To many parents, middle school is scary. There's puberty. There's a longer list of teachers than you or your child ever had to get to know before. There are more kids. There are boyfriends and girlfriends.

Kids are wide-eyed and overwhelmed, balancing a heavier academic load with the pressure of fitting in, increased after-school activities, and the eternal quest to define oneself, both as an individual and as part of a group.

Life is a lot more complicated and it seems a lot more serious. The report cards seem more serious. The teachers seem more serious. The bulletin boards that announce sports practices or student work lose their creative elementary-school borders and they, too, seem more serious.

Parents are wondering what happened to the kid they dropped off in first grade what seemed like mere moments ago. The thought of high school looms around the corner, and with it, the thought of college. And that really seems serious.

In the midst of all of this, you are called into the principal's office to talk about your child.

Breathe.

Now's the time to draw upon your sharply honed communication skills. Discussions between school and home during the middle school years can get tricky. But there are ways to reduce the pressure and help facilitate these talks. And there are methods parents can use as well to boost their student's chances of success by making sure the school and the family understand each other.

Most of these ideas originate from one crucial point: Remember that the real focus is the student, and whether it is a parent's love or a teacher's professional passion, the reason that everyone is talking in the first place is to teach a child.

Improving communication

Parents can begin improving communication with their child's school before any dialogue needs to happen. For example, it's important to understand the school's philosophies and expectations.

Make sure the school is a good match for your family as well as your student, and make sure you agree with their disciplinary policies and educational philosophy. Whether public or private, read any handbooks on expectations the school publishes. Ask questions of teachers or administrators if something doesn't make sense.

The language the school uses in these handbooks is likely to be the same language the teachers are speaking. Knowing and understanding it will empower you to be an active participant in the conversation.

Reading books or attending school talks about middle-school development helps put into context what the school is telling you about your child. It can be hard to hear that your child lied to a teacher or teased another student, but it can be helpful to know that these actions are common ways for middle-schoolers to test their boundaries and forge their independence. Parents who understand the developmental context are more easily able to work with the school to educate the student.

Sometimes, parents and teachers can have trouble communicating because they are watching two different students. I've known parents who don't believe that their student has made a mistake and parents who don't believe that their child has been so successful. A student who is the epitome of a responsible individual at home might very well make different decisions in a group. Similarly, a child having a hard time at home might be able to keep it together at school.

Keeping an open line of communication with your child is an important way to address many of these issues -- but can be difficult in middle school. Where six months ago a child came home and reported every detail of his day, now the answers are more laconic. "Fine" is how the day went. "Fine" is how the friends are doing. Giving your student space to become his own person is crucial, but so is making sure he is comfortable talking with you about important issues. If you hear first from your child that he is having trouble in math, you will have a better understanding of the issue, and be able to talk with the school so that they can better help your child succeed.

Above all else, remember that the teachers and administrators have the same goal you do -- to raise and educate a child.

Education is about making mistakes and learning from them. And middle school is a great time to make mistakes -- as long as you get caught. Students who break a rule and are reprimanded by the school learn what kind of behavior is appropriate in society and what is not. And they learn it when the stakes are low -- when the GPA isn't on a transcript and colleges aren't watching.

There are, of course, those few students that don't need to make mistakes in order to learn right from wrong.

For the rest of the world, a supportive school and family who work as a team is the best chance they have of making the process of learning the hard way as easy as possible.

Wendy Lawrence is a Seattle-based writer and middle-school head of Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland.

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