Your child has learned his way around the mammoth high school building. He has settled into a group of friends and gotten a handle on the high school juggling act of classes, activities, friends, and family. He towers over you and reminds you daily that he’s going to be getting a learner’s permit soon.

Hmm...maybe you should stop calling him your “child.” He’s a sophomore in high school now, well on his way to adulthood.

But he still needs his mom and dad. Sophomore year is vital in the eyes of the college admissions officer, and it’s a time when temptation can steer even a bright and motivated kid off course.

“We’re trying to give them more freedom,” says Julie Hartline, a counselor at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga., and the American School Counselor Association’s 2009 Counselor of the Year. “It’s important to still provide structure, set limits, enforce consequences, and give rewards.”

For parents, it’s hard to strike the balance of knowing when to let a kid make mistakes and learn from them and when to step in to avert potential disaster.

Staying on Course

By now, a student should be on a path to a technical career, college, or even a highly selective college. Still, students have choices in electives and, more important, the level of challenge in core courses. Hartline advises parents to intervene based on the stakes involved.

“I’ve worked with students and parents where the parent was adamant the student take Spanish and the student wants to take German,” she says. “In that case, I try to make the parent understand, German is not a bad choice....If you force your child to take a class, the end result might be an F.”

But in other cases, Hartline sides with the parents. “If your child wants to drop Spanish in favor of an elective, I’ll explain why that wouldn’t be in their best interest.”

Most states require a certain number of foreign language courses to graduate, and college admissions officers expect students to tackle a foreign language, regardless of their intended major.

Another indicator of whether a parent needs to step in: grades. “If the student makes all As while juggling a social life, then he or she is capable of making good decisions,” Hartline says. “Most of the time, if a parent is concerned, the student is not performing at that level.”

Students who breezed through middle school are at particular risk of falling down sophomore year, she says. That’s when even the smartest students need to buckle down and study, but some students might not have learned basic study skills.

In that case, Hartline suggests rewinding to the days of middle school, when homework was completed at the dining room table under a watchful—though not hovering—parent’s eye.

Tenth-graders often say they don’t have any homework in a particular subject because the teacher did not assign a paper or worksheet. But by 10th grade, students should be reviewing what they learned in class in each subject every night, Hartline says. “It helps burn the material into the brain.”

College Crunch

By sophomore year, many students and their families are already worried about college. At such an early stage, it’s not productive to stress out over particular colleges and whether your child will make the cut. It’s better to encourage your child to focus on her coursework and do her best. That way, when senior year arrives, she’ll have choices.

“The most important thing for a 10th grader to bear in mind is to stay in a challenging curriculum,” says Bill McClintick, board president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Colleges expect a student to take four or five academic core classes: English, math, science, social science, and a foreign language.”

The biggest pitfall for sophomores is choosing courses that are too easy just to guarantee a high grade. Kids are especially tempted to scale back on math out of fear, which is often shared by their parents. “Don’t back off on math,” says McClintick, director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa. “Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal in 10th grade.”

Even students who are sure they’re headed for a career in the arts need to take math at least through algebra II, a change from when their parents were able to skate by with far less math. Grade 10 is too early to decide you’re “not a math person,” he says.

A major milestone of 10th grade is the PSAT or the preliminary ACT, precursors to the big college admissions exams. Although your child’s school might not require it until junior year, it’s best to take it sophomore year, McClintick says. “You want to go ahead and get comfortable with the format,” he says.

Parents and students sometimes lock horns over sports and extracurricular activities. How many should a student invest time in? “It’s not the length of the resume, but the depth of the commitment,” says McClintick, who advises doing two or three things well rather than generating a laundry list of activities to impress college admissions gatekeepers.

“Let students go with their passions,” he says. “Don’t do it just for college. [Let them] make decisions about what they enjoy and let them take that as far as they can.”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.