If your child is starting middle school this year, he or she is tumbling from the top of the student hierarchy back down to the bottom.
Some kids take this tumble in stride while others struggle. This difference may be because of your child's temperament, or the circumstances. Maybe your child is moving to a new school with new friends or maybe your child is moving with the same old peers who bring with them the same old troubles.
Dealing with the emotions:
Middle school is an emotional time anyway, add in major change and kids can have trouble coping. Christie Hayos, a clinical social worker at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, offers these tips:
- Validate nervous feelings. “It’s really important to first validate children’s feelings by acknowledging that it’s okay that they have certain uncomfortable feelings,” says Hayos. Let them know that these feelings are normal and probably other kids are feeling the same way.
- Trust your child to make good decisions. If your child is changing to a different middle school than most of his or her friends, and would prefer to follow friends to the feeder school, examine your reasons. If your child is generally good at making decisions and the reason for the change is not because of anything other than your preference, sometimes it makes sense to let your child follow his or her friends instead.
- Know your child. Some level of anxiety is normal. But “if you have a child that is typically not anxious about going back to school or has low levels of anxiety about going back to school, and all of a sudden this looks much different and the levels of anxiety are much higher than before, you may want to investigate more and ask the child more questions,” says Hayos.
- Empathize with your child. Let your child know you understand how he or she feels and you want to help. Do not get entangled in an argument about going to school. Listen to what your child has to say.
- Name the problem. Identify the specific problem your child is having. If your child doesn’t want to go to school, why? After you know the problem, you can better help plan a solution. Try to keep your own anxiety out of the discussion.
- If the anxiety is linked to the past, reassure your child. Did your child struggle academically last year, was there a bullying situation, or did your child feel like he or she didn’t fit in? “It’s important to let children know that there’s a plan in place or that there will be a plan in place to address those very real issues for them to help this year be a more successful and positive year,” says Hayos. This plan could include:
- Meeting with the school administration before school starts.
- Having your child reconnect with supportive friends and have them walk to school together.
- Connecting with the teachers and letting them know about your concerns and include them in the plan.
- Working with your child to put a plan in place. “Often kids have really great ideas about how they could get support,” says Hayos. Children like to feel that they are actively a part of, and have some kind of control over, the future. “When they know the plan, when they are part of it, they are likely to feel more successful and to buy into the plan,” says Hayos.
- Chunk the day into bite-sized pieces. If your child doesn’t want to go to school because the anxiety is too much, explain that as a parent, it is your job to keep your child safe but it is also your job to make sure he or she goes to school. So break the day down into manageable chunks. Get your child to call you at lunch for reassurance and check anxiety levels. If your child still wants to come home, reach out to the school for help.
- Work with the teacher. The teacher works with your child on a daily basis and probably has experienced similar issues with other children. The teacher will often have very helpful ideas to rectify the situation.
- Get help elsewhere. If none of the above works, contact your family doctor.
Supporting your child’s learning:
Patrick Boulos is currently a secondary school Vice-Principal but he has worked as an elementary school Vice-Principal and has taught grade 7 and 8 math.
His top 5 tips for parents with a child starting middle school are:
- Communicate with the school. If parents/guardians, the school, and the student are all “on the same page”, there will be a better chance for success.
- Assess often. Check-in with your child and the teacher. Requesting regular updates goes a long way.
- Be positive. Encourage and build resilience. Parents/guardians must prepare the child for new experiences, and reinforce that every experience can be learned from.
- Accountability. As kids age, they inherently are more accountable for their learning. While parents/guardians should monitor and assess progress regularly, encouraging your child to “own” the responsibility for being as successful as possible is key.
- Have resources ready. Parents know their kids! Be ready and have the necessary resources available if required.