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Ask the Experts

How Can We Help Our 12-Year-Old Learn to Like His School?

By Joe Connolly, Consulting Educator

Question:

I have one child, a son who is 12 years old. He was going to public school from K-5 and was doing well. Now we are sending him to a private school and he gets Cs and is failing Latin.

He cries to my husband and me all the time because he wants to be with his friends in the middle school where we live. I think he is not trying his hardest at school because he wants us to take him out and put him in the public school, but we tell him this private school is the best school for him, that it will prepare him for college. He hates us for doing this!

He has made a lot of new friends at his new school and still has his old friends that he still plays with. We argue with him every night to do his homework. He is just doing it to get by, he is not doing his best and we have to sit with him until he finishes his homework or he will just put anything down just to get it done. When his teachers email us to tell us his homework was done wrong or he didn't do it, we go nuts. Any advice for my husband and me? I know that he is the only child and is very spoiled but we took all his games and electronics away until he improves his schoolwork and until he shows us the respect he once had for us. What to do?

Answer:

The jump from elementary school to middle school can be difficult for many children. The prospect of being the youngest person in school, surrounded by older and often times much more mature boys and girls, some of whom are already well into puberty, new teachers and administrators, perhaps using lockers for the first time, more demand on academics, an entire new social structure and many other changes can all lead to a great deal of anxiety. When you add in the tremendous anxiety of going to an entirely new, private school, it's no wonder your son is struggling with the change. Much of what you described sounds like pretty normal behavior.

Consider that your son is also likely in the beginning stages of adolescence. It is natural for him to begin his journey towards independence. Even though you know that sending him to this new school is the best thing for him, it can also be a threat to his natural instinct to want to make his own choices. There will be many times over the next six to eight years when he will push back on the decisions you make for him if he does not feel like he was a part of the decision process. You certainly need to pick your battles, while at the same time working on ways to include him in the decisions you will make for him.

In order to deal with your current situation, I would like to suggest a few things. Your first step should be a visit to the school counselor. Most private schools are allowed the luxury of employing full-time counselors. A middle-school counselor should be well versed in your particular situation.

The counselor will probably give you an academic plan to follow, which should help your son with his studies as well as getting his homework done on time and to the best of his ability. I would also make sure to include his teachers in the plan. And don't forget to allow your son some say in the academic plan. For instance, you might discuss various aspects of the process by which he will do his homework each night. Maybe you give him an opportunity to relax when he first gets home and perhaps an hour of play or rest before he starts his homework. The counselor could also provide you and your husband with some specific suggestions on how you both can cope with this situation.

A second suggestion that I have for you is to keep a close eye on your reactions. "Going nuts," as you described it, will rarely help you achieve the results you desire. It's OK to give your son very clear expectations and boundaries. When he does not meet the expectations, or pushes the boundaries, then you must act appropriately. Make sure he knows what the expectations and boundaries are, and also make sure he understand the consequences should he stray from the desired outcomes. Plan to hold many conversations with him about these important behaviors. He not only needs to understand them clearly, he also needs to be a part of the process when deciding what they are.

Lastly, look for many opportunities to praise him and reward him when he's doing a great job in his life. This doesn't mean that you should go out and buy him another game or electronic gadget. It does mean that you should look for small ways to show him that you appreciate his efforts. It could be a kind word: "You did a nice job on your homework tonight; thanks for making it easy for both of us," or a hug when he comes home with a good grade. These simple expressions are necessary to keep your relationship close as you both navigate the adolescent years. Taking things away, like electronics and games, can sometimes be a deterrent to misbehavior, but it is not enough to just punish him. You must balance the consequences with praise when it is earned.

The next six years will present you and your husband with some challenging times. Try to keep it all in perspective by realizing your son is beginning his journey towards independence. Help him get there by communicating at a level he can understand.


Joe Connolly is the author and creator of 3 STEPS to parenting teens and the One Minute Rule. One of the founders of Good Parents, Inc., Joe is a sought after speaker of family topics and is widely known for his expertise and powerful speaking on parenting. Joe has been a featured speaker at Stanford University's "Stressed Out Students" conference, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, California State Senator Jackie Speier"s "Girls Day" and at corporations including Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Genentech. Joe is the dean of students (K-5) at the Harker School in San Jose, CA. You can learn more about Joe and the services he provides at joeconnolly.org. Joe can be reached at joe@joeconnolly.org.

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

11/18/2009:
"I think you need to take into account that the private school maybe moving at a much faster rate than your son is used to. There is a common thought that going to a private school means better chance of going to college. This is true more often simply because children who go to private school have parents who have the financial means to send them to college. The parents are also better educated and involved in their children's academics. These things are important!"
10/24/2008:
"That article was helpful It makes us realize that as parents, our goal is not merely to decide what is best fro our children, but more importantly, to understand how our children feel and involve them in the decision process."
10/24/2008:
"Wow, I thought I was reading my own story. I am in the same situation with my 12 year old son, exactly! Thanks you for the advice, I am tryin gto be consistent also with his schedule. COnsistency and keeping your word or promises is very important. You don't want the child to get mixed messages and he needs to understand that you mean business."
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