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Ask the Experts

My Sixth-Grader is Acting Out

By Dr. Michelle Alvarez, Consulting Educator

Question:

My child started middle school this year for sixth grade. He hates school now. That is all I hear. I have cried my heart out. He had a serious football accident the day before school started which put him out for three days. I assume that it all started then with him not turning in any work. He has not been a problem child at all. His elementary school can vouch for that. I am lost as to what is going on. The teachers (all but one) say he talks back, does not focus. I mean I never heard any of this last year at all at elementary school. I am so worried now. He hates school now. He is a good boy, but he can have issues with anger and emotions. He gets upset easily. Now he's had it with the teachers and his school. I do not know what to do. Should I start over and request all new classes or wait and see what happens next? I think the teachers will not be too supportive and friendly now. We have had it out. Any suggestions?

Answer:

The middle school years are some of the most challenging for many students. Not only are there physical and emotional changes but a change in schools and potentially friends. Changes experienced during the middle school years include physical, cognitive and social development as outlined in the following Web sites:

Adolescent Growth and Development

WebMD: Ages-11-to-14-Years-Overview

Complicating this period in time is the transition to middle school, which alone is a stressful time for teens as they adjust to a new school, changing classes, teachers with different teaching styles, and both new and old friends. What was the norm in elementary school is not the same in middle school, therefore requiring the use of different skills. These changes can make a very "normal" student appear to be out of sorts and have difficulty dealing with all the changes they are experiencing at once.

Add to the changes a serious football accident and missing the first days of school, and there could be many reasons why your son does not like school. The question becomes, where do you begin to sort through the issues to get to the root cause of his discontent in middle school. Since there was a serious football accident, I would first rule out any medical causes for his symptoms (e.g., difficulty focusing, anger). Once any medical explanation for the changes are ruled out, then focus on the issues at hand. You could begin with school-based student services personnel such as a school counselor, school social worker or school psychologist who could work with him in the school setting. Additionally, seek the assistance of a community-based therapist (social worker, counselor or psychologist).

Despite messages you may be given from your teen, parenting during the middle school years is essential. Teens still need assistance with structuring their life, support in making good choices and, most of all, open communication. By seeking assistance for him and supporting him through the process of working with a therapist, you can normalize the need for this resource. Offer to go with him and attend part of the session if he wants you to do so.

It is important to address the issues now. Working with both school-based and community professionals can provide the support network your son needs in both settings and they will be able to assist you in choosing what should be your next step at the school.


Dr. Michelle Alvarez is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Indiana and project director of Safe Schools/Healthy Students for the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation. A former school social worker in Pinellas County, Florida, she is co-editor of School Social Work: Theory to Practice and chair of the National Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Section. She is also the parent of a special needs child.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

11/4/2011:
"You did not describe the extent of the football injury. A head injury could cause behavior issues. Please be sure and address this change in behavior with your doctor that is treating the injury. "
03/12/2010:
"Listen to your child's feelings & ask what can you do to help him. Let him know that you'll always be there for him & mean it."
04/27/2007:
"Why does every article always include sending a child to e therapist? It is about time that parents face up to their responsibility to be parents and provide the support needed for a child in this development period."
04/20/2007:
"I agree with Dr. Alvarez and wanted to share my story. My daughter, who had previously loved school, also had a rough transition into middle school (6th grade). She was crying and refusing to go - very emotional and hated all the teachers - and she was attending the same school she'd attended since Pre-school, only a different part of campus! It's a big change to have to go to different classes in different places, and the homework is much more demanding. However, I did talk to her teachers to let them know what was going on, and with a lot of positive reinforcement from me and them, I am happy to say that she is proud to be a straight-A student and has adjusted to the rigors of middle school. Rather than hanging back and trying not to interfere, remember that you are your child's ONLY advocate, and he needs you to help him learn how to communicate with you what is bothering him, and then how to communicate with the school/his teachers to start helping him with his conc! erns. "
04/20/2007:
"AGood morning! My child will be going into Sixt Grade could you please tell me what I can do so as to make the transition eaiser? Malachi is an honor student and is already thinking about college. Is there any way that I can help him to remain focused, any suggestions would be appeciated. Thank you for your assistance."
04/18/2007:
"Parents Beware: When you start sending your kids to school counselors, therapists, etc., they can be easily victimized by being labeled. Its normal for a sixth grader to dislike school. Obviously he gets lots of attention from you for it. One thing I've found to be helpful is to never punish a child by restricting them from free play outsideand not shaming them. There is no redemption in shaming. This is where they can be free and develop their own problem solving. Also, maybe you are really angry and uptight about something. Our children do mirror us. "
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