Surviving Middle School:
Top Tips From Teachers and Parents
Ahh, middle school. Braces. Pimples. Social anxiety. Rapidly changing bodies and slowly changing maturity levels. Most people I know don’t look back on middle school with fond remembrance… It’s more of an “I barely made it out unscathed” mentality.
And now, we’re parents! We’ve made it through our kid’s newborn stage, teething, diapers, potty training, starting kindergarten (sob), and all of elementary school. Woo hoo! Yet as soon as we get really comfortable and confident as a parent, the universe throws us a curveball.
Tweens. Preteens. MIDDLE SCHOOL.
There are so many changes, for both kids and parents, that it can be overwhelming and confusing. Actually, it can be terrifying…
My son is in eighth grade this year. At a recent back to school Q&A type session at our middle school, I spied a friend who has a new sixth grader this year. She raised her hand over and over and asked questions….she was worried about grades. Worried about communicating with teachers. Worried about her kid getting into National Junior Honor Society. Asking questions about sports, gym class, how the heck are they supposed to get across such a big campus and not be tardy between classes?
After the meeting, I came up to say hi, and I said “You should have reached out to me, I could have answered most of that for you!”
“Well…” she trailed off.
Then I remembered. Such a short time ago, I too was a new parent of a middle schooler, and I was worried. Wound tightly with stress and changes and uncertainties. And I thought everyone else knew what was going on, and I was just somehow clueless. I didn’t reach out to friends with older kids, either. I thought, “I SHOULD know what’s going on!” I was the parent, after all.
But I was clueless.
And so often, our kids are too. New middle school students are ALSO scared, overwhelmed, and feel a little lost.
To help give parents and kids who are new to middle school a little advice, I reached out to current middle school parents and teachers and asked them what their top advice would be to brand new middle school parents. Check out these tips and ideas!
- Top tip? Wine. Lots of wine.
- The second most common response was LET YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOLER FAIL. Parents and teachers alike praised sitting back and letting your kid face their consequences in the small ways now, at 12, rather than not knowing how to fail and facing a nasty wake up call when they’re 22. Does this mean you should let them go crazy and run their own lives? Heck no! They’re fueled on hormones, peer pressure, social media and Fortnite- they are NOT in a position to make all the best decisions. But if they forget their lunch or water bottle at home? Say “That’s tough, but I will not bring it to you”. If they forget homework or supplies at home, same thing. Suffering the consequences will teach them not to repeat the mistake. Bailing them out will teach them that it’s not really a big deal to be responsible, because parents will swoop in. Be there to support your child but also know that it’s okay to let your kid fail. There are many lessons to be learned through failure, and what better time to keep your mouth shut and prepare them for the real world?
- Do things with them if you want them to talk to you. Every day when my kids get in from school, I discuss their day with them. The middle schooler usually says “Fine” , answers any questions I have about specific classes or events, then goes off to get a snack and start homework. It’s only later, when we are side by side doing dishes or riding in the car somewhere that he will open up and start talking about things that mattered to him- NOT whether he turned in a form or did well on a test, but what his friend did to embarrass him at lunch. What the rude substitute said, or how he was proud of himself for getting an answer no one else knew in math class. And really, what matters to him about his day is what I need to hear, and I need him to want to share with me. Having an indirect, non-demanding conversation while doing something else is often the best way to talk to your teen.
- Teach your kid to be organized. Middle schoolers will have more teachers and classes than ever before, and it can get overwhelming. Practice with a planner in fifth grade or over the summer. Have them write down assignments, due dates, and school events in their planner. These are skills that are essential in high school and college, when students are expected to be self sufficient, so middle school is the best time to get these organizational habits ingrained. No, it doesn’t happen overnight…you will have to MAKE them do this, check their binders, sit with them and tell them what to write and where to write it, until they learn how to do it themselves. But a little bit more work at the onset from parents will result in a lot more accountability in your child as they move through higher education.
- YOU have to stay organized, too! Parents will now be receiving communication from 5-7 teachers, maybe more. Kids are doing more extracurriculars, with more school events such as rehearsals, competitions, dances, performances, sporting events. Expect to get busier. You may end up a chauffeur for your little sweetie and their friends who need a ride. If you have multiple kids, especially in middle or high school, expect to be inundated with emails, flyers, forms, reminders, text messages. It can be overwhelming. I’ve taken to jotting things down quickly on post-its until I can get them on a calendar. And at least twice a month, I have to sit down and spend 3-4 hours digging through the emails and the stack of forms and paperwork and invitations, and planning out our family’s life. Figure out a system that works for you, whether that’s a paper calendar, a dry erase calendar hanging in the kitchen, or a family organizing app, and then force yourself to keep up with it. It takes time to make it a habit, but you will get there. Your sanity depends on it.
