#30 - How better tech habits result in better grades with Dr. Tony Di Giacomo, Founder of Novella Prep

September 12, 2023

Episode Summary

In this week's episode of The Aro Podcast, we have Tony Di Giacomo, Founder of Novella Prep on as a special guest to talk all things back to school. With Tony's extensive experience in admissions, teaching, and research, he brings a wealth of knowledge to the table. Tony and Joey discuss how parents can instill responsibility in their children and create routines that will shape their habits throughout high school. Tony also shares valuable insights on navigating the different academic transitions from elementary to middle school and then to high school. And don't miss out on their discussion about college applications and selection, where Tony offers guidance and shines a light on the often-overlooked benefits of standardized testing. Joey and Tony also tackle the topic of the ideal level of parental involvement in their child's academics. Plus, Tony shares some invaluable advice for families gearing up for the back-to-school season. From establishing effective routines to managing digital habits, this episode is packed with practical insights to set your children up for a successful school year.

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Episode Transcript

Tony Di Giacomo (00:00):

We have to signal to the children what's important. The other is in the US the first thing we invest in as parents is typically not to help improve grades because most grades are relatively high until high school. So what do we invest in sports? And so I'm a big fan of sports. I'm a big fan of athletics, team building and all of that. It's wonderful. I did it too, but it's recognizing if we put too much of an emphasis on sports and it starts to pull focus from learning, it's hard to narrow that gap later on. And if you want to be a recruited athlete for D one or D three sports, we've seen direct correlations between your academic achievement plus your performance on the field. So I think as parents maintaining that balance and prioritizing the schooling and looking for how do I know if he or she is doing well relative to my expectations on a parent for them to be ready now, next year and in life.

Joey Odom (01:01):

Welcome back to The Aro Podcast. Hey, it's Joey Odom, co-founder of Aro. And you may or may not realize it, but it's back to school time. So this is something that's on the mind of parents and of kids. It's exciting, it's a little bit scary, and it's the time for people to get back in routines. We've noticed that RO usage has gone way up since school started, and it's no surprise because this is when we get into rhythms of life and summer's fun, but it's a little bit unpredictable and it's back to school time and time to get back to. So we wanted to bring in an expert on education on back to school. So we brought in Tony Di Giacomo, who runs Novella Prep. He founded Novella Prep and they have an interesting focus, and maybe it sounds a little bit obvious, but it's very unique and that's on holistic learning.

So Tony has, he's a PhD. He worked at the college board, which owns the P S A T, SS A T and ap. So he knows all the college prep stuff, but even with all that background, he goes to the core, to the holistic student and their motivations and who they are and what they want to do. And he talks a lot about how parents can come alongside their students as well to help set them up for success. I ask him at the end some tips, some back to school tips, and I think his answers will surprise you because very little of it was academic. It was a lot more holistic and stuff that we all need to hear. So you're going to love this discussion. There's also some interesting information on colleges and getting into college and how to prep for it and the habits that we set when we're in third grade and how they affect us when we're juniors in high school. So enjoy the conversation. It's really good. He's clearly a very smart guy, so at least there's one smart person on the podcast today. I hope you enjoy it. Sit back, relax, and enjoy my conversation with Dr. Tony Deo.

I'm betting few of us out there suffer from a constant phobia or two, it could be arachnophobia, the fear of spiders or acrophobia, the fear of heights, but especially right now we might also have a seasonal phobia, oliana phobia, the fear of school, but no need to fear. Our guest today is going to take all of that fear away and don't be afraid of all the initials after his name. That just means he is a lot smarter than I am here to cure. Your s sc phobia is founder of Novella Prep, Dr. Tony Dimo, Dr. Tony, Dr. What should I call you? Should I call you Tony? You can call me Tony Call. I like it. So you're going to take all our fears away. We got a lot. It's back to school time. People are afraid of school. Parents are afraid of school, and you're here. Everything's going to be better, right? It'll

Tony Di Giacomo (03:45):

All be okay.

Joey Odom (03:47):

That's great to hear. Well, I want to jump in. We're going to talk back to school. We're going to talk routine stuff, very practical things. But before that, I want to talk a little bit about your background in novella prep. And I'm really interested in, and I'll talk about your background here in a little minute, but to begin, you begin very holistically. And so it's not just all kind of practical academics, it's holistic and meeting the holistic needs of students. Will you elaborate on what that means and this approach to the holistic beginning holistically?

Tony Di Giacomo (04:24):

Yeah, this journey really started when I was doing some advising for Tims and Pisa. These are international assessments. When you hear that Finland or Singapore is ranked number one in the world in education, these are the instruments that drive this understanding of comparison. And when we started to evaluate what was different or unique, what were they doing that we weren't doing? A lot of people get caught up in number of teachers and the funding per pupil, what I honed in on was how do we spend our time from when we get home to when we go to bed? We call that the essential eight at novella. And I realized also and observed this outsized impact on factors that are not directly related to learning, but have a direct impact on learning such as your sleep movement, mobility, screen time, but not just time, how it's used and when it's used and attitude mindset toward school. We think about attitude, grit, focus, things of this nature. And so it became clear that a holistic approach was going to be necessary to shape and improve education in the United States, not just focusing on single subjects at a time. So that's what led us to this holistic approach of looking at the whole student their whole life, their whole day, and pulling together better routines.

