Your Child's Middle School Success: Tips for Parents and Guardians

Jon Huxtable
With an overload of parenting advice available in a world that seems to be ever-changing for adolescents, we are sharing our tips for you to help your child as they navigate middle school.
Check-in Weekly
Each week, schedule a time for your child to walk you through any feedback they received from teachers that week. Place control in your child’s hand to show you the good, the not-so-good. Breezing through middle school is not an option when it comes to developing important academic and life skills.

Middle Schoolers Need to Feel Needed
Find ways to say, “Thank you.” Generations ago children between 11- and 14-years-old discovered that they had real value and could contribute to a family’s survival in important (not always fun) ways like milking cows, caring for younger siblings and grandparents or great-grandparents, tending gardens, even running errands. However, many of those real-world duties are now removed from the shoulders of the young. This is good because it leaves more time for learning, but does not necessarily fill the need of helping a young person better understand their value and ability to contribute to the world or even appreciate life beyond their own needs and perspective. By finding ways in which children at this age can contribute positively to the lives of others - mowing a neighbor’s lawn, shoveling snow from the sidewalk, taking ownership of meaningful chores around the house, or finding ways to serve others - they can earn heartfelt “thank yous,” which are more affirming and valued than any grade on a quiz or a test might be.

Can I Change? Will I Change?
As part of your weekly review of teacher feedback, make a habit of asking your child, “To what do you attribute your success/failure?” In other words, “Why’d you earn that grade or comment?” Listen carefully to the answer. Ideally, a child’s response will indicate a belief in his or her ability to affect the result. Responses like, “I worked hard,” “I took more time to review my notes,” or “I didn’t study the right materials,” indicate an internal and changeable locus of control. Essentially, the child believes that by changing his/her approach, the outcome could be different. Hearing responses like, “I’m bad at math,” or “The teacher doesn’t like me,” suggests that change is not within the child’s power. If you hear this, dig deeper, see if you can help your child understand that he/she might be able to affect change if a different approach is taken. If you are interested, more on “attribution theory” can be learned by examining the work of Carol Dweck from Stanford University. She is perhaps known most widely for her book Mindset, an examination of the powerful impact on learning that a “growth” mindset can have.

Failing Toward Success
To help reinforce the idea of growth through trial and effort, think about using the following as a dinnertime conversation starter: “What was your best mistake today?” This emphasizes the need to take risks, to be bold, and to embrace the learning that comes from mistake-making. Much of our science and computer science curricula is based on the concept of iterative problem-solving - trying until something works. Noting the value of making mistakes also reinforces the idea that one gets closer to a solution with each attempt. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Limit and Monitor the Devices
Set clear guidelines around the use of technology at home. Require that laptop use occur only in highly trafficked areas. Engage your child in a conversation about laptop use at home. Use mutually agreed upon time limits for non-academic use. Make sure your child understands that when the laptop screen is open, you should be able to see what is visible on the screen. A quick swipe of the touch pad or closing of the screen as you approach is a pretty reliable indicator of inappropriate use. When on the school network, teachers often utilize a screen monitoring program in order to view student screens remotely. While you might expect students to be opposed to such “big brother” monitoring, students have reported that they actually appreciate it because they feel less tempted to “wander” in their use of the laptop when they know their screen can be seen.

Peel Back the Blinders
Help students develop an awareness of perspectives beyond their own by asking a question like, “How might someone else feel about that?” Middle school students are naturally and understandably myopic in their awareness of the world beyond their own experience of it. “Self-centered” is a too often pejorative term applied to kids at this age when it is more often a simple statement of fact. The role of adults in middle schooler’s lives is often to provide a counter-narrative to self-centeredness, a prying back of the blinders that limit vision to lives, emotions, and experiences beyond the realm of personal experience.

You Cannot Solve Their Problems Any Longer
Perhaps the most important tool in the parent (and teacher) toolbox in working with students at this age is the calm, reflective, and earnestly delivered question, “So, what are you going to do about that? What’s your plan?” With their ever-increasing need for independence comes an equally compelling need for them to exercise responsibility and accountability. In instances when you might have previously jumped in and helped your child solve a dilemma he or she was facing, now is the time to begin placing that responsibility on her or his shoulders. Asking, “So, what are you going to do about that?” after listening to a rant or rave about the latest injustice or struggle or challenge, provides your child with an opportunity to problem-solve and to take responsibility for resolving. Obviously, guidance and some idea-generation may be necessary, and if your child is not ready to move forward a helpful parental prod might be necessary. “Would you like me to share this concern with your teacher so that the two of you might meet to figure it out?” might be a helpful next step forward.

Thanks to WFS Head of Middle School Jon Huxtable for his contributions to this article. 
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