Helping Your Child Succeed in Middle School
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
The transition to middle school can be challenging for many students. Some have difficulty adjusting to its size and complexity. Others have problems adjusting to the social pressures of this setting. Still others have trouble adjusting to the academic expectations of middle school.
Students new to middle school may find the work more demanding, the concepts more difficult, the assignments longer, and the teachers less nurturing. Some of their teachers may have been trained as high school teachers and may conduct their classes more like high school than elementary school. The work habits that enabled students to get by in elementary school may be inadequate for success in middle school. These difficulties may emerge in the form of declining grades, lowered motivation, and a drop in self-esteem. Middle-school students overwhelmed by academic demands may even begin to exhibit behavior problems.
Most students in middle school eventually find their way — literally and otherwise. They gradually master the layout of the school, memorize their schedule, find ways to sidestep the social minefields, and learn to adjust to the increased academic demands.
Parents play a key role in helping their children navigate this maze. While parent involvement in their child’s schooling drops dramatically when their child enters middle school, research suggests that parent participation continues to be important in promoting school success throughout the middle and even high school years. Bear in mind, however, that parent involvement at the middle school level may take a different form than parent involvement at the elementary school level.
Your efforts to help your middle-school child begin with the messages you send to him about school. You can convey to him your commitment to education in a range of ways. You speak loud and clear about what you deem important when you insist that homework take priority over television, when you stress good school attendance, when you diligently attend parent-teacher conferences, and when you monitor homework. And you foster his interest in learning when you show an interest in his schoolwork, when you help him see the relevance of his school lessons, and when you expose him to a variety of learning opportunities outside of school.
In an effort to help your child adjust to the increased organizational and conceptual demands of schoolwork at the middle-school level, you may want to consider the following strategies:
- Encourage independence. By the time your child enters middle school, he should be responsible for keeping track of homework, test dates, and project deadlines. Do not assume this responsibility for him. He should also be able to handle most classroom problems without your help, including clarifying instructions from the teacher, requesting extra help, or questioning a grade. If a problem warrants your meeting with a teacher or counselor, make sure to invite your child to the meeting.
- Be available. While your middle-school child may be insistent on dealing with many concerns on his own, your support remains crucial. At the same time your child will likely be less receptive to your help in middle school than he was in elementary school. Don’t insist on working with him unless he is performing very poorly but make yourself available if he asks.
- Be prepared to act if problems emerge. If your child’s grades or motivation decline dramatically, take a close-up look. He may be overwhelmed by the work or distressed by other concerns. With middle-school students, peer issues are often the culprit. Also take a look at his study habits. If his school problem continues, contact his guidance counselor or primary teacher and arrange a face-to-face meeting with his teachers.
- Foster good study habits. You can do this by setting limits on your child’s use of the television, computer and telephone, all prominent activities of middle-school students, and, if necessary, teaching him how to budget his time and organize his work area. In addition, encourage him to keep track of homework by using an assignment pad, and project and test dates by using a calendar. Also encourage a regular time for reading every night.
An important focus of the middle-school curriculum is to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills. Students are thus encouraged to look beneath the surface of a topic and go beyond the information given. In this way, they are better equipped to analyze situations and solve problems.
Parents can help develop their children’s critical thinking skills in the process of interacting with them. You can encourage your child to think on his own by showing interest in his ideas and his questions. Also ask him questions designed to make him consider ideas he may not have thought about. But rather than asking yes or no questions, instead ask questions that begin with “Why do you think . . . ?” And middle-school students are not too young to have a discussion about current events.
Also consider using your child’s experiences to develop his problem-solving skills. For example, if he is not sure whether to pursue Boy Scouts or play soccer, allow him to struggle with this problem and show confidence in his ability to solve it. If he gets stuck, help him to think through the problem by analyzing the pros and cons, evaluating the possible solutions, and then having him choose the solution that he believes works best.