In December, Santa isn't the only one making lists and checking them twice. Thousands of college freshmen are doing the same as they wrap up their first semester and check to see if their GPA might earn them a spot on the honor roll.

Some will be disappointed. But remember, the first semester is a tremendous challenge, and making a successful transition from high school to college takes time and patience. A bad grade or poor first-term GPA isn't necessarily the mark of defeat. It should, however, be a powerful wake-up call. I tell my students that it's not the failure that defines you; it's how you learn from it and how you fix it that really matters.

That may be little consolation to parents who are accustomed to seeing only the best from their children, but knee-jerk reactions tend only to make the situation worse.

Below-average grades in the first term are often the outcome of a challenging transition. One of the central issues facing first-year students is understanding and meeting the challenges of a new academic environment, which include more rigorous courses; heightened expectations for independent learning; different learning strategies that require more synthesis, application, and reflection; and a need for more self-advocacy when concepts are unclear or confusing.

The changes outside the classroom are stark as well. Students suddenly have to juggle time management, a healthy social life, financial issues, and physical and emotional wellness.

These issues are even harder to handle for first-generation college students, who don't have parents who can relate because they faced the same issues years before. Navigating the higher-education labyrinth is challenging, and it is important for all students to develop a network of "go-to" people and resources for guidance.

The most important thing parents and families can do is communicate regularly with their students. Create opportunities for your student to talk openly about both successes and challenges, with a focus on the educational value of both. Ask questions that reinforce the importance of students taking action and ownership of their education. Encourage them to identify campus advisers or other people who can offer assistance and support.

It is important to empower students to work through their challenges and develop their own success strategies. From failure, we learn.

It's well-known that the high-school-to-college transition is a significant challenge, but it never fails to come as a surprise when it happens to your student. Colleges and universities nationwide have invested heavily in first-year student programs to help facilitate this transition.

Like many institutions, York College has developed a support program for students who are on academic probation (earning a cumulative GPA below 2.0). Rather than suspend them, we offer students the opportunity to improve their academic standing while working one-on-one with a professional mentor to identify the challenges that resulted in the poor performance.

After five years, this program has shown us that more first-year students are on academic probation than in any other cohort. We also know that the top 10 challenges, according to struggling students, are study skills, test-taking skills, test anxiety, time management, sleep issues, lack of motivation, poor class attendance, failure to use tutors and academic support services, submission of assignments late or not at all, and too much social networking.

It's easy to see how students can be tripped up on any number of these issues. But all of them can be overcome if students make a conscious decision to tackle them head on, and if they have the support of their family and the institution.

Debbie Ricker is the dean of academic services and a professor of biology at York College of Pennsylvania.

dricker@ycp.edu