Joey Odom (05:49):

So then where do you begin on that? It's easy obviously to then say, here's how a math equation works, right? So how on earth do you begin on all of those external factors? Where do you start in that whole preparation of the

Tony Di Giacomo (06:05):

Holistic? Yeah, it really all begins in the night. It begins with sleep. It is everything. It is everything. If you have a child that is tired due to a lack of sleep, you have a mind not ready to receive new knowledge, a new intervention or sustain habits at all. So we have to start with that. And the threat to sleep is usually a digital device and also having a clear family policy around what our expectations. So we start there. If we don't have that bedrock sorted out, we're not likely to move the needle on any other indicator that we're measuring.

Joey Odom (06:45):

Wow. And then you guys novella, you have the three rss. Will you walk through what the three Rs are, how they factor into this holistic method of teaching and learning?

Tony Di Giacomo (06:58):

Absolutely. So when we think about retention, that's what you are needing to remember to be able to operate in school. This correlates with that feeling of am I a good test taker or not? How accurate is your gauge in determining your readiness for an upcoming test? And a lot of that has to do with how do we determine if you're ready before you have a test? In other words, have you retained the knowledge you need to tell the teacher, yes, I understand this, right? All a test is the teacher sampling your knowledge and you're telling 'em, yeah, I got it. And a lot of times we have this feeling like, yeah, we do, but we don't because we haven't really evaluated that. And so part of what we're seeking to really do is try to tell the student that retention is a function of routine, building good habits over time to increase that probability.

So then we have responsibility, right? You're responsible for what you're taught, and so that means that you may need to build relationships with your teacher that are new and different than they were before. It might've been I'm not doing well because the teacher doesn't like me. Newsflash, most teachers like most students, and that attitude and mindset comes from you are not engaging with them as a true self. You're engaging with them as a B student who's not feeling overly confident. And so what we're trying to do in that case is get them to reframe their relationship with the teacher by going in and saying, listen, I want to do a little better this quarter than last quarter. I want some help to figure out what I need to do differently. Can you help me? There is not a teacher in this country that wouldn't respond to that question.

The problem is, as a teenager, what you're communicating through nonverbal language is not that when you often are underperforming. And so it's really recalibrating and projecting forward this desire to improve and some vulnerability. So taking responsibility and part are who are the people in your life? And so that ties into the relationships part of it, which I'll circle back to. But the other part of responsibility is saying that your grades are yours. If you want them to move, you have to do something about it. But most students aren't taught appropriate study skills. They don't know how to do it. Anytime I ask them, what do you need to do differently to improve? They almost always say, try harder. That is vague. You can't measure, try harder. So what we like to teach are things that they can measure so they know if it's working or not.

So when we think about responsibility, we think about a student's grades as one metric, not the only metric, but one metric of how well they're doing in school. And when we look at it and say, listen, if you want to do a little better this quarter, there are things you as a student need to do differently. You may not know what to do because you have not been taught what to do differently. That's where being taught study skills is essential. But part of it is recognizing that these are your grades, the reflection of your effort, your time, your routines. And so we need to modify each of those indicators to become responsible. So it's changing the dynamic from that teacher isn't like me, it's why I'm getting a B, I'm not a math person, that's why I'm getting a B. I'm not a good test taker.

That's why you can note all of those are exogenous reasons. It's really you and your routines. But the mystery is what do we do? How do we fix this? So that's one of the things we teach back to the relationships part. When we think about the teachers are the greatest resource we have access to as students, we spend the most amount of our time around them and they're under utilized. Most of them want to do better than they're doing the teachers and the students and their dynamic. So if the student can be trained on how to better access the knowledge the teacher has and shift the mindset toward growth away from proficiency, even in a proficiency model, you can see growth. But teachers are all wired to worry about student stress. So they're not going to keep pushing for improved grades quarter over quarter. There is no school that we've had any exposure to in America that has a growth approach to quarterly, over quarterly growth. And it's very bizarre. And it's because they're worried about student wellbeing and they think by encouraging accountability and encouraging or aspiring toward higher levels of performance, we're going to stress the kid out. But what if we teach our way there? That's the question I like to ask. What if you teach the kid how to get there in a healthy way and they do so more efficiently with more confidence. So that's how the three Rs end up framing this discussion.

Joey Odom (11:43):

Just to hit on the relationship side, it's so true. I talked to my kids about this a bunch on a 15 year old and a 13 year old on going to talk to their teacher. And when you do that, and by the way, I wouldn't have gotten this when I was a student when I was their age, but to see it now from a teacher's perspective, this is their job. I mean, if teacher is a history teacher, they love history and a child going and asking about history that's taking an interest in that person's job. And everybody loves talking about themselves and loves talking about what they're passionate about. And so there's nothing greater than a student could do than go to their teacher and just ask about it and show some genuine interest. And then one, you'll learn which is the primary importance. Then two, if you'll get the benefit of the doubt because the teacher sees that, oh, you're trying, this is actually something that's important to you. But explain that to a 13 or 15 year old can be a little bit challenging at times, but it is such a valuable thing in general, and it's a life skill just going and advocating for yourself for when you don't know something raising your hand.

