Middle School? Challenge Accepted! 5 Helpful Tips for Parents

clsrmOn the first day of 7th grade my English teacher declared, “I hate 7th graders. They’re whiny, immature, and just generally unpleasant.”  As I listened to scary Mrs. Gunderson lay down her classroom rules in a no-nonsense, don’t-you-dare-interrupt voice, I was terrified.

The first weeks of middle school can be harrowing both for students and for their parents.  Here are five things parents can do to ease the transition.

1. Use the Technology

Most middle schools offer parents the opportunity to check schedules, view the school calendar, and look at homework assignments online.   The office and the teachers will probably send regular emails. Familiarize yourself with how these work, and learn to use them regularly.  Don’t rely on your middle schooler to be your main source of info.

2. Keep Calm and Don’t Overreact

When I ranted about my Truly Awful Teacher, my mom advised me to wait and see.  Today’s parents might complain to the principal or fire off an email to Mrs. Gunderson, but it’s better to wait.  Middle schoolers experience many new things in those early weeks, some scary and some awesome, but their first impressions aren’t always correct.  Listen with empathy, keeping comments to, “Wow, that does sound tough,” or “Bet that made you happy.”  Their emotions are going to be all over the place, and they’ll need you to be the stabilizer in their lives.

3. Expect Exhaustion

No matter how well it’s going, adjusting to new schedules, teachers, classmates, and buildings is going to wear out your middle schooler.  Sports, music, honors or remedial classes, and getting up earlier will also take a toll.  Consider lightening up on chores and be prepared to attribute moodiness to fatigue.  Insisting that phones be parked outside of the bedroom can head off late-night texting which would cut into sleeping hours.

4. Take a Step Back

Teach your middle schooler to stop in the doorway every morning and think, “Do I have everything?”  Middle schoolers are notorious for forgetting obvious items like homework, lunches—and even backpacks.  Rather than doing their thinking for them, give them the chance to check themselves.  After school, instead of saying, “Better get your homework done,” ask, “What’s your homework plan for tonight?”  Again, this allows self-monitoring rather than parental ruling.  If the answer is, “Not doing it,” just laugh and wait.  If the plan is unrealistic, calmly offer better options:  “Really?  Starting at 10 o’clock might not work, since you have band at 7:00 tomorrow morning.  Maybe you want to do some now and some later?”  Remember, middle schoolers still need helpful suggestions but they’ll resist being told what to do.

5. Ask the Right Questions

If your first words to your middle schooler are, “How was school?”  you’ll probably just hear “Fine.”  Wait a while and allow some processing time, then ask more specific questions:  “What was the best thing that happened at school?”  “Whose class do you like best?” “See anything strange or funny in the hallway?”  Beware of asking too many questions, though, because middle schoolers don’t like to be interrogated any more than you do.  Extroverts will want to tell their story in their own way, but introverts will want to tell you in their own time.  Watch for openings and don’t commit the sin of interrupting before they finish.

By the end of the first month, Scary Mrs. Gunderson was one of my favorite teachers.  She wasn’t really a tyrant; in fact, she had a great sense of humor and made learning interesting.  Many middle schoolers will experience similar turnarounds in their thinking, so ride out their changeable feelings and be the source of calm and comfort.  Even if the beginning is rocky, things will soon smooth out as your middle schooler settles into the new routine.

Just in time for progress reports.

Lighthouse vs. Helicopter Parenting

Essentially, when we remove all risks from our kids’ lives, we may do more long-term harm than the risk itself. ~Tim Elmore

lth

Sometimes I come across an article that is so good I just have to share it.  I’d never heard the term “lighthouse parenting” before, but author and speaker Tim Elmore makes a great case for it in this Focus on the Family article:

From Helicopter Parent to Lighthouse Parent 

heli

8 Helpful Things About Social Media

somedSometimes it’s spit out like a curse: “Blame it on social media.”  But there really are some good points to texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the like.  Let’s take a look at eight good uses of social media.

1. Finding old friends. My first students knew me as “Miss Chan.”  Not long after my husband and I married, we moved to Washington.  I figured my first students wouldn’t remember my married name, so I wouldn’t hear from them again.  I don’t know how the first one found me on Facebook, but soon an avalanche of friend requests arrived from her classmates.  I was as taken aback to see them with spouses and children as they were to realize I was only 22 when I taught them.  High school friends, college buddies, parents of both (and of old boyfriends)–almost everybody is out there somewhere, and if they’re not, you can be sure one of their family members is!

2. Keeping tabs on family.  When my children were in college, I’d use Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to know what was going on in their lives–not just so I knew when to be concerned, but also because it gave me a starting point for conversation: “Who were you talking about in that tweet?”  Facebook now helps me keep tabs on my aging mom, because when I see her like someone’s post, I know she’s up and moving.

