The transition to middle school may be frightening for students, but parents may experience difficulties that will require new parenting responsibilities as well. After twenty-one years of teaching middle school, the two biggest differences between elementary and middle school that I have observed are: the cruelness of adolescents to one another, and the relationships between the teacher and student.
Middle school students can be vicious to one another, and if parents take a minute to think back, vivid memories of receiving or even dishing out taunts will quickly and perhaps painfully be recalled. Also because of the physical changes that are occurring at an accelerated rate, this age group can be extremely sensitive to all comments from others. Parents need to frequently discuss with their children the changes in their bodies and how everyone develops at different rates. Help them to understand how hormones can cause mood swings that may cause childhood buddies to lash out for no apparent reason. Parents should also be aware of how their own child may be overly sensitive to remarks from peers, teachers, or even the parents themselves. For example, a remark like, “Hey your hair looks different today,” may be interpreted by the middle school student as, “She hates my hair.” The reason for parents to be aware of these sensitivities is that parents of middle school students sometimes are quick to react before they get the whole story. Rather than confronting a parent, or worse the child’s peer, or making a hair stylist appointment, ask the student, “What did she actually say about your hair? Did she actually say, “I hate your hair?” Don’t dismiss the child’s insecurity, but help them deal with it in a constructive manner. Bullying is never to be tolerated and should be reported to the school immediately.
Elementary was a time of students being closely monitored by usually one teacher who was responsible for contacting a small number of parents about grades, events, and behavior. The elementary teachers also received a different type of teacher training geared more toward nurturing children through early learning, which creates a close bond between teacher and student. In middle school the child will most likely have six to eight teachers, all who may be responsible for a hundred or more students. The training for middle school teachers consists more of a secondary strand, which focuses on academics with less emphasis on nurturing. There are several ways to prepare the student for the expectations of these teachers.
It is a parent’s nature to want to protect their child, but when they get to middle school, the parent must begin the painful process of helping him/her to become independent. The student will be expected to take on more responsibilities at middle school.
First, organization is key. Parents can help by purchasing organizer notebooks, assignment notebooks, and color-coded folders. Then sit down and help then use these items for the first two to three weeks. Ask to see the assignment notebook and see that it is filled in for all classes each day. I occasionally have students want to write “nothing” under assignment for my class, which I make them erase and write in what assignment we did work on that day. If they finish in class, they put a check mark beside it. Then when they get home hours later, they know exactly what they did do and if they need to finish or not. Because middle school includes many extra-curricular activities, they also need to pencil in activities including deadlines, dates, times, and locations. They key is for parents to monitor strongly in the beginning of middle school. Then the parents can pull back as long as the student is having success. If he/she slips up, start the careful monitoring again.
Occasionally, some parents become too helpful with homework and projects. Make sure the student is going through the thought process and making mistakes is part of that process. It is fine to tell them they might want to recheck numbers 8, 11, and 12 on the assignment, but do not tell them the answers because they will not have learned to process. Parents who are consistently doing some of the work will create a learned helplessness that can start a snowball effect that can devastate not only the student’s academic abilities, but also his/her self-esteem and maturation.
Second, with the large number of students in their six or seven classes, middle school teachers are often not aware of problems the student may be having. Communication is essential. E-mail and phone calls will usually get a quick response from the teacher. Keep them short and to the point. If after clear effort to communicate, you are not satisfied, have a school conference. Ask the teacher, principal, and the student to attend. Everyone needs to be on the same page. It is important for your child to know you respect the teacher and principal as professionals. That does not mean that you have to agree with everything they say, but listen, be open to what they have to say, and if you disagree tell them calmly tell why you do disagree. Learning is a team effort, and everyone wants the child to be successful.
Another way teachers differ is how they handle grade reporting. Elementary teachers often send home weekly folders with the graded papers for parents to look over and to sign a report and return. At middle school, teachers hand back the papers, ask them to be put in folder or notebook and may have a sheet to be signed a the end of the grading period. Then it is too late to get help. More often the case is students either cram the graded papers in locker or throw them away. With my students, I always use court television shows to get them to file their graded papers properly by reminding them the ones who always lose the case are the ones who have no proof or evidence for the case. The papers are their evidence, and if there is a question about the grade, they do not have the proof they need if they have not kept their papers. Most schools have Internet access for parents to monitor grades. Check them weekly, and if at the mid-point in the grading period the grades are below standard, contact the teacher immediately so that they student has time to improve the grade. Most schools send home mid-point progress reports and end-point report cards.
Middle school is hard enough with all the body changes, raging hormones, and new expectations, but with positive encouragement, organization, and monitoring, students will not only survive, but they will be better prepared for the transition to high school.