I'm curious, as you were walking through the responsibility piece of it, it requires a teacher who's pretty honed in on a student to see what their needs are. And so for a novella student, for someone in that setting, it's probably a little bit more easy to take that intense amount of focus. How about for somebody whose child is just at a school and whether it's homeschool or private school or public school, charter school, whatever it is, how do you begin as a parent to come alongside your child and help them kind of embed those pieces of responsibility if they're not somebody who's in a school like novella that's so focused on it?

Tony Di Giacomo (13:26):

So as parents, one of the roles we have is recognizing of course that kids don't come with owner's manuals. And so we're not experts on all things. We have to become experts. We have to navigate as best we can, and we tell that to our families too. No matter on what timeline, you seek out an intervention from any expert, you're doing the best you can with the knowledge you have. But one of the things to recognize is there are certain pathways and tracks in the education system that you have to pay attention to that you may not be aware of, and you need to adapt to provide interventions at appropriate times. Some of the habits we see in high school students who start with us in high school, those habits start in third grade. Almost every routine you have in high school reflects a third grade student.

And so it's recognizing at that time when you unpack and have these deep dives with students, you realize they've been doing this for their entire academic career. It just manifests in high school because that's when rigor catches up with us. In US schools, rigor doesn't really catch up to us until 11th grade. That's when we have too much homework. And arguably in some cases, too much rigor. Up until then, a 90 in middle school should be treated like almost like a C in a way. So the separation between the highest performing students and the lowest performing students within a reasonable spread is narrower in middle school and elementary school. So it's hard as parents to look for what data do I look at as a parent to say, we might need to do something about this. We're not saying a 90 is bad. We never use those binary terms, right?

But a 90 in middle school means you're underperforming, most likely over half of your class, maybe three quarters of your class in a high performing school district and in a lower performing school district, maybe that spread is a little bit larger, but even then the spread is not that big. But when you get to high school, that's when the separation really becomes clear. And when that happens, it feels like it was too late. So what I always tell parents is when you're transitioning from an elementary school to a middle school or a middle school to a high school, that's a great opportunity to evaluate what track is my kid on? Because in America, we track kids, right? And they're on certain math pathways and English pathways, and that in eighth grade separates you and affects which colleges you can even possibly consider. And so you're telling you're not putting that stress on an eighth grade kid.

That's not fair. And it's not fair to a parent to say you should have known these things before. But the truth is, when you're on that different math and English track from eighth grade onward, you now just shaped the schools you have access to as an applicant, typically controlling for a few variables. And so the decision to build in better routines really needs to be addressed way earlier with mention of college without mention of life after high school, this is just a better way of living life, being organized, having agency, reducing stress. It's just a better way to live as a student and as an adult. So a parent can recognize smaller bits of data earlier and think that and realize that they're a little more important than perhaps they're recognizing in that moment because they're thinking, oh, a 90 in middle school doesn't matter because it doesn't affect college. But that's not the right way of looking at it.

Joey Odom (16:53):

Yeah, there's so much it feels like more than when I was growing up. It feels like there's so much more college pressure now. And it is to your point, from a very young age on the pressure of college and you hear all these studies about how kids are so stressed out about getting in a quote, good college. Will you talk a little bit about that? And it's, I like what you just said, and you probably pre-answered the question. We just said, Hey, this is just a better way to live life in doing these things. But you're also here novella and you are here to help prep people to get into the colleges they want to. So how would you classify a good college? What would be a good college or what should people be aspiring to and how should we as parents be talking about college starting? And you said some, but between elementary, middle, high school that this whole, so maybe it's more of an amorphous question just around getting into college, good college, what should we focus on? What should we be aspiring to?

Tony Di Giacomo (17:54):

It's a great question and there are a few layers for us to unpack, right? So first of all, one of the ways we think about supporting students is using the word navigating. We're navigating helping the child navigate. And we think of it in education we call a tertiary education because I don't think of it as college as the only choice. We've had students where using study skills to get through high school to go to the navy was their paramount singular goal. For me, that kid, getting into the Navy and graduating high school was one of the greatest achievements of our company. Just like the kid getting into a very highly slick school like a Penn or a Dartmouth or the kid where SS M U or U C L A was literally their top choice. So the relative success to the child's performance, their resume and the activities they've done is really where we find joy.

It's not about finding this simple understanding of a good college being a select college. It is about fit, but it's also about what the child has access to. All students in America do not have access to all colleges in America, and there are many reasons why, but a good college needs to provide a couple different things. One is going to be a population of students that surround your child so that they're able to find their way toward being their best in terms of character, in terms of getting support to make the most of the investment you're making as a parent and the opportunity they have as a learner. Many colleges, and let's take a look at US News and World Report. We are as professionals less concerned about the actual ranking of the school, but more about using it as a filtering mechanism. And if you think about it, a lot of schools take SUNY Binghamton.

SUNY Bingington is going to have, so the state University of New York, their flagship campus is going to have probably more valedictorians and high achieving students than most other lower ranking private schools. It's just kids who maybe didn't have the financial support to go to a private school or the desire to spend their 5 29 right away. Maybe they're saving it for grad school. And so you can be surrounded by a population of incredibly brilliant students who are really motivated and faculty who are really well credentialed and prepared to train you. And so it's not like you're necessarily going to learn more from a school that is more select. One of the differences that selectivity offers is it's a social filter. We presume that a school that is very highly select that that person is smart, that we can trust their knowledge. And there are times when it's true and there are times when it's not true, but the landscape of who's going to those schools is changing.

