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Preteens the Middle Years : Making the Transition Starting middle school

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Q: My daughter refuses to dress nicely for school. I don’t want her to get into trouble. What can I do?
A: Your daughter is trying to fit in with her peers and be part of a group that probably all dresses in a similar way. The school will be used to students bending the rules to put their own individual stamp on the regulation uniform, and, if you insist that your daughter adhere strictly to the dress code, you risk making life difficult for her socially. You may even find that your daughter takes matters into her own hands and adjusts her outfit each day when she is out of your sight. The key word here is compromise: Work together on finding a solution that you are both happy with. Look at what other students are wearing and try to find the middle ground between the “correct” attire and your daughter’s must-have fashion requests.

Fitting in, developing her own sense of identity, and having friends are very important for your daughter at this age, so be prepared to be a little flexible to help her achieve this. If she feels a part of things socially she is likely to be happier at school and perform better academically. Respecting your daughter’s point of view and negotiating also means that your daughter will be more likely to approach you with other issues in the future.

Q: My daughter has the chance to go on a trip with school but doesn’t want to. Should I insist that she go?
A: Forcing your daughter to go on this trip is likely to make her feel even more anxious and put a strain on your relationship. Instead, talk to her to find out if she is interested in going on the trip in principle and, if so, exactly what she is worried about that you may be able to help with. If she is concerned about travel or sleeping arrangements, the trip organizer should have transportation and accommodation details and be able to let her know who she will be sharing with. Chances are that your child will not be the only student struggling with these issues, so speak to her teacher or the trip chaperone to find out what else they can do to help. Work on a plan with her to give her some simple strategies to cope with her homesickness and let her know that it’s perfectly normal to feel this way. She could take one or two photographs and something comforting from home to give her something to focus on when she feels upset. Find out what the school policy is on calling home; this is often discouraged except in case of an emergency. If your daughter does not feel ready to tackle this trip, there are bound to be other opportunities in the future, so help her to get ready for the next one. In the meantime, encourage her to have sleepovers with friends and family to develop confidence in being away from home.
Q: My son has become quiet and withdrawn since he started middle school. What can I do?
A: Starting middle school brings a huge number of changes, and your son may still be adjusting to these new demands. Even if he prefers to work things out on his own, he will still appreciate the fact that you are aware he is not his usual self. Try saying something like, “You seem really quiet lately—is there anything you want to talk about?” so the choice to talk is his. Pick your moment carefully to introduce these conversations. Short car journeys work well, since your child may find it easier to talk sitting side by side rather than facing you and, if he doesn’t want to talk, he knows he will be able to escape soon.

A sympathetic ear, a hug, and a few words of encouragement to remind him of his strengths and achievements may be all he needs to get over this hurdle. If there are any signs that your son is being bullied or there are real issues about schoolwork or other aspects of school life, help him come up with solutions to his problems and speak to his teachers or principal if necessary. He may feel happier talking to someone else in confidence about certain issues, so check with the school to see if they offer peer-mentoring or access to a counselor. Agree a time to review how things are going, and keep checking in with him so knows he can call on you for extra support if he needs to.

Q: Should I let my daughter walk to school with her new friends rather than drop her off?
A: Sooner or later most children reach the point where having their parents drop them off and pick them up from school is seriously uncool and socially embarrassing. Giving up this role is bound to be stressful for you at first and requires you to place a lot of trust and responsibility in your daughter’s hands, but there is a lot you can do to make sure she is safe, and your daughter will value her increasing independence. Since these are new friends, get to know them a little by having your daughter invite them over. Travel the route with your daughter that she will be taking to school. If she is catching the bus, find out where she’ll get it, and if she is walking, make sure that she sticks to main routes rather than shortcuts and that she crosses at crosswalks. If your daughter is allowed a cell phone in school, you could ask her to text or call you until you both get used to this new routine. You should also agree what your daughter will do when things don’t go according to plan. For example, what if the bus doesn’t arrive or her friends aren’t in school on a particular day? Once you are confident that she understands the risks and knows how to manage them safely, have a trial run and then a longer period of a week or so. Remember—this is a big step for your daughter too, so give her plenty of praise if she sticks to the plan. On days when the weather is bad, you will probably find your services are called on once more!
Q: My daughter says she hates school and wants to go to the same one as her best friend. Should I move her?
A: Being separated from friends in this way can be very upsetting, but there may well be other reasons why your daughter is so unhappy at the moment. Moving schools may seem like a very attractive option which will solve all her problems, but in reality it may not be the best solution. Be sympathetic to your daughter’s feelings but help her think about alternatives, without simply dismissing her request. Sit down together and draw up a list of her problems and worries. Ask your daughter to rate how important each issue is, on a scale from 0 to 10. Starting with her most important issues, go through each item on the list and write down any ideas that might help to improve things. Encourage your daughter to think about the consequences, strengths, and weaknesses of each option. For example, if she was to move schools, what would she do if there were lots of things she didn’t like about her new one and how would she feel if her friendship ended? Agree what you will both do to work on her problems and involve school staff if necessary.

