Hormones and changing bodies, locker combinations and changing classes, bullies and crushes: No wonder some kids have trouble adjusting to middle school! But even the most flustered kids can succeed when they receive a little extra help at home and school. Here are seven common issues kids face as they adjust to middle school, along with tips for addressing them. Remember, your child may try to push you away in middle school, and that’s developmentally appropriate. Nevertheless, they still need your support socially, emotionally, and academically.
7 common middle school problems
The problem: The social scene is changing.
The Fix: Compassion.
Leaving the comfort and familiarity of elementary school can be hard for kids. It’s a lot of change. “Children have usually been at their elementary school for a number of years and it starts to feel like home,” says Kathy Glass, a former middle school teacher and author. “Typically, two or more elementary schools feed into a middle school and this can be a social distraction for a new middle school student.”
Between the influx of new kids and changing classrooms and teachers every 50 minutes, there’s a lot of insecurity built into middle school, says parenting expert Annie Fox, author of the Middle School Confidential series [http://www.middleschoolconfidential.com/]. “It’s not easy to be a sixth grader. The top thing parents can do is to have some compassion that all of these changes are happening for your child,” Fox says. “Don’t jump on your kid as soon as they come home,” Fox cautions. Instead, look for “exhausted eyes” and create opportunities for your child to share. Rather than bombarding your child with questions or enforcing homework time right away, give your child a break and try to spend time together where you can have a “side-by-side conversation,” whether you’re taking a walk, playing a game, or preparing food together. To help your child open up, make an observation like, “You seemed a little overwhelmed when you got home. What can I do to help?” When your child does share, react calmly. It’s the best way to get your child to open up to you now and in the future.
The problem: Your child feels abandoned by friends.
The fix: Ask questions and listen.
“Old friendships might come to an end and new ones develop,” says Glass. Let your child know that meeting new kids and making new friends is part of the experience and encourage your child to expand their circle. If your child is meeting new kids, he’s less likely to worry or feel abandoned when his friends do the same.
“After your child has had a chance to get a read on the new social scene,” Fox says, ask your child to tell you what the groups at school are like. Ask your child to use paper and pencil and draw out the groups of friends, close-knit circles, etc. Your child can label them if he wants: jocks, popular kids, tech nerds, outcasts, she says. As your child gives you a tutorial, they may share when and by whom they feel abandoned. Talking it through can help your child process his feelings. And by asking gentle questions, like, “I’m hearing a lot about Richie. Tell me what you like about being with him,” you’ll be able to offer better suggestions.
There are two key things to remember, says Fox. First, stay calm. “It’s hard to see your child unhappy,” Fox says. But you aren’t any help to your child if you overreact, and you risk your child not opening up in the future. So take deep breaths and remain calm. Second, let your child take the lead on solving the problem. If you solve it for them, you’re sending a message that you don’t think your child is capable. “It’s more powerful to listen and ask, ‘What might you do tomorrow differently?’”, Fox says. By listening, acting as a consultant, and giving neutral feedback, you’re showing your child that you care and that you think your kid has got this.
The problem: Grades start to plummet.
The fix: Find the root of the problem.
One worried parent wrote to GreatSchools.org: “My son received good grades all through elementary school. When he went into middle school, his grades went down dramatically. I spoke with the principal, teachers, and counselor. They said that they have seen a lot of kids slip at this age. How can I help him?”
First off, “If kids aren’t happy socially, their grades are going to suffer,” says Fox. Check in with your child about the changes they’re experiencing at school. (See above)
Next, help your child get organized. Middle school requires students to be more independent and organized. “Students move from one classroom to another as opposed to being in a single class with one teacher. A student may not be comfortable with the variety of teachers and their different expectations,” says Glass.
Organization is the key to middle school success. Help your child develop a system to keep track of important papers. If he tends to forget to turn in homework, it might help to get him a binder with a folder in the front for completed work ready to be turned in and a folder in the back for papers returned by the teacher.
Make sure your child has — and uses — a planner to keep track of assignments. Some schools provide these to students, and if not, you might want to work with your PTA or parent organization to provide planners at your school. Help your child get in the habit of writing down each daily assignment in each subject and checking it off when it’s complete.
The problem: Homework is overwhelming.
The Fix: Play the (temporary) role of homework monitor.
Even the most focused child needs parental support when the homework load increases, becomes more difficult, and requires skills he may not have developed yet.
Especially in the beginning, you may need to monitor your child’s homework. Just remember that it’s her homework, and she has to do it herself in order to learn. You can help by asking questions that lead her to her own solutions. For example:
- What information do you need to do this assignment?
- Where are you going to look for it?
- Where do you think you should begin?
- What do you need to do next?
- Can you describe how you’re going to solve this problem?
- What have you tried that didn’t work?
- What have you tried that did work?
The problem: Your child doesn’t know how to handle big projects.
The fix: Teach time-management skills.
Time management becomes vitally important in middle school. Educators often start teaching time-management skills to students in fifth grade, but your child will most likely need reinforcement to make them a habit.
First, make sure your child refers to her planner on a regular basis. Teach her to divide up her work over the number of days allotted for the assignment. This will create smaller, manageable subtasks out of the larger, more daunting tasks. Big projects can be hard for students who are new to the process. Help your child with scheduling the work for her first few projects. A big research project will seem less overwhelming and will be less likely to be left until the last minute if it’s done in chunks, each with its own deadline.
Encourage her to estimate how long each assignment will take. She can then plan a realistic schedule, building in study breaks after the subjects that are the most challenging. Helping your child keep track of time spent studying — rather than staring at a blank page — will help her think about how she’s using her time. If she’s spending too much time on a subject, it might be a signal she needs extra help or tutoring.
The problem: Tests are bigger and cover more material.
The fix: Hone those study skills.
Studying for tests is a skill. For struggling students, it’s a mystery.
“Unsuccessful test takers don’t know where the questions come from,” says Burke. “The kids who don’t succeed tend to think the others are lucky.” Some tips to remember in helping your child:
- Your student can practice active learning when studying by highlighting his notes, using Post-its to mark key textbook passages, making study cards, stopping at the end of each section to mentally recap what he learned, doing self-testing questions at the end of a section, and mapping and diagramming concepts.
- Some students focus better in the morning, others at night. Help your child find the times that his efforts will be most effective.
- Sometimes we just have to memorize. You may have used a mnemonic like Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Inventing your own silly mnemonic together works just as well and can lighten up a study session.
- Studying for tests is easier when you’ve taken good notes.
Problem: Your child finds a teacher difficult.
Fix: Have a face-to-face meeting.
Is there one teacher in particular that your child finds difficult? If so, work on ways to smooth over the problem areas. Maybe it’s understanding how the teacher gives homework or what his expectations are. Usually, an email exchange, a phone call, or a visit after school will clear up misunderstandings between teacher, student, and parent. A middle school teacher can have as many as 90 to 150 students to interact with each day, and students need proactive parents to help them understand each teacher’s methods.