So what we like to tell our families is when you're picking a list of schools, you're harvesting a crop that's been planted long ago. So what we're doing to help navigate is helping them understand the choices they've already made. If you're a college advisor and you're working with a senior and you just met them six months or a year ago, you're helping them organize and understand to navigate a really complicated decentralized process that is very unfair to students, we're helping them get through that in a healthy way. Worry about things that matter, don't worry about things that don't matter, but also recognize you've already made a bunch of choices, how many things you've done, what you've done, the alignment of your major with who you are as a person and the choices of extracurriculars you've made, your academic achievement, your test scores, you've made a lot of choices already as a family and as a student, we're helping you understand that choice.

It's almost like a bit of the matrix a bit, right? Helping them understand choices they've made. But there's also, they're teenagers. They're not going to double check that application materials were received. They're not going to engage schools necessarily. They don't know how to make sense of this really complicated mess on top of a stressful year that is a very public social media focused enterprise. And so for us, it's about peacefully and helping them navigate through this optimizing where it's possible, but does having in their voice, in their words, tell their story in a way that makes sense and then appreciate whatever the school outcomes are, the best possible outcomes that were available to them. And realizing that success in this world is more about what you do with your brain, your knowledge and aligning who you are and your natural talents with skills and demonstrating those skills out in the world that's more important than the name of the school. But we can't ignore that more select schools have a perceived value that helps you when you're getting plucked for interviews or internships. And so that exists. But you'll notice on our website and our whole enterprise, we don't celebrate selectivity. We celebrate alignment of who you are with what you're meant to do and helping connect those dots. And that also tends to lead to our more successful human.

Joey Odom (22:52):

It is very interesting when I think my suspicion is you don't see a lot of people who would say, I think there's a perception. People say there's the right school and then there's everything else. It's almost like the college is your soulmate or something like that. There's one college soulmate out there for you. But I think my guess is that few people would say, I made the wrong choice. I bet you a lot. It's just a new experience for everybody. You can't experience both of them to determine which one was right, which one was wrong. You just have your own experience. And so it presents its own set of challenges. And for me, I didn't necessarily, I didn't go to an Ivy League school, but the school I did go to, it taught me very good social skills. It taught me a lot of great things. And then as an entrepreneur, I was a little bit more scrappy. Whereas if let's say you go to more of an Ivy League school, you go down a little bit of a different path, maybe more of a traditional laid out path for you, which may or may not be good. So to your point, which I really, really like is you're finding what fits for who you are, and would you agree with that statement? Hey, it's not necessarily about the right or wrong, it's just your own experience.

Tony Di Giacomo (23:58):

Yeah, there's definitely not one school that is the only school that's a right fit for you. And often students when they're beginning the journey, their focus is on food and campus. They're not digging deep into faculty bios and on internship conversions to employment. But those are the things that matter. You're possibly spending $320,000 on higher education. It's a very large investment slash commitment depending on how you want to look at it. And so it's really more about archetypes. That's how we like to tell students you really shouldn't be applying to national universities. So all the traditional universities that have research enterprises versus liberal arts colleges or technical schools, there're really three kinds of schools. The bigger filter is going to be geography more than anything else. Are we applying nationally or regionally? And then within that is looking at selectivity. But this question of there's only one school that's the right fit for me. What ends up happening is we have wonderful memories at the college we go to that ends up making us feel like that was the right school for us. Well, life is one way. You can't go back and have lived it differently. But it's mostly that that institution is correlated with a lot of wonderful growth and memories that more than that specific school alone could have met that need.

Joey Odom (25:16):

If you've not listened to the episode with Dr. Maxie Meyer, please go back and listen to it. It's so enlightening. I actually got an email from Christie in Mount Vernon, Washington talking about that episode. She said, Joey, I just listened to the episode with Dr. Maxie Meyer and really enjoyed it. I found one of the last points especially helpful that unlike trying to recover from an addiction, just changing a couple habits helps us transform our behavior quickly. It resonated with me because the many happy hours of piano playing, reading, writing, and just being that I've enjoyed this week have already made my phone feel less interesting to me even when it's not in the box. And I didn't expect that to happen immediately or at all. And it was so interesting to hear the data that users initiate almost 90% of phone use rather than notifications we receive.

That feels absolutely true. Once I have my phone in the box, there are fewer nudges to pick it back up than I expected. FOMO and our culture's productivity compulsion are powerful. Christie, thank you for that email. If you've not listened to that episode with Dr. Maxi Meyer, please go back and listen to it. It's so great. And send us feedback on our episodes. We love hearing that. Please drop comments wherever you listen to your podcast and now back to this week's episode. Yeah, I totally agree with that. And everybody, listen, that should take a little bit of pressure off. There's not that one college soulmate out there where you're going to be fine. Before we go into, I want to talk very practical back to school thoughts for families, but before we do, there's an interesting piece in your bio that I am curious about is your time at the college board.

So you spent time at Maryland and U V A and Boston, but then you work the college board. The college board owns and operates P S A T S A T, the Advanced Placement Programs. So that's insider knowledge that I think all of us need. So drop some insider knowledge on us on the which as a side note, it's interesting that you're even knowing probably how to game that system a little bit. You still focus holistically, which I think is really, really neat and really interesting that yeah, I can teach you how to do these things, but I also want to focus on who you are and what motivates you. But maybe the real question is on the college board, tell us a little bit about what should we know about that college prep, the stuff that you learned there to help. And maybe I'm not looking for a hack here, but do you have any good hacks for us?

