To help middle-schoolers succeed, take a step back

10/09/2013 7:47 AM

10/09/2013 7:47 AM

In elementary school, educators say parents can best help their children succeed by letting them make choices and voice their opinion. In middle school, they say, it’s time to take a step back.

Beginning in sixth grade, students become more self-reliant and seek more independence, said Lezlee Ivy, the principal at Plaza Middle School in Kansas City, North. That shift can make it tricky for parents to know when and how much to get involved.

“There definitely needs to be a balance of involvement, coupled with the ability to allow children to try things on their own,” Ivy said.

She compares parenting in middle school to coaching a basketball game. Once on the court, the players run plays by themselves while the coach stays on the sideline, observing, analyzing and providing feedback — all at a distance. Every now and then the coach needs to call a timeout to make adjustments or change the play. If players make mistakes, the coach provides instruction on what to do differently and then sends them back out to try again.

“The coach doesn’t leave them to figure it out alone and the coach doesn’t get out on the court to play the game,” Ivy said. “The coach cheers, instructs, redirects and encourages all from the sideline. That’s what it’s like to work with middle schoolers. The coach is always present and engaged, but at a close distance.”

Local educators say it’s also important for students — and their parents — to remember that struggle is an essential part of the learning process.

“Some of the very best teachers, at times, find themselves faced with criticism from parents when students struggle to meet rigorous classroom demands,” said principal David Mitchell of Raymore-Peculiar East Middle School.

Part of that is caused by students who become frustrated at the increase in expectations or are experiencing difficulty for the first time in their academic careers. He advises parents who are unhappy with a teacher to keep from voicing those concerns around their children. “When this happens, it empowers the student to shift their responsibility of learning away from them and place blame on the teacher when struggles occur,” he said.

If parents are worried that there really is a breakdown in the teaching and learning processes, educators say direct communication with the teacher is the best way to handle it.

As the use of social media has increased, so have peer pressures, exposure to negative influences and issues associated with bullying and harassment, Mitchell said. There is a broad range of maturity levels in middle school, which can cause some children to become targets of criticism.

“Parents can be extremely valuable by monitoring their child’s online activity and maintaining open dialogue about issues at school and about peer relationships,” Mitchell said. When children feel as if they are heard and their thoughts are valued, they are far more likely to share good and bad happenings in their daily lives.

It’s critical for parents to ask questions and really listen at this stage, educators say.

“Your child is telling you a lot by what they are saying, but also by what they aren’t saying,” Ivy said.

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