Mastering Middle School

Let’s face it: the middle school years are tough. And yet these early teen years can be a marvelous time of growth and opportunity. The First Presidency encourages our youth to develop their abilities and talents and they firmly remind them, “You are accountable to Him for what you do with your abilities and how you spend your time” (For the Strength of Youth, 5).

Parents want their children to increase their ability to learn and to use their time wisely, but sometimes we’re so focused on surviving middle school that it’s difficult to help our children thrive as well.

As a former middle school teacher, I’ve spoken with hundreds of parents about their children. They struggle to know how to help their child. They want to know why Ashley hasn’t completed an assignment in three weeks and why Jake completes his homework but doesn’t turn it in.

Sometimes parents feel frustrated in their efforts to communicate with teachers and find themselves in what feels like a tug of war instead of a team effort to help their child. So, what can parents do? I’ve learned that solid study habits begin with teaching children time management and organization skills. Parents can also better support their children through effective communication with teachers. 

Organization 101

Most new middle school students are a mess. Oh, they might look organized with their handy new folders and their new-shoe smell, but have you ever thought about how much a middle school student juggles in her life? Students suddenly have at least seven classes to manage as well as extra-curricular activities, family events, church activities, and a social life, most of which needs to happen after 3:00 P.M.

The Student Planner

Many schools now provide students with planners. If your school doesn’t provide one, consider buying one. Ask your child to record his assignments for each day in his planner.

I found it especially effective to have my students divide the space for recording assignments in half. On the first side they would write what was done in class and the second side they recorded the homework assignment. For example, the English entry might say, “Learned how to diagram sentences” on the first half, and on the other half, “Homework—page 202 #1–10.”

The planner can also be an excellent communication tool for parents, students, and teachers. Parents can know not only about homework, but also about what happened in class that day. Teaching your child how to use a planner may not come easily. Expect that your child will forget, but keep following-up with him. This essential life management skill will pay big dividends now and in the future.

The Binder and the Backpack

Surprisingly, some students work hard to complete their assignments and then forget to turn them in. Often, they are accustomed to their elementary school teacher providing frequent reminders and they forget what’s required when given more responsibility for completing and handing in their work.

Encourage you child to use just one large binder with labeled dividers and folders for each class. Each folder should have two pockets. Reserve one side for class handouts and assignments in progress. The other side should be for completed assignments to be turned in. Reserve this space only for these completed assignments. Your child can simply make sure this side is empty at the end of each class.

Your child’s backpack can become a frightening black hole. Be brave. Remember when your child was six and you’d help him make sure all of his stuff was in there? You may want a revival on this practice in a nonchalant sort of way by encouraging a regular backpack clean out. That missing assignment may be lurking in a pocket with last week’s lunch.

Communicating with Teachers

When conferencing with parents, I was frequently asked, “If you see my child start to slip, please let me know.” Let’s say that a teacher has an average of five students failing in each class and she teaches six classes. This means the teacher would have thirty parents to contact on a weekly basis, not counting those students who are struggling in the C and D range.

Unfortunately, it’s not always realistic to expect your child’s teacher to contact you very regularly when your child starts to slip. Make it your responsibility to periodically contact the teacher and ask how your child is doing. You may also ask about your child’s behavior and what the teacher observes about him socially.

Many schools now have progress reports posted online and parents can access these reports anytime they want. Take advantage of this convenience. Ask your child to check-up on himself and report back to you. This can help him acquire more responsibility for his education. As you look at grade reports together, encourage your child to identify problems and determine what steps he must make to improve.

Teaching can be a rather thankless profession at times. Make an effort to express appreciation in your communication with teachers. Tired teachers can be much more willing to listen and help when they feel their efforts are appreciated.

Serious Problems

When problems become more serious with your child, whether because of poor grades, emotional problems, or social difficulties, take advantage of the services offered by school counselors and school psychologists. They can ease the burden you may feel in keeping on top of everything.

For example, when students are struggling academically, the school counselor can make an on-going request of weekly progress reports. Counselors can help advocate for your child’s needs and will work with teachers to help your child succeed.

At the request of parents, counselors can also quickly give teachers a “heads-up” on problems at home. For example, I had a student whose father was suffering from brain cancer. The counselor sent a note to each of the teachers and later sent occasional updates on the father including when the father passed away. When teachers are aware of a student’s difficult circumstances, they can be more mindful of the student and more compassionate.

Focus on the Process

Many students are rewarded in some way for good grades. Consider changing your focus from the grade and shifting it to the process of earning the grade. For example, parents could reward their child for writing in his planner everyday for a week. Or, parents could tell their child that this quarter they won’t focus on final grades, but will instead reward the student for completing and turning in all assignments. This puts the emphasis on creating strong habits and reduces what can become an unhealthy pressure to get the A.

Parental Scaffolding

I’ve discovered that encouraging and supporting young teens is a lot like scaffolding on a new building. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s absolutely essential to support and secure a construction site, and middle school is a time of intense personal construction, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Build your own scaffolding around your child through prayer, love, and communication.

Sometimes early teens will need more support, and with your child’s growing independence, sometimes your scaffolding will need to seem almost invisible—but make sure it’s always there. They’ll learn whom and what they can safely lean on.  

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