- You will likely take a backseat to FRIENDS. If your kid starts wanting to spend more time with their friends, and way less with you and their family, congratulations! They are normal. Part of the maturing process is moving away from (or pushing away) your parents. Do you remember the “I do MYSELF” stage of 2 ½ -3? It’s the same thing. The transitions are hard, for parents and kids, but it is a sign of typical development. Middle school kids more than any other age group need a place, need their peer group, and want to fit in. They want to wear the same brands or go to the same places as their friends. They will roll their eyes at you daily, and beg to go to their friend’s house. They will barely answer your texts (can’t tell you how many “yeah”s I get from our two boys) but will somehow text their friends 327 times in one day. Try not to take it personally, moms and dads. They are still yours and they will come back to you.
- About that cell phone…..in our house before each kid got a phone they had to sign contracts with us, lining out clear expectations and boundaries. Keeping kids safe and helping them make good decisions with their phones is a whole other topic, but just know that you need to stay on top of their phone use. Kids are always a step ahead of us and even if your own kid is pretty wholesome, other kids may not be. They will learn about secret messaging apps, photo apps with disappearing images, and all other manner of ways to communicate without your being aware. A personal gem I recently discovered is that most game apps (think Words with Friends, Trivia Crack, etc.) also have messaging functionality, and kids can send messages to each other without it showing up as a text or a way for you to track it. That could be totally innocent, or it could take a turn you don’t want your kid involved in. Also, make them charge their phones in your room at night after 9:00. Anyone who is messaging them after then is up to no good anyway. Please stay plugged in and aware of what your kid is doing. There are apps like Spyzie, Mama Bear, and Life 360 that can help you track your kid’s phone use.
- Balancing all that school work…most kids have a wake up call when they enter middle school and have way more class and homework to deal with, on top of their busy schedules. At our house the kids have to use our district’s Home Access Center to check their grades daily. They can see missing assignments or low grades, and then take action (go in for a tutorial, remake the test, turn in the assignment) and they have to first tell me their action plan and then do it. If they say they don’t have any homework, I have them check their Google classroom or teacher website to make sure. Here’s my favorite advice from two middle school teachers: “Ask questions about their schoolwork/assignments, because middle schoolers will lie. Not because they are bad kids, but because they really think they can just finish the work quickly in the morning or they would prefer to hang out with their friends than handle their responsibilities.” – Kaitlyn “I see so many kids stressed out and in tears because they’re pushed to be in every high school credit or advanced course…and they just stop enjoying school. Try to help your student find a good balance of academically rigorous and enriching courses.” -Christy
- Communicating with teachers……Be prepared to have way less communication from teachers (they are moving from 30 students, to around 150) so be proactive about seeking information. Don’t be afraid to call the front office and ask questions about events or policies. Don’t be afraid to email the teachers, but that should be more along the lines of “what do I need to know or do as a parent” and not “why did my little precious not get an extra week to turn in his project?” Teach your little precious how to send an email to a teacher, how to CC you on it, and then MAKE them be the ones to communicate. Forgot to do an assignment? Going to miss due to a doctor’s appointment? Not understanding a core concept? THEY need to send that email. Learning how to do this does not happen overnight. It took the first half of the school year before my sixth grader was adept at this and consistent with reaching out on his own. Teachers are usually happy to have a student who shows responsibility and self advocating in this way. *If there are bigger issues, like bullying or accommodations your kid might need, or health issues, then parents can and should keep the teacher in the loop. Teacher advice: “Stay engaged with the teacher and your child. You really do make a difference. I’ve called home to talk to parents about behavior issues or concerns, and the next day that child had completely different behavior and performance in the classroom. They are still listening to you, even if you can’t tell! Communication is key.” -Christy
- Extracurriculars-love them or hate them, middle schoolers are often involved in activities both in and out of school. Extracurriculars can help kids branch out, gain confidence and independence, learn responsibility, and have an incentive for keeping up behavior and grades. Many teachers have said that the middle school experience is greatly improved by clubs, sports, and activities. There is something for everyone this day and age…academic clubs and competitions, musical groups, clubs for games such as board games, tabletop gaming, video games, arts and crafts, sewing, gardening, decorating. If your child can’t find a club they are interested in, most schools encourage kids to start their own clubs. Finding a family of sorts, a sense of “these are my people”, goes a long way towards helping kids feel like they belong somewhere- which is hugely important.
All middle schoolers go through middle school-itis. Doesn’t mean you are a bad parent or that they’ll have that sassy attitude forever, sometimes they just need time and patience to figure things out.
And so do we.