Tony Di Giacomo (27:35):

No, it's really interesting. So when I was going to choose the next phase in my career, I wanted to better understand testing and assessment. I saw that as growing in importance when no Child Left Behind was funded, there was a focus put on accountability, and the way they measured accountability was standardized testing. And so we saw this huge growth in standardized testing. Basically what we're saying is we want our school system to perform better, so we need to measure where we are and then make some decisions about what to do differently. And so then the focus ends up being on the standards, on teacher training, on class size. There are all these different offshoots and sidebar nobody's looking at from when they go home to when they go to bed as the single biggest influence on what happens the next day, which is why I did.

But I saw that testing was something to better understand. And I also knew that when I was in my studies, I saw the role of testing that played internationally as well, and the way in which it can support or narrow the way we address and leverage our school system, meaning it can be helpful, but it can also sometimes drive changes that are not desirable. So I thought working there would be really interesting. And so I worked in membership for a while and that's where I got to meet directors of admission from across the country, have real conversations with them about how do you pick classes? What are you looking for in a student when you say this process is holistic and you're trying to look at the whole student, are you really, or is it really a 10 minute read, a 10 minute review, and what is the filter you use?

Right? And then fast forward a bit when I was working in the research department and later on into more international research as well, what it led me to understand was this, there still remains a very limited understanding in the general public about testing. There's an outsized influence put on testing hurting kids and not recognizing opportunity that testing reveals, right? So some of these assessments you receive when you're in middle school or even elementary school, there are data points that I'm picking up on and my team are picking up on that we see tracks all the way through high school later to the S A T itself or a C t for that matter. And it's just that I don't think as parents we're trained on what to do, what do we do with these data points? And when we look at the SS A T, it is literally built to predict college G P A.

That's it. It's not a test of potential, it's not a test of intelligence. It's been changed so much from when it originally started that a lot of the biases and misconceptions about it are wildly untrue. So what I got to understand when I met the people who literally make the tests, I was friends with some of 'em. They're actually very fun people. I realized that when you look at a longitudinal study 10 years of how does this kid do when they get to college and were we right? Did we guess and estimate what their G P A in college was going to be? When you factor in course rigor, how hard are the classes you take AP scores, how well did you do on your AP exam? And SS A T, same could be said for a c t. They're able to predict a very high degree of accuracy, your probable G P A at any given college you apply to.

Wow. So it is a very helpful tool to determine if we admit this kid, are they going to graduate in four years? And you need to know that because are they going to take additional resources? Are they going to drop out? Nobody wants that, right? So sometimes not getting in protects you from being in a population of people. Like if you're running New York City Marathon, you don't want to be with the five minute milers. If that's not what you're accustomed to, you're going to get trampled. So part of it is helpful, but part of it is also that colleges, there are too many applications being submitted to schools. Students are applying to way too many schools and the common app and the consortium of universities needs to cap how many schools students can apply to. But there would have to be some contingencies there where they're guaranteed at least somewhere.

And because what ends up happening is the probability of a student who's admitted going to the school is increasingly narrowing. So where the testing can help is in understanding a few things. If you have a low SS a T score, it doesn't mean you're not a good test taker. It probably means you weren't that good in algebra and didn't know you weren't that good in algebra because you got an A minus and thought an A. That 90 I was telling you about earlier was fine and it was going to be fine. They're going to be fine. No, that 90 translates to a 1200, and it's just that we didn't address core subject matter mastery early enough, and it's showing up on the test. Now, there is true testing anxiety that can show up and hurt your score. That is a real thing. Most of the time it's your skill level that it's revealing and it's cold and it's harsh and we don't admit it.

But with that said, it also is interpreted by admission officers based on where you would go to school. So for lower income areas where they don't have access to test prep, the expectation of the score is different than a more affluent area that has access to test prep. So it's not being used unfairly in an inequitable way. It's being used relative and normed. That's a psychometric term to the population where you're applying from to game the system. One thing that I've learned is this admission officers are really good at reading through to the truth of an application. That's one of their greatest skills. And you can tell when you read an application, if it's been manhandled by a parent with adjective that are not befitting a high school kid. And so the first thing we tell parents and the student is, listen, the essay is going to be your words.

We're not putting any words in your mouth and nor should you, but it should be one of the best essays you've written that reveals who you are as an applicant. So they understand what they're choosing from a score perspective. It's really helping them understand where they're at. But this idea of gaming the system, those days are over. Legacy is going away. And what it's reeling is a true system that is on one hand holding accountable actual performance. But also there is some unfairness because they're oversampling populations of kids that are getting in and some are being forgotten. And so where I think the testing can help is reveal the level of preparedness for college. But there are benefits, there are cons to it. It's complicated. What I would say is this, the higher you perform throughout your entire academic career, the more likely you're going to have higher test scores. The more you prepare for your AP exam, by mastering the content over a longer period of time, the more likely you're going to perform better. So it's really boring advice. It's kind of like you want to be in good cardio shape, do cardio workouts.

