In addition to looking for deep academic opportunities, many parents and guardians are hoping to find an environment that minimizes challenges of the social pressures and biological changes during the formative years in middle school. While our first instinct is to want immediate assurances that things will be “okay,” the truth is that the growth of our children into thriving adults is a process—a journey— and the experiences along the way can be key to preparing them for success in life. Kids are human, and the bumps they encounter at school are just as important as the successes.
A school’s commitment to maximizing true learning along this journey, bumps and all, is one of the most critical factors in determining what school is right for your family. And when the school’s approach is strongly aligned with family values, it helps build a trust that our children are growing to their full potential while we are busy with the demands of today’s world.
When looking for the right program for your middle schooler, there will be many things to consider, but here are three key questions to ask that can help you understand a school’s approach to learning that goes beyond surface-level facts and helps you gain a deeper understanding of their approach to preparing children to thrive.
1. How do you empower your students?
What is good to hear: Information about leadership opportunities in clubs, committees, student government, group work, performing arts, and athletics.
What to listen for: Responses that are more than just a list. Listen for points about the overall approach to education, especially actions taken on a situational or daily basis to ensure that each child is taking steps toward their own empowerment in a way that works best for them.
It’s important that a middle school provides opportunities for leadership, but for most students, an innate feeling of empowerment needs to be nurtured before they are ready to take on leadership roles. This happens when students learn how to challenge themselves, explain their beliefs, and come up with solutions (and when the adults resist jumping in and providing solutions). In the education space, it is imperative that teachers facilitate growth in these specific areas to enable students to discover key information about themselves. Education, at its core, is a time of discovery and facilitates the process of solidifying confidence and resourcefulness. Students should, after each year in the classroom, begin to take more ownership of their learning.
2. How do you address conflicts and other bumps in a student’s journey?
What is good to hear: Responses that talk about approaches to discipline, student codes of conduct, and policies.
What to listen for: Answers about environments that go beyond just the enforcement of disciplinary actions and use mistakes that students will inevitably make as teachable moments for that particular student and the class as a whole.
Students need the space to fail in a community that will be intentional in using such experiences as learning opportunities that ultimately help them grow. It’s important that students are given the chance to think about the consequences of their actions and to develop a game plan to work past mistakes, help heal those who may have been affected, and adjust their behavior in the future. This approach helps nurture students as empathetic, productive community members.
3. How does your program help middle schoolers handle challenges with self esteem?
What is good to hear: Descriptions of health and wellness courses that address self-esteem and school counselor roles within the school.
What to listen for: Evidence of a culture and program that understands that self-esteem begins with feelings of being in control and being valued, and provides hands-on opportunities for students to experience those feelings.
Middle-school aged children naturally want to feel important and have their own agency. And often these needs are met through less-than-desirable behavior that makes them feel powerful (just think about the times they roll their eyes at you or say something to a friend that drives them crazy.) But these needs can also be met by giving students the opportunity to exercise their “caring muscles” and learn what it means to earn an earnest thank you. Schools should have programs designed for middle school students to give back to their local communities, providing them with real-world contributions to something or someone bigger than themselves. These experiences help students understand the power of making a positive difference in the world and ultimately feel valued, an incredible source of high self-esteem.
There are so many things to evaluate when looking for a school that is the right fit for your child, but uncovering information about the approach and culture can help you find an option that not only provides rich academic experiences, but helps your middle schooler blossom into a confident, capable student in high school and beyond. To learn about Wilmington Friends School's middle school program, check out this podcast with Head of Middle School Jon Huxtable.
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