On 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.