Joey Odom (34:39):

Yeah. Right. Yeah, it's so true. Which is as with anything in life, right? There really aren't the shortcuts. And you do the things that you know you're already supposed to do, which is do well. So one thing you said earlier, which I thought was really, really interesting is your habits beginning in third grade are showing up in 11th grade. What's the foundation you're setting for yourself? Which actually leads me to a question related to parental involvement and I think the level of parental involvement from elementary to middle to high school, will you talk through how maybe a general framework for parents as they're thinking how involved they need to be with their child from helping guide them to letting it become their own? So that transition from elementary to middle to high school,

Tony Di Giacomo (35:26):

Teaching personal agency is one of the things I'm noticing generationally that needs to happen when we advocate on behalf of our child. There are times when that's appropriate. There are times when it's more appropriate to teach the child to advocate on behalf of him or herself. That's one thing.

I think as parents, we also need to try to understand in any given conversation that we're having with our child or with a teacher, how much of what you're seeking to optimize and what you're trying to understand is triggered by feelings you have as a parent and how your child's performance reflects upon you and what your value system is. So if you have, let's go back to our friends in third grade, you got a third grade kid. So we think, all right, they've been in school all day, let 'em play all afternoon. They can do their homework later. It's only 15 minutes. What kind of habit is that kid going to have in high school? And so what we realized is yes, they've been playing all day, burn some energy on the playground for 15 minutes, go home, get a drink, some water, a snack, let's get our studies done, maybe do a little extra practice on stuff we're shaky on now go play and you've got hours to go play.

So it's saying we have to signal to the children what's important. The other is in the US the first thing we invest in as parents is typically not to help improve grades because most grades are relatively high until high school. So what do we invest in sports? And so I'm a big fan of sports. I'm a big fan of athletics, team building and all of that. It's wonderful. I did it too. But it's recognizing if we put too much of an emphasis on sports and it starts to pull focus from learning, it's hard to narrow that gap later on. And if you want to be a recruited athlete for D one or D three sports, we've seen direct correlations between your academic achievement plus your performance on the field. So I think as parents maintaining that balance of and prioritizing the schooling and looking for how do I know if he or she is doing well relative to my expectations on a parent for them to be ready now, next year and in life.

And if you don't know, there are people you can ask. So I think that's important to realize. And the refrain of, they'll be fine. They'll be fine. It doesn't matter at elementary school, it catches up with you at some point. But I think having a healthy perspective is key. We're not doing this for college, we're doing this for life, even college planning. We're helping connect you from where you are to that next step in your life, but it's really teaching you things that are going to be helpful in college and beyond. If you do it right, it's not about the application, it's not about the college, it's about you. And so for the parent, I think don't have conversations about your child's academic achievement late at night when you're tired and feeling triggered, gather information, reflect and think and plan. But then you ask yourself, if my advice as a parent is not changing the behavior or the outcomes of my child, ask for help.

Joey Odom (38:27):

Yeah, that's really, really good. I want to talk back to school when this comes out. It'll be around labor day, a little after Labor day. So people are back to school. And so very practically, I want to talk through some of these, and you've been in education for 20 plus years. What are you seeing as these keys that families should be focusing on the most important things for back to school, that people even as they're listening today, could begin to implement this now and set this framework to have a successful school year?

Tony Di Giacomo (38:56):

It's a great question to figure out how to get ready for back to school. When earlier we spoke about the importance of sleep, obviously that's really important. Routine is really important. So students are going from a summer routine to a fall routine, having conversation with what we expect that to look like. How are we going to enforce it? What are the consequences of not following it, right? A lot of parents, if you're having the same conversation over and over again, your intervention approach is failing. You need a different intervention approach. You shouldn't be having the same conversation every day with somebody. And so about changing a behavior. So part of it is going to be recognizing there's a transition that needs to happen. We also want to have goals. As humans, we need goals to strive toward, right? When you're hungry, you needed to go find food and we needed to go search for it, you are motivated to get that food because you are hungry.

And so if you get a B in a class and you still get to go do that fun thing, have access to your phone and get to see your friends, nothing in your life is changing causally because of that B. And we're not saying, by the way, this isn't that B is bad. That's not what this is about. Arbitrary underperformance is bad and arbitrary underperformance comes when there's not a framework of expectations and accountability. Part of the next thing after sleep is going to be digital. The greatest inefficiency in American education is because of digital devices, right? It's the single biggest influence that we observe across over 50 school districts is the way in which people use digital devices and it's negative outsized impact on them. And we're huge proponents of technology. We're huge proponents of what these devices can do, but they're given to children without parameters for how to use them, for how to manage the way in which it increases utilization.

The way that many applications manipulate human psychology to use it more than you want, and it ends up affecting focus. It ends up affecting sleep. It also affects confidence, especially if on social media, negative things are happening. And so I think a more conscious look at access to and utilization of digital devices, particularly when to do it, how to do it, and what you get to do on it should be considered. The tricky part is there isn't a playbook on this as a human species, we're still figuring this whole thing out. But a lot of the apps that were built were not built by people who are really social people and they weren't built by people who celebrate human connection in a healthy way. And what's manifested in many cases are some of the more negative attributes of humanity. And students are navigating a complex social network during the day and an even more complex social network digitally. So I think having some conversations about what is a healthy amount of time or how we use it, not just screen time, but how we use it when we use it. And are we as parents doing the same?

