For some kids, junior year is time to get serious. For those who have been serious all along, it’s important to avoid burnout and stay focused.

“Reality hits them in the face,” says Vanessa Gomez-Lee, a counselor at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley, Calif. “They say, ‘It’s my junior year, and I have two years to get my act together.’ ”

Among the milestones you can expect in 11th grade: Your child will take the SAT or the ACT—for the first but not the last time—and will start working on a list of potential colleges or other post-high school opportunities. He may get his first part-time job. As a parent, you may have the first of many panic attacks as your child gets his driver’s license.

Academically, 11th grade is the most rigorous yet for students aiming for selective colleges. Many load up with Advanced Placement and honors courses. Others will be tempted to improve their chances of a perfect GPA by taking easier courses. This is a mistake, counselors warn. Students should stay on the path they started, taking the right courses for their post-high school plans and getting the best grades they can.

“Your junior-year grades are the last grades colleges will have to compute your GPA,” Gomez-Lee says.

Avoiding Burnout

In addition to core courses in math, English, science, and social studies, students may also be taking a foreign language or electives while juggling drama, band, sports, or other activities. Throw in a social life and a part-time job, and junior year can be overwhelming. “With juniors, they can become stressed,” Gomez-Lee says. “If they haven’t kept up their grades, they may realize they might need to change their plan.”

A trend of mediocre grades in 9th and 10th grades can be reversed in time for college applications with a support system at home and at school. “The most important thing for parents is to keep the lines of communication open,” Gomez-Lee says, “and to stay involved.”

Students at this age may groan at the sight of their parents at school, but kids with active parents tend to have an easier time managing the stress of 11th grade.

While some kids need motivation to turn around subpar grades, others who have always worked hard and gotten good grades may need encouragement on the home stretch. Burnout is not uncommon at this age, especially among students who have always strived to participate in everything. “Eleventh-graders can get early senioritis,” Gomez-Lee says.

Parents can help their children manage their time and develop effective study skills. It’s important keep in close contact with teachers about grades. Some high schools offer online tools to keep parents in the loop, and many teachers now communicate through email.

High Expectations in Math

Junior-year coursework varies depending on the path to graduation your child chose, but all juniors will be expected to take a challenging math course, regardless of career or college plans. Changing expectations at the college level have led to more rigorous and varied offerings at high school, even for students not considering careers that require math, says Hank Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Some states, districts, and schools are integrating math concepts such as algebra, geometry, precalculus, and statistics. Others teach traditional courses but at a higher level than students’ parents experienced. And statistics, once viewed as the easy route to fulfilling a math requirement, is focusing on teaching students to analyze data, Kepner says.

Parents should encourage their child to work hard in math even if they don’t consider themselves “math people,” Kepner says. “Bring up motivating things along the way,” he says. “With skateboarding, for example, there can be some really interesting algebra concepts to analyze.” For instance, teens could express the curve of a ramp as a parabolic equation or determine the speed needed to reach a certain height in a jump.

Students may use complex calculators in math classes, but they still have to make important decisions, Kepner says. “We have some powerful tools, but they’re just tools. The questions for students to consider are ‘When do I use it?’ and ‘How do I use it?’ ”

License to Freedom

For parents, the most stressful aspect of junior year may not be their child’s precalculus course but rather the fact that their child is now old enough to drive. Many parents are already grappling with how much freedom their child can handle. Now they have to determine whether their child is ready for the ultimate key to freedom: a driver’s license.

For many parents, the driving decision forces them to think about how much freedom is enough to give a teenager and how much is too much. Parents don’t want to get into a power struggle or alienate their child, but they want to make sure their child is mature enough to manage the freedom. Ultimately, it’s a step along the fine line between being cautious and being overprotective that starts at birth.

Some students—even good students—will be tempted to use their newfound freedom to ditch school and neglect schoolwork. High schools have resources that can help, Gomez-Lee says. She advises giving kids some independence but still making sure they’re following through on their responsibilities: “You’re still a partner in their education.”

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.