Mention middle school to virtually any adult, and you’ll see “The Shudder.” Maybe it’s memories of stereotypically crazy kids, or harried teachers or distempered principals—the kind that fill sitcoms and Disney movies. Or maybe it’s the fact that being eleven, twelve or thirteen can be just plain hard.
But after a few weeks of adjustments, the vast majority of kids find that middle school offers lots of exciting experiences that elementary school was just too small to provide. After so many years of one teacher, one cubby, and one class of kids all day, middle schoolers can now branch out, with new friends and with academic challenges like lab sciences and more abstract math.
So if your child is entering middle school, how can you help? Studies consistently show that, while kids may seem to push parents away, it’s a better time than ever to stay involved. Just don’t expect this to be like kindergarten, when you could organize playgroups and break up fights by doling out cheerios. With many older kids, you may consider yourself lucky if a conversation lasts ten full minutes. Make the most of it! Here are four ways you can help:
- Set a positive tone. Chances are, your child will hear plenty of scary rumors about middle school. You know the themes: big kids that will put you in trashcans and homework that stretches till midnight. While it may be tempting, don’t freak out yourself—you’ll only scare your child more. Stay matter of fact, and hopeful. Say things like, “Yep, those stories have been around for decades, and that’s pretty much all they are. Actually, middle school is full of new and fun experiences. If you do run into any troubles, I want you to tell me or tell a teacher, or both. I know you can handle this, and I’m right behind you.”
- Help with Organizing Stuff. Studies also show that in the first semester of middle school, many kids’ grades dip—and quite often it’s because kids are floored by the challenge of organizing themselves as they move from class to class. Don’t be shocked if within a month your child’s backpack seems like a biohazard. But don’t sit back, either. Calmly offer to help empty the pack, even if you need rubber gloves and a face mask. By all means, offer any organizing accessories your child will accept, especially a homework planner, a notebook organizing system, and any locker extras that might also help, such as shelves or metal magnet hooks. Don’t just hand them over, either, talk about what each one does and how it can be used. Follow up over the year, and help your child adjust the system as needed.
- Stick with soothing routines and connections. In all the upheaval of a new school and new friends, don’t expect your child to take the lead—offer it yourself. If your family always ate a special dinner on Fridays, this is the time to keep that routine; and if your child always played with a few friends, invite them and their families for dinner or even out to the park. If your child enjoyed a certain sport, hobby, or religious school program, arrange to keep them up. You don’t have to have a heavy hand—just a steady one.
- Connect with teachers. Just because it’s middle school doesn’t mean that you suddenly lose your right to speak to teachers. In fact, especially when teachers see many children during the day, they often appreciate the deeper insights that parents can offer. Be aware that teachers usually can’t talk during the day; but emails and notes are an excellent way to establish a strong connection.
In other words, your upbeat attitude and general optimism can set a tone which will last for years. You are telling your child: this is a change, but it’s a not a revolution. Step up, welcome it, and if you stumble, I’m still right there. This may not seem like much, and you may wish you could do more. But remember: your child needs to feel as independent as possible. For a nervous new middle schooler, your gentle steadiness will be no small thing. In fact, as the first days turn into weeks and months, it can mean just about everything.