Joey Odom (41:58):

I'm curious, will you give us maybe a couple best practices with maybe specific best practices that families should consider? I know it's around the conversation around that, but maybe a couple, Hey, here are a few things that I just think are must haves within digital disciplines.

Tony Di Giacomo (42:13):

Absolutely. So when we see a student who is, well, first of all, this is endemic this issue. And so I think one is a family contract. I think if you're going to sign a cell phone contract to get a cell phone, you should have a family contract for how to use it. When the kid gets a phone, they don't need a phone until high school. They don't need it for school. They don't need it to make play dates because you can give them an Apple watch, you can give them an iPad for home. They can have an Apple watch. So they know their location. They don't need a phone until high school. And part of that is a phone creates access to things that can be unsafe, can be negatively detrimental to their growth as a human being. We see the negative mental effects of that.

I think one, as a family contract for we're going to give you this device. And listen, we don't judge, we understand a lot of parents came in. We're inheriting the evolution of these devices and technologies and we're trying to figure out how do we manage this in a healthy way? And we're probably going to look back on social media, the way we look back from smoking now, the way we use it and the way we access it at some point. But until that time, just make a family contract. Keep it simple during dinner, no devices in the room, put it in your ro, put it in another room somewhere else, including mom and dad. Mom and dad modeled should model the behavior they wish to see when we're in transitional moments going from one activity to another. Do not be on your device. A lot of times we have a tendency as humans when we're transitioning from one activity to another to grab the phone. And often that's not the moment for peak productivity to dive into an Excel spreadsheet, to do some actual work of some kind. What you're actually doing is thinking you're going to another room. I got to quickly look and see what's going on in my digital world. No, you don't. You don't. And so modeling that behavior as parents, what we notice is when a parent reports that their child is on the phone a lot, it's often that the child's on the phone during transitional moments when they could be having a conversation.

And we noticed that parents think their kids are on the phone in some cases more than they are, and don't realize that they're on the phone more than they are. Both things can be true and the child under-report how much they're on the phone. But what I want people to look at, one family contract, dinnertime is important. Any other times when you feel I want to be heard and seen as a family. Also not phones right before bed. Kids should not be on phones right before bed. Should not be on video games right before bed. It's bad for your brain, everybody. Science is clear on that. That's unequivocal. But giving people downtime to escape into a digital environment can be fine. That's the modern way of taking a mini vacation in your brain. And that's fine. It's okay to do a little bit of that in a healthy and balanced way.

It's about moderation. But parents need a model. It too, when you're driving around town, you see at a stoplight, people getting on their phone to check, I dunno what they're checking, but they're checking their phones at stoplights. There's no need in that moment to check your phone. And so as adults, were addicted to these devices and we act surprised when our children are too. So I think part of it is clear expectations in the home. It needs to go in a box somewhere when we're doing our homework. That's the other, they don't need their phone for homework. Teenagers will manipulate parents to say, I need it to do with my homework. No, they don't. Many school students have Chromebooks or given Chromebooks or laptops, they don't need their phone to do their homework. That can go in a box and it literally needs to be in another room. It can't be in the same room as you. But start with moderation. Start with small goals. Be gentle, clear expectations and have a causality. If they don't do it, there has to be a consequence. You lose it for 24 hours, not a week, not a month. You lose it. 24 hours is the most painful thing you can do for a teenager in a digital device, not a month. They'll freeze you out and they'll wait it out. But a day when it's tantalizingly close can be more painful.

Joey Odom (46:20):

And consequences are such a good thing because consequences or maybe call it punishments. Punishments are to keep you from a greater future consequence. And you give something. Because if you do this, if you continue on this pattern of behavior with your phone, that's just going to cause you more harm in the future. So it's a slap on the wrist to avoid a punch in the face later, right? It's that small thing to avoid something greater later.

Tony Di Giacomo (46:44):

And we try to tell students this isn't, we use the word consequence because if you don't feel any consequence if you're standing on a precipice, if the risk of falling and getting hurt wasn't there, we wouldn't be scared. But we need to have that feeling to understand that, oh, we should be careful on this precipice, on this ledge. When you get a B plus in algebra, the world doesn't implode on you, nor should it. But there is a consequence to that later on that maybe becoming an engineer might be kind of tricky or a business major or getting into a more select school. And it's not that that is the most important way to measure yourself, but you just made a choice you didn't realize mattered later. That's the point. That's the thing that I focus on is more knowledge when it matters. So you can choose to act on it or not. And we use the word consequence because students don't often feel a direct consequence to their behaviors until much later on. So we try to put something that's appreciable in the moment, but you can't talk your way into better behavior. Just you have a discussion, you lay out the groundwork and then you implement it. It shouldn't be a dialogue after that,

Joey Odom (47:55):

Right? Yeah, exactly. You understand the rules. So yeah, there's no need to discuss further beyond that. What's one, I know we're getting to the end of your time here, so I want to be respectful of that, but what's one other kind of back to school practical. We've talked sleep, we've talked digital. What's one other thing, one or two other things that people could focus on in back to school and practical routines

Tony Di Giacomo (48:16):

Early on, identifying if any particular class or teacher is going to be require some additional attention, right? Maybe it starts off doing a review of last year and things are going well, then all of a sudden we hit the second quarter and it's all new material and it's going at a pace that's quick and we're finding ourselves having difficulty figuring it out. What we've noticed is typically students are not good at determining why they're underperforming and they don't know what to do about it. So when we have a conversation with them, oh, you're so bright. If you only tried harder or why don't you go see your teacher? Or let's throw a math tutor at them. We're putting a bandaid on the problem. The problem is teaching them how to figure out what do you know and what do you not know? And math is very easy to figure out, right?

