by Rachelle Tannenbaum
Parenting is a series of constant challenges, but the middle school years are in some ways the most challenging of all. Parents are confronted with children whose bodies and minds are undergoing tremendous change, who are striving for independence yet still reliant on their parents. This month, Professor Elner Prater will give us some advice on how to handle children during this stage of life.
Elner Prater is an assistant professor of reading at Anne Arundel Community College. Prior to coming to AACC, Professor Prater worked in a wide variety of educational settings with students of all ability levels in elementary through high school. Her experiences included teaching all subjects in elementary school; teaching math, science, and English at middle and high schools; and serving as a reading specialist at a school for teen mothers. She was also a mentor for new teachers and an assistant principal in the Baltimore City schools.
If you’d like to learn more about this month’s topic, we offer a variety of courses addressing issues faced by parents of tweens and teens. On our courses page you will find details about “Understanding Adolescents,” “Parenting Children with ADHD,” “Pharm Parties: The Truth About Teen Drug Abuse,” and more! And as always, remember that you can bring us to your neighborhood if you’d like us to offer a course (or design a new one) for your school or community organization.
UNDERSTANDING THE MIDDLE SCHOOL-AGED CHILD
by Elner W. Prater
Throughout my career, I have worked with students in all grades, and have found that teaching the middle school student was the most difficult. (And this was after teaching first graders who required babying, coaxing and innumerable repetitions to help them learn basic skills!). Parenting middle school students can be incredibly trying, but if you understand why they behave as they do, it will become a lot easier to help them stay focused and positive.
Think for a moment about all the life changes facing middle school students:
- Middle schools are structured differently from elementary schools. Students leaving elementary school are used to being guided from the morning until the afternoon bells rings. They are accustomed to having one, perhaps, two teachers during the course of a day. As middle school students, though, they are supposed to adjust to working with 5-6 teachers with 5-6 different personalities all in one day. In addition, these same students who months earlier had been used to moving everywhere as a class must now wade through crowds of students and somehow find the cafeteria or the room for their next class within five minutes! The students may or may not be with an old school friend but if they are, the friend is likely to be confused, too! Because of this need to adjust and to learn to find their own way, some middle school students become angry and aggressive out of frustration. Some of them do not stay focused because of all of the “newness” and the independence thrust upon them.
- Relationships with parents change with age. Some parents “release” themselves from the responsibility of continuing to nurture their children because the children, to borrow a military phrase, are “in the army [middle school], now”! The adults are needed just as much, if not more at this point, because so much is happening quickly in the children's young lives. Middle schoolers can sense if a parent is “with” them or is unconcerned. Parents need to take the time to really listen to their children and take their views and concerns seriously.
- Children’s bodies are going through serious changes. As the body is changing, so too are the brain's processes changing. Students may not verbalize it to adults, but they are often confused or nervous about what is happening to them inside.
- Children become more capable of sophisticated thought. This can be both a plus and a minus. They can now tackle abstract issues that were too complex for them before, but on the other hand they can now argue more effectively than they used to!
Considering all of the life changes facing children this age, is it any wonder that they are viewed so negatively at home and at school? So what can parents do? Here are a few suggestions:
- Educate yourself about developmental changes in adolescence. Find out the characteristics of the middle school aged child – physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. Talk to your pediatrician. Read a reliable reference. Talk to relatives and friends who have pre-teens. Teachers, talk to co-workers who have successfully worked with this age group.
- Talk WITH, not TO, your child. LOOK at him/her. LISTEN. SHARE your own experiences. Find out what your child’s likes, dislikes, and short- and long-term goals.
- Stay involved in your child’s life—every aspect of it! Peers are important at this age, but pre-teens and teenagers still look to parents for guidance on life’s difficult issues. You need to work out ways to gradually give your child more independence but not abdicate your responsibility altogether.
- Attend school and community functions that involve your child. This helps you keep tabs on your kids’ behavior; it also shows your kids that you care.
- Work with your child’s teachers to help him or her adjust to changes in school. This may not be necessary for all kids, but if problems do arise then it’s critical not to ignore them.
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