3. Sending short messages.  Whose day hasn’t been made by a text or a message saying, “I’m thinking about you; have a great day”?  This is a great way for parents of teens to communicate their love without causing embarrassment.  If it’s a good day, you’ll even get a “Luv u 2” text in return!

4. Sharing pictures. While we may tire of selfies and food pics, some pictures can be worth far more than 1000 (typed) words.  When my math students need help, they send me a picture of the offending story problem along with what they’ve already tried, and I know where to start my tutorial.  When my mom has an error message on her iPad, she texts my son a “screenshot” (taken with her phone), and he knows how to help.  Every year I have 8th grade girls text me photos of their outfits, asking if they’re within dress code (though I usually tell them if they have to ask, it probably isn’t).

5. Creating peace of mind.  In my family, we text somebody when we arrive home safely.  Again, this is a great way to keep track of my aging mom as well as my sons, the twenty-somethings.  When they were in  high school, I told my boys I didn’t care where they went (an untruth), but if they didn’t make it home, I needed their last known whereabouts so I’d know where to start my search.

6. Making appointments.  I love scheduling medical appointments online.  I also schedule parent conferences by emailing the first draft of my schedule to parents and letting them request changes as needed.  Parents will text me midday and ask to meet after school.  And sometimes my husband and I will plan a last-minute dinner date after work!

7. Finding important–and not-so-important–information.  When my husband and I wanted to install an auxiliary port in our new used car, I went to YouTube and learned how.  When I needed lesson plans to teach physical science, I went to Pinterest.  There’s a whole community of friendly strangers at your fingertips, just waiting to give you advice.

8. Knowing when to pray.  In the “old days” (think the year 2000), having an email prayer list was an awesome invention.  Now, with a single post I can set in motion a prayer chain of hundreds, some of whom I’ll never even know.  There’s great comfort in knowing so many prayers are being lifted so quickly.  On the flip side, when one of my friends or students needs my prayers, I hear right away.  It’s not unusual for a student to contact me on Facebook with a message: “My grandma’s in the hospital; can you pray?”

Social media has its limitations, and we all need to use it with discretion, but it can simplify our lives in many ways.  Today’s teens won’t remember life without it, so it’s our responsibility to teach them how and when to use it appropriately.

Want some tips on how to do that?  Check it out on Pinterest.

Out to Lunch With 8th Graders

Choir at VB

Picture 14-year-olds at a banquet. You may be imagining spoons hanging off their noses or food flying across the table, or maybe yawns and queries of “How much longer?”

Last week I attended a luncheon with the 8th graders shown above. They were part of the entertainment, but  after singing (unexpectedly a cappella), they got to sit down for lunch just like the other guests.  They needed a little help figuring out which fork to use, and they didn’t all recognize the blue fan-shaped objects in front of their plates as napkins, but otherwise they handled it well.

Yet there were definite signs that they were 14-year-olds.  For example, two of the girls noticed teabags on the table but no hot water, so they attempted to make iced tea in their water glasses (tip: it doesn’t work).  The two boys entertained themselves playing tic-tac-toe on the program, while one of the other girls headed to the bathroom to clean the Caesar dressing off her shoe (“It wasn’t my fault!”).  One of the boys poured himself a small cup of coffee and, after adding two creams and two sugars, pronounced it “pretty good!”

Overall, I was proud of their ability to behave like young adults even as I was entertained by their antics. Middle schoolers are comfortable being children but at the same time really want to learn how to be grown-ups.  They can step it up when they need to, but they reserve the right to be silly if they feel like it. One of my secrets to getting along with this age group is to treat them like young adults but not to be surprised when they act like kids.

When the luncheon ended, I told them I was so proud of them that I was going to take them all out for dinner.  “Cool!” said one of the guys.  “Will we get to order dessert?”

A Peek Inside the Cyber World of Teens

You know about Facebook and Instagram–you may even have your own accounts—but what about Snapchat, Tumblr, or Kik?  How many YouTube celebrities can you name?  While some parents are blissfully (and frighteningly) ignorant about what teens do online, others may think they’re in the know (but aren’t).  If you don’t regularly access your teenager’s phone/tablet/computer, or if you have no idea how it even works, chances are you’re leaving your child vulnerable to more dangers than you realize.

I came across an article that I’d like to recommend, written by a young high school teacher who knows much more about the options available to teens on the internet than I ever will.  I encourage you to check it out (click anywhere on the picture to open the link):

For Every Mom

Photo via For Every Mom

Tell Me A Story

Getting a tow at LAX

Getting a tow at LAX

I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX.  Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .”  And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.

It’s a habit that began years ago.  Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.”  That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean.  If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.”  “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”

I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious.  “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.”  “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.”  If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.”  Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.

But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations.  It works just as well if there’s good news to share.  Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way.  I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going.  Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories).  Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them.  This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted.  Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them.  Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.”  You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make.  My son has a story to tell me.

Speaking in the Second Person


ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?