English can be more complex, but even there, the routines for how you draft and write essays, your understandings of grammar, you can figure all of this out history asking one question, how could this event have gone differently? Can open the door to figuring out what you know or don't know about whatever you're studying. And so we go back to routine. So if a student is struggling, it's understanding that how they're approaching their subject needs to change. And it can't just be fixed by going on Khan Academy. Khan Academy is a powerful tool when used right? In fact, it's one of the first important interventions and it should be used more often by more students, but it has to be used in the right way. What am I not understanding and why? And what should I do about it? So having a parent help figure that part out for the kid so that it's not another year of whatever grade or a flat performance where the student says, no matter what I do, I don't see a resulting change, and so I'm not going to try harder anymore. And then they start to form an identity that I'm not a good math person or I'm not a good English person. But it's really no, your routine wasn't helping you grow. It's that simple.

Joey Odom (50:09):

Here's what I like about all three of those is I think that with, as a parent, and again with a middle schooler and a high school, it feels like a very big thing. I don't know what the heck to do. It feels like a very big thing. But what you just laid out was make sure your kids are getting good sleep. Make sure that your kids have proper boundaries, a proper relationship with their phone for the times that they need it and they don't. And then the third one is effectively being engaged with your child. And I imagine that with both my kids just saying, Hey, tell me about your teachers. Anyone you think you may have some challenges with their two weeks into school so far, or hazer one, it seems like this is going to be tough. And just staying on that, it's a five minute discussion a night, right? It's not a huge giant that we think it is. I think it's much more approachable than we might imagine.

Tony Di Giacomo (51:00):

Incremental small changes, creating a healthy lifestyle. If your kid's disappearing into the room for five hours, they're not studying all five hours, they might feel like they are, but they're not. And just making small changes and be patient, but put their values on the right things. Give them healthy boundaries and have reasonable expectations.

Joey Odom (51:20):

Tony, this is so helpful. People will want to learn more maybe how novella Prep can come alongside them. Will you tell us a little bit about how people can learn more about novella, learn more about you, and then how novella could come alongside them?

Tony Di Giacomo (51:33):

Absolutely. So first of all, go to our website, novella prep.com, two LSS and more information there. You can do a free consultation request if you so desire. We help students from as young as third grade through and including college where we help all kinds of learners, neurodivergent learners. We help students who are simply underperforming or even high achieving students who are maybe inefficient or perhaps stressed out about how hard everything is and helping figure it all out. And yeah, sure, we've got kids going to Ivy League schools all the time. We've got kids who are hitting their reach schools. We have kids who college is a bit of a question, and it's really just helping figure out who you are, what do you want to do and why. If we can answer those questions, you're more likely to find success.

Joey Odom (52:15):

I love that. Tony, thank you so much for your time, your wisdom. Appreciate it, everybody. We will go to novella prep.com. We'll put that in the show notes as well. But very, very grateful for your time and what you're doing, Tony. Thank you.

Tony Di Giacomo (52:25):

Thank you. I appreciate it.

Joey Odom (52:28):

Tony Giacomo is clearly a very, very intelligent person. He's very practical too, but again, like I said at the beginning, he knows all the stuff on how to get into colleges, but he still comes back to the holistic person. So when I asked him back to school, what are the tips and tricks, and what are the things we should be focused on, I expected an answer on academics. But he talked about sleep, he talked about digital habits, and he talked about intentional conversations with our kids. And it's just another reminder probably for me that I overcomplicate things, that I try to make things bigger than they are. When it gets down to it, it's all about our routines. It's a routine of good sleep. It's routine of good digital habits and modeling that with us as parents, for our children, for our kids, for our teenagers.

That's really important. And then it's those intentional conversations. It does require something of us, but it's not as much as we might think. It's a five minute conversation today, and that five minute conversation may last five minutes, or it may go on for half an hour or an hour, and hopefully so because then we uncover things that our kids are dealing with. But it also begins with us, how are we modeling? Are we modeling good digital behavior? Are we having intentional conversations with our kids? So I would encourage all of us, whether you have a second grader or a senior in high school, our kids are still looking to us and we still have a huge impact on them and just us being there, our presence, whether they're ready to open up at that moment, and we talk about it, we use this line a lot.

Billy Phoenix, who's a friend of ours in Atlanta, he says that quality time only comes from quantity time. So just being there, just being present and available for those intentional conversations are so important. So this was a conversation on education on Back to School, but it's just like anything. It's about so much more than that. It's about the whole person. It's about being holistic. So grateful for Tony Di Giacomo for that conversation. Please do go check out Novela Prep, as he mentioned, they do free consultation to families. Take advantage of that. This is a great organization with great people behind it. So many thanks to Tony Giacomo for this conversation. And thank you for listening in. I hope all of you have a great back to school. It's going to be a great year, and we look forward to seeing you again next week on The Aro Podcast. The Aro Podcast is produced and edited by the team at Palm Tree Pod co. Special thanks to Emily Miles for video and digital support, and to our executive producer Aro's own, Katelyn Farley.