Chances are, once your daughter has settled into school and made a few new friends, she will feel differently about wanting to move. However, if the situation does not improve by the end of the year, you may need to consider this option, before your daughter begins avoiding school or staying home “sick” to get out of an uncomfortable situation.

Q: My athletic son doesn’t seem interested in joining any of the school teams. Why might this be?
A: Cheering on your child from the sidelines as they win (or lose) with their team is a proud parenting moment. Sometimes children show less interest in sports once they move up to middle school for various reasons. In order to join a team at his new school, your son will probably have to go through a selection process by putting going for team tryouts. He may be avoiding sports because he is anxious about competing for a place against people he doesn’t know, and worried they may show him up with their superior skills. Alternatively, it may be that your son is just not interested in playing sports right now and wants to pursue other interests in his free time. The influence of his friends will play a part in how he chooses to spend his time. With the current focus on healthy living in schools, he may have plenty of opportunities to take part in sports activities through his normal curriculum. Once he feels more settled in his new school, he may decide to try out for a team, or his talents may be spotted along the way. In the meantime, look for opportunities to support his other interests, such as music, arts, or drama. If there is little available at school to interest your son, you could suggest other options for him to engage in physical exercise, such as martial arts or gymnastics. Try checking at your local community centre to see if they offer classes.
Q: I thought my son was doing OK at school but his last report card was terrible. How do I get him back on track?
A: There could be several reasons for your son’s drifting academic performance. He may be finding the work too difficult, or he may be spending too much time enjoying the social side of school and not putting enough effort into his studies. Your son may also have other worries that are making it difficult for him to concentrate on schoolwork.

Alternatively, his performance might be related to his current peer group. If your son is being drawn toward the “cool to know nothing” crowd at school, he may not want to risk his place by flexing his intellect. Talk to your son about your concerns and try to identify the reasons for his less-than-glowing report card. Be sensitive, since he might be surprised by his teacher’s comments too—try to pick out some positives. If there are problems at school or elsewhere, agree what you will both do to address them. If it is a question of motivation and effort, help your son to organize his study time, but balance this out with plenty of leisure opportunities across the week. You could also offer him incentives to keep his grades up.

Q: My son finds it difficult to make new friends. I’m worried it will affect his progress in school.
A: The size, structure, and demands of middle school make it almost impossible for children to maintain the same group of friends he once had. Having one or two familiar faces around should help reduce any feelings of insecurity and anxiety your son may have, even if they are not his best friends. Friendships at this age are based primarily on shared interests and experiences, so you may find that your son makes a completely new group of friends before too long. Also, don’t be surprised if children in whom your son had very little interest in his old school now get talked about in the same breath as his other friends. It can be hard work for parents to keep up with the friendship roster, since positions at the top and bottom change regularly!

If your son finds it difficult to make new friends, encourage him to talk to as many of his new classmates as possible. It’s probably worth reminding him to ask their names (and to give them his) to immediately strengthen any connections he makes. It also means that you can ask about his classmates at home. You can support your son’s developing friendships by asking if he would like to invite classmates over after school or at weekends. Remind him that he will still get to see his old friends sometimes, too.

Moving on up A friendly breakthrough

When my son started at middle school, I was really worried about how he would adjust. He moved up from a very small primary school just around the corner from our home to a huge school that is a 20-minute bus ride away. For the first few weeks we had lots of tears and temper tantrums in the morning, and sometimes after school, too. I tried not to interfere too much, just hoping that things would settle down. The breakthrough came when he started talking about a new friend he had made on the bus. They started to meet up outside of school, and my son seemed much happier.

Once he had that one new friend things really picked up—the tears stopped, and he started to get involved in school much more.

Build them up Creating confidence

As your child enters this new and important phase in her life, she may be starting to think about her own identity. She will be increasingly self-conscious about her looks, abilities, and social standing with her peers and will be starting to think about what she wants to achieve and where she fits in the world. This may leave her feeling unsure of herself. If she feels confident about who she is, adjusting to middle school will be easier. Praise your child for what she can do well, and use quality time to find out about her day. Try to share in her world, remind your child that no one gets everything right all the time, listen attentively when she is talking to you, and encourage her developing independence and free thinking.

NOTE

It can be hard work for parents to keep up with the friendship roster, since positions at the top and bottom change regularly

Non-public schools Considering your child’s needs

The choice to consider a private, magnet, or charter school can be stressful. Depending on who you talk to, you will probably hear mixed reviews of them all. Consider the following points but, above all else, try to keep in mind which school will best meet the needs of your child.

