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It’s not time to leave your child completely on his own yet when it comes to school.
Too often parents who have stayed at home or worked part time think that sixth or seventh grade is the time for them to start working full time. That’s a mistake! The switch to middle school is a big step-often even bigger than going to high school. Middle schools tend to be big-more than twice or even three times as big as the elementary schools that students are coming from. Kids feed in from sometimes as many as six or seven elementary schools. To top that off, instead of moving through the day with the same set of kids, most middle school kids regroup every period. A student is lucky to be in class with someone he knows much less a friend.
The curriculum really does get harder.
The content standards for early adolescence make a jump in the amount of critical thinking and problem solving required. The pace is relentlessas the emphasis is on getting through the whole list of standards rather than mastering a few key ones. At my school, when we looked at the 6th graders’ marks, they were lower first trimester than second and lower second than third. Even the best students wobbled a bit while adjusting to the change in academic expectations. Parents should know this and reassure their kids that they will figure out how to handle middle school work given time, but most schools don’t give parents that information.
Middle School teachers get “harder.”
The biggest change, however, is the mentality of middle school teachers. Unlike elementary school teachers who see their primary goal as encouraging self-esteem and a love of learning, junior high teachers lean towards focusing on kids accepting that a lot of life is about jumping through hoops and doing things in a certain way. Docking points for incorrect paper headings and throwing away papers with no names on them is common practice.
Students will complain their teachers are mean. We don’t see ourselves as mean. We see that we are the last stop before high school where kids can still get low grades with no consequence to their long-term future. We feel it is our job to teach what high school is going to be like before it counts towards graduation and college admissions. In 6th-8th grade, grading shifts from assessment of a student’s ability to an assessment of her performance. That means the student who has skated by on test scores and an occasional brilliant project is now going to learn that consistency and attention to detail are actually more highly valued. These are important skills to learn before high school.
It feels like parents are not wanted, but that is not true.
Parents often feel left out of the equation in middle school. Because their children might say they don’t want them there and because there is no room parent organizing volunteer activities, they feel unsure of how to be a part of school or, worse, they feel unwelcome. While it is true that you might not be asked to man math centers every week, it is not true that parents are not needed or wanted. Being involved at school in any way gives you a chance to stay connected with your child at time when his instinct is to shift toward his peers.
Even if you do not volunteer in your child’s class, by finding a volunteer job at school, you will hear more about what is going on. You will learn what clubs and activities are available to your child and will be able to encourage her at home to participate whether it is the joining the soccer team or signing up for the spelling bee. As you fold flyers or stuff envelopes, you will overhear gossip about which administrators are supportive and which are a waste of time to approach. You will learn the rational for the new homework policy and what teachers are doing to prepare kids for the state tests.
Middle school is a time for parents to step back, but not to step away.
Parents are still a child’s touchstone. They are still the best person to help a child process what she is experiencing. Getting grades based on percentages for the first time can be a real blow to the ego. A child’s sense of himself can be seriously shaken as he will associate his grade with how smart he is. A parent can help a lot by making the distinction between intelligence and following procedure and letting a child know that both are a part of being successful in life. Parents can continue to be there as a sounding board, but if in the past they have done most of the talking, it is time to develop deep listening skills. Asking your child, “What is your next step here?” might get you farther than, “Here’s what you should do.”
What does stepping back look like?
Stepping back might take the form of letting a child suffer the consequences of lost or incomplete homework without swooping in to defend the child. (Do continue to offer a lot of empathy that it feels awful to have worked hard on something and then not get credit for it because of one little mistake-like not putting your name on your paper or forgetting it on your desk at home.) Stepping back can mean not micro managing students’ projects but asking questions like, ‘What’s your plan for spreading out the work of the project?” or “Have you done your best work?” or “What part of this paper are you especially proud of?” When students get graded work back, instead of focusing on the grade, parents can ask, “What is your plan for doing better next time?” or “What resources do you have for getting help understanding this?” Above all parents can help their kids talk to adults at school not by doing the talking for them but by roleplaying how conversations with a teacher or administrator might go. In this way, a parent is still staying connected and supporting his child and at the same time allowing his child to stand on his own two feet.
These school years are the time for parents to stay connected and know what is going on, but it is also time for them to position themselves as guide rather than driver of their child’s life.