What Middle Schoolers Don’t Need (and What They Do)

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I recently read an excellent blog titled  Four Things Children Do Not Need, and it got me thinking about what middle schoolers do not need–and what they do.  :

What they don’t need:

  1. Belittling–they’re hard on themselves already, and they spend the day feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers.  Instead of focusing on their flaws, look for what’s going well in their lives, and point it out in an offhanded way:  “I noticed you were patient with your brother.”
  2. Pressure–Grades don’t matter as much in middle school as work habits do.  Students who experience too much pressure are tempted to cheat or develop anxiety.  Help them to figure out how to organize in a way that makes sense to them and encourage strengthening skills such as writing, mental math, and critical thinking.  Such skills will help build success in high school.
  3. Overcommitment–If your middle schooler can’t start homework until 8 or 9 o’clock every night, it may be time to drop an activity.  Experimenting at this age is great, but more than one or two teams or commitments is too many and often interferes with their sleep schedule.  Making choices is an important life skill!
  4. Interrogation–This came straight from a 7th grader and was echoed by her peers:  “Every day my parents ask the same question: ‘How was school today?’ Then they get upset when I say it was fine!” I asked how parents are supposed to know what’s going on, and the response was unanimous–assume everything’s normal until you hear otherwise.

What they do need:

  1. Honesty/Openness–Again, this came from the middle schoolers.  If Grandma is really sick, they want to know.  Shielding kids from adult troubles is not a bad thing, but do speak the truth, even if it’s only a portion of the big picture.  In the words of an 8th grader, don’t “sugarcoat” everything.
  2. Unconditional Love–Teens who know they have this from their parents won’t have to make them prove it.  If your middle schooler fails a class, or gets caught smoking, or sends a bullying text, will your forgiveness be a given?  Of course there will be consequences, but is your continued love a no-brainer in your middle schooler’s mind and heart?
  3. Boundaries–They already have friends their own age; what they need from you is parenting.  Sometimes they will get mad, and they may even hate you, but they will get over it.  Be firm but fair, stay as calm as possible, but do hand out consequences and then stick with them.  No teen ever died from having a phone taken away, and no parent yet has been hospitalized from a fierce glare or a cold shoulder.
  4. Value–People of all ages want to be listened to, taken seriously, and understood.  Teens especially feel this as they begin the transition to adulthood.  Let your middle schoolers know they matter by pocketing your phone, listening without interrupting, and responding with empathy–the same as you want them to do for you.  Follow some of their suggestions and speak well of them within their hearing.  Hug them when they’ll let you, and send them understanding looks when they won’t.

These years are intense, but they will pass quickly and leave you with a high schooler.  Invest in your relationship now.  Stay connected and supportive, and you may find the last half of the teen years to be easier than the first!

 

 

 

Sometimes You Get It Right

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A friend with sons ages 12 and 15 recently told me this story:

I had a good parenting moment this morning.  My son lied to me and tried to brush it off,  so I told him I was disappointed with him.  I pointed out that he wants respect and trust from me, but then he lies to me.  I said, “That’s not how it works,” and I walked away without delivering a lecture. 

After he’d showered, we were in the kitchen together when he actually said, “Sorry I lied to you, Mom.”  I said, “Thanks, Bud,” and went on with my morning routine.  I am always shocked when it turns out like that.

Three things this mom did right:

  1. Delivering an “I” message (“I’m disappointed”) instead of making an accusation;
  2. Making her point in only a few words and then walking away;
  3. Accepting his apology with grace and ending it there.

She also managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of parenting teens, such as yelling or belittling, which only lead to more issues like disrespect or defensive attitudes.

Sometimes parents feel that there’s no avoiding hostility and anger when confronting teens, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you can take a deep breath and keep calm, you’re more likely to get the results you want–and avoid those that you don’t want!

 

The Art of Understatement

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Right in the middle of my lesson, a student stood up and walked across the room, heading for the trash can. He was pretty much oblivious that I was still talking, so I had to do something to let him know he was a distraction.  I could’ve said, “Excuse me?  Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m teaching here!  Go back to your seat!”

Instead, I stopped talking and gently cleared my throat.  He froze and stared at me, then sheepishly crept back to his seat.

I deal with a dozen or so incidents each day where I have to choose between making a big deal out of it or being more low key.  If I can handle something in a way that gets what I want while saving a student from embarrassment, that’s the direction I’ll take.

Some of my favorite understated reactions:

  • Raising my eyebrows and shrugging, in a silent “What the heck?” gesture
  • Chuckling and shaking my head
  • Saying, “No-no” in a light tone
  • Wagging my finger
  • Pointing to the student and then to where she should be
  • Saying “Sh” in a gentle tone
  • Using my fingers to pantomime sitting or walking
  • Making eye contact and giving a subtle shake of my head

Teens are self-conscious, insecure, and easily embarrassed.  Put them on the spot and/or make them uncomfortable, and you can expect defensiveness in return. Then you get to deal with what parents like to call “attitude.”

But if you can get the desired behavior, or change in behavior, without calling unwanted attention to your teen, you’ll not only get cooperation–you’ll get huge amounts of appreciation.

When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?

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If you were to pick up your teen’s phone and see the above icon, it wouldn’t raise your suspicions.  It’s designed that way, to look innocent and practical.  And while it can be used as a calculator, its actual purpose is to hide pictures and files from prying parental eyes.  All the phone user has to do is enter a secret code to access whatever has been hidden from the regular photo app.

There are many similar apps available to download.  I googled “Apps for Hiding Photos” and received quite an education.  Some of the apps have more obvious names like Photo Vault or KeepSafe.  Others have ambiguous names like KYMS or Fotox.

How can parents find out if their teens have hidden apps?

  1. Have full access to any electronic devices, which means either knowing passcodes and passwords or getting them upon request.  Just the possibility of parents checking up on them will keep many teens from using phones for inappropriate activities.
  2. Take steps to insure apps can’t be downloaded without a password known only by the parents.  Change the password occasionally.
  3. Monitor your teen’s phone or tablet.  Occasionally ask about apps, especially new ones.  Go to the App Store on an iPhone, Google Play on an Android, or Microsoft Store/Marketplace on a Windows phone and check out the purchased apps.  If it says “Open,” that means it’s on the phone.  If there’s a picture of a cloud with an arrow pointing down, it’s been downloaded but is no longer being used.    If it says “Get,” it hasn’t been downloaded.

Some parents are afraid of invading their teen’s privacy by taking such steps.  I like to ask if they’d allow their teen to have a stranger in the bedroom with the door closed.  Allowing unmonitored use of any device with internet access carries the same risks.  Wise parents will engage in a little privacy invasion to protect their teens.

And just FYI, most – if not all – smartphones come with built-in calculators.  Real ones.

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.

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?