School environment
  • Most schools will have an open house for prospective students; make sure you visit those you are interested in.

  • Don’t be put off by less-than-attractive buildings. The outsides may not be pretty, but as long as they are safe, well-resourced, and cared for, it’s what goes on inside that matters.

  • Are there up-to-date displays of student work in classrooms and hallways? If so, this shows the school is proud of its students’ achievements.

  • What subjects are available for your child to study? Are there honors classes available? If your child needs extra help or has a particular talent, how will they be supported?

  • Does the faculty seem approachable and interested in your child? Try to speak to the headteacher, since he or she will set the tone for the school. Does the faculty seem inspirational and committed?

  • Visiting on a typical day and driving past at the beginning or end of school will help you get a picture of students’ general behavior.

Official sources
Research

Read prospectuses and check the school website for any particular interests.

  • Your state’s Department of Education will have plenty of information about all schools licensed within the state.

  • If your child has a particular interest or skill, some schools will be better equipped to develop this, so check prospectuses and websites for details of any specialist teaching.

  • Academic statistics and test scores can be a useful guide, but remember that many students thrive in schools that don’t rank highly overall.

  • School inspection reports are freely available, and give a good overview of a school’s strengths and weaknesses. Check when the report was written, though, as the information may be somewhat out of date.

Admissions policy

Your child may be offered a place at one or more desirable schools, though perhaps not your (or your child’s) first choice. All schools have their own admission policy and a limited number of places so, if you are thinking of applying to a particular school, find out how your child fits their criteria and investigate admissions procedures as early as possible. Listen to your child’s point of view and involve him in the process as much as you can.

Middle-school stresses A new set of challenges

Moving up to a bigger school can be a stressful time, both for you and your child. New places, new teachers, new friends, new subjects, more work and, just when it feels like you should be providing more help for your child, he is desperately trying to prove how independent he is!

Little fish… big pond

Your child’s new school will probably feel like a vast maze of corridors and endless classrooms. In reality, he will quickly learn to navigate his way around with ease and will find that each year tends to keep to their own territory outside. Some schools start their new students a day or two before the rest of the school, which will give your child a chance to roam around and look lost without feeling intimidated by the older students. See if you can pick up a school map when you visit or on the school’s website. If your child is able to find his way around, it will give him a real confidence boost and probably make him more popular with his new classmates too.

Dress to impress

Your child’s new school will probably provide you with a long list of clothing or uniform requirements and essential equipment. Certain items will be very popular in the stores, so it’s best to make a start on this as soon as possible. Keep in mind that schools often sell uniform clothing at cost, and may also have some second-hand items. Having the right PE outfit, the trendy school bag, and a pencil case full of favorite pens will help your child feel prepared. Being able to lend a pen to a classmate in need is also a great way to make new friends.

Workload and homework

Your child will have new subjects to master, lots of books to keep track of, more homework, and a very busy timetable. If he is good at organizing himself, this should not pose a problem. However, if he is used to relying on you to pack his school bag and tell him what subjects he has each day, he could be in for a shock. Take a copy of his class schedule for yourself and suggest he put one up in his bedroom somewhere visible—not buried behind his latest poster. Schoolbooks that are brought home seem to mysteriously disappear the night they are needed. Providing your child with a shelf for school books and homework should help avoid the need for to turn your home upside down looking for them.

Homework will steadily increase as your child goes through school and is an essential part of his education. Make sure he has a quiet place to work and allow him to tackle things in his own way. Some children need a short break after school, whereas others prefer to get their homework done right away. Some schools also have supervised study groups after school. If your child has a planner or homework notebook, look at it with him regularly to make sure he is writing things down and keeping track of his workload. You may still have to prompt him to complete his work if you want to avoid the Sunday-evening panic.

Friend or foe?

Even though your child will probably know some of the students at his school, he may be feeling anxious about getting along with the older students. The older kids at middle schools all seem to share the same horror stories about vicious bullies who will beat him up, steal his new things, and flush his head down the toilet. It is no wonder that your child may shrink with fear when he first sees a crowd of towering teenagers standing at the school entrance. The reality is that the older pupils will probably show very little interest in your child, and there will be lots of new classmates to make friends with. Middle school will provide your child with the opportunity to try out new activities and joining a lunchtime or after-school club is a great way to meet others with the same interests.

Homework

Your child will have more work to deal with, so set him up with a quiet place to do it.

Build esteem

Encourage your child to be confident about answering questions in class.

All in one place

Make packing his school bag easier by providing him with a place to store his books.

Shy

Encourage your child to join after-school clubs to meet others if he is worried about making friends.

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