love, acceptance, and support - that doesn’t change at all.

Becoming a parent of a young adult

Your own experience

As your student starts university, you’ll also experience some changes at home. Even if your student is living at home throughout their degree, evening classes, campus involvement, and the need to find productive study spaces can affect the dynamic between you. This is a new chapter for your student and for your family.

Your student’s transition to university is also a period of transition for you, as you become a parent of a university student. While we know you’re excited, you may also experience nervousness, sadness, feel overwhelmed, or any other emotion.

Allow yourself some grace through the transition period. Everyone takes some time to adjust to new routines. Try these tips to help get through your own transition as a parent:

  • Check in with your student’s siblings or other close relatives; they might be feeling a sense of loss too.
  • Let your student know you’re thinking of them by writing them a letter or sending them a care package.
  • Use your support system of family and friends. As your student gets used to their new normal, you will too.

Additional reading

  • Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger
  • Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage by Kelly Radi