Guess Who the Neediest Students Are

If you think middle school is a time to step away, think again

by Deirdre Reilly | Updated 23 Aug 2016 at 8:28 AM

Middle school is a big leap for any student — and for parents, too. Parents need to stay involved in these formative years, as students can either continue to grow academically and as individuals — or can begin to slide into unwanted behaviors and lose interest in their education.

“Too often parents who have stayed at home or worked part-time think their child’s middle-school years are the time for them to start working full-time — and that’s a mistake,” Elizabeth Stitt, founder of Joyful Parenting Coaching in the San Francisco area, told LifeZette. “The switch to middle school is a big step, often even bigger than going to high school. The curriculum really does get harder in middle school, and the content standards make a jump in the amount of critical thinking and problem solving required.”

The older the students get, the less they want to talk about the school day, the lessons learned, their progress in class, said one principal.

For too many U.S. school kids, experimentation with drugs and alcohol also begins in the middle school years.

“I live in a more affluent town where drugs and drinking start early, so I decided to work during the elementary school years, and be home for the middle and high school years,” said one Boston-area mom. “I have never regretted it. My children all excelled in school, and are now very successful young adults. It was hard — harder than my previous job outside the home — but I was committed to being there.”

A middle school principal also said that today more than ever, parents need to be involved in their middle-schooler’s world.

Most Commonly Used Drugs Among 8th Graders in the Past Year
Marijuana 11.7%
Inhalants 5.3%
Synthetic marijuana 3.3%
Cough medicine 2%
Tranquilizers 1.7%
Adderall 1.3% (as a "study drug")
Hallucinogens 1.3%
OxyContin 1%
Vicodin 1%
Cocaine 1%
Ecstasy 0.9%
Ritalin 0.9%
Source: Teenrehabcenter.org

“In today’s fast-paced world, where students — and thus parents — are involved in so many activities, and the world around us is going at lightning speed with social media and technology, it is extremely important for parents to stay connected to their child’s teachers and administrators,” Geoffrey Haines, principal of Ocean City Intermediate School in Ocean City, New Jersey, said. “Recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education show a steady increase in parent involvement in school buildings in years following the beginning of the 21st century — school districts began to add parent involvement policies, committees, and goals.”

But in recent years, the trend has begun to swing the other way, said Haines. So parents need to put themselves in the action without hesitation, and sign up for that class trip or bake committee.

“Involvement in PTA, field trips, class events, and committee work are all crucial in helping schools succeed,” said Haines. “But parents also need to stay connected on how their child is doing in the classroom. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to find out about progress.”

The older the students get, said Haines, the less they want to talk about their school day, the lessons learned, or their progress in class. This is where active parenting is crucial — to keep your child from dropping off the academic map.

“Staying plugged in figuratively is important so that parents can form a partnership with the building staff and information can flow freely,” Haines noted. “Staying plugged in literally is also important, as schools move toward digital access for parents. More and more information is [shared] online regarding academic progress and grades, and through social media about the activities, programs, and successes of the students.”

Related: Best Parent-Teacher Relationships

“When parents are too hands-off during these crucial years and unplugged — students may unfortunately just do what is needed to be average and move on, and not get involved in activities outside of the classroom,” noted Haines. “Studies show [these activities] increase academic success and make the students well-rounded and even more healthy in mind and body.”

Effective study habits are also either formed or neglected in the critical middle school years.

“I believe the middle school years are extremely important for parents to communicate with teachers because it is the beginning of the ‘study years’ — children can build up great study habits,” said AJ Saleem, owner of a Houston, Texas, tutoring start-up called Home Tutoring Company. “If a parent does not communicate with teachers, children will start building up bad habits that may never be erased.”

It is important, said Saleem, for parents to communicate clearly with administrators and teachers and have a clear understanding of what their child is capable of academically. “A child needs their parent’s guidance, and [being actively involved] is definitely the most integral part.”

Colette Coleman, a Yale-trained education expert focused on middle school, was a former teacher at Johnnie Cochran Middle School in Los Angeles; she shared her experience with one “sliding” student.

Related: A Mom’s Middle School Angst

“I can’t emphasize enough how much parent involvement can help students to stay the course,” Coleman told LifeZette. “In my personal experience, I remember one middle school student in particular who began his first year as an exemplary student — well behaved, and engaged in classwork with great performance and enthusiasm.”

“As the year went on, a dramatic change emerged. He started misbehaving often and extremely, and he lost interest in schoolwork,” said Coleman. “The class structure and my teaching style were the same, but he was experiencing them very differently.”

“After a discussion with his concerned mother, she decided to join my class — every day during his time with me, she sat in the room in the back,” Coleman continued. “There wasn’t another peep from him for the remaining few months of the year, and his grades went back up. Although I’m sure it was tough for his mother to find the time and tough for him to have his mother in class, this intervention was worth it in the long run.”

The biggest change for students, said California parenting coach Stitt, is the mentality of middle school teachers. “Unlike elementary school teachers ,who see their primary goal as encouraging self-esteem and a love of learning, middle school teachers lean toward focusing on kids accepting that a lot of life is about jumping through hoops and doing things in a certain way,” she said.

For too many U.S. school kids, experimentation with drugs and alcohol also begins in the middle school years.

“Docking points for incorrect paper headings and throwing away papers with no names on them is common practice in middle school,” she noted. “Grading shifts from assessment of a student’s ability to an assessment of her performance.”

So what should an effective and caring parent do in these crucial developmental years?

“Middle school is a time to step back — but not to step away,” said Stitt. “Parents are still the best person to help a child process what she is experiencing.”

Stepping back might take the form of letting a child suffer the consequences of lost or incomplete homework without swooping in to defend the child, noted Stitt. A parent can still offer empathy — and express that it feels awful to have worked hard on something and then not get credit for it because of one little mistake, such as omitting a name on a paper or forgetting it at home.

“Stepping back can mean not micromanaging students’ projects but asking questions like, ‘Have you done your best work?’ or ‘What part of this paper are you especially proud of?'” said Stitt. “When students get graded work back, instead of focusing on the grade, parents can ask, ‘What is your plan for doing better next time?’ or ‘What resources do you have for getting help understanding this?'”

Parents can help their children navigate this all-important developmental chapter for happy and healthy outcomes.

“Middle school is the time for parents to stay connected but to position themselves as guide rather than driver of their child’s life,” noted Stitt.

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