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Motivating Middle Schoolers: A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Academics

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As a school counselor, I found that one of the major middle school parent “eye-openers” was the change in academic expectations at the middle school level. All of a sudden, students were assigned to teams, changing classes, choosing electives, and dealing with “tons” of homework. Interestingly, the kids seemed to deal with these changes with few issues. It was the parents who suffered the most. Middle school brings student desire for more freedom and independence…and that means academically, too. How do parents navigate the shifting sands of rooting their children on and not rescuing? How do parents help and not hover? Here are some ideas for ways you can make the transition to middle school more successful for both you and your child.

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Help Your Middle Schooler Go from Survive to Thrive

Organization: One of the keys to being academically successful is the art of organizing and planning. This is where parents can be of great help to their kids. However, in creating an organized system, you have to make sure that it works for the one who needs the organization…so let the kids have a voice. AND, whatever plan you come up with, make sure that you stick with it. Perseverance is the key, and it’s another place where parents can play a significant role. Here are some suggestions:

*Write Assignments Down. I can’t stress how important this is. In middle school, students begin to change classes and work with a team of teachers. Homework increases. Kids often have the best of intentions, but having the best of intentions won’t help when you forget to do something because you didn’t write it down. Personally, I like an assignment notebook but, in this technological age, many prefer their cell phone. Whatever choice is made, insist that your child use some form of writing down assignments, quizzes, tests, etc. As the parent, check to see that this is done; I’d suggest starting out by checking every day but, after a while, do it sporadically so they don’t expect when you will check. This isn’t a “gotcha”; it’s about establishing a sense of responsibility and accountability. If they mess up, go back to checking every day. Some teachers have assignments and upcoming tests/quizzes on their websites; this can always be used as a back-up, but I’d insist that the child take responsibility for noting what they are supposed to do.

*Plan for Long-Term Assignments and Exams: This is another area where parents can be of great help. Kids don’t see “long-term,” they see “now.” That can prove to be disastrous when it comes to academic success. Those due dates can sneak up and leave a student in a panic that leads to a poor grade because s/he hasn’t planned well. Finishing huge assignments last minute and cramming for tests are definitely NOT the way to go!

I definitely like the “backwards-by-design” approach when planning for big assignments or exams. Get a large calendar…it can be on paper or on a white board. When a longer-term assignment or exam is given, have a discussion with your child about the calendar. When is the activity due? Mark that on the calendar. What are the pieces to that activity that need to be accomplished in order to have a successful result? For a paper, it might be things like: choose a topic, research the topic, make note cards, create an outline, write a first draft, write a revision, and write the final copy. For an exam, it might be worth noting how many chapters need to be reviewed. Once all of those pieces are determined, work from the due date backwards and note when each piece needs to be finished. Chunking the assignment and studying in this way makes it all seem more doable and manageable. Another idea is to put the completion date ahead of when it’s actually due. That provides more breathing room as well as time to do last minute changes, if necessary.

Extra Help: Rare is the student who, at one time or the other, doesn’t need some extra help. I’m sorry, parents, but the BEST people to provide this are the teachers. They know the curriculum, they know what’s expected, and they know what’s on the test. The vast majority of teachers have times before and/or after school when they are available for help. These are great times to get help because it can be one-on-one or with a small group, depending on how many other students are there. If you aren’t sure about when teachers are available, check with your school counselor. S/he can find out and can also alert the teacher that your child needs some help. The school counselor can also talk with your child about the need for extra help and set up a schedule for that to happen.

The School Counselor: You are going to need help at some point during your child’s middle school career. Your school counselor is the best place to start. These individuals are highly trained professionals who provide comprehensive services in social/emotional, academic and career development. They are your child’s best advocate, problem-solvers, and liaisons with teachers and administration. They can help you find resources both inside and outside of school. They are great sounding boards and can provide a wealth of information for parents. Do not hesitate to keep them informed of pertinent information regarding your child and family; they need information to be able to help. One of my greatest frustrations was when parents would withhold information about their child. In many of the cases, I could have made interventions on behalf of the child that could have alleviated some of the student’s and family’s angst. Call upon your school counselor; they are there to help you.

RELATED: Get To Know Your Middle-Schooler's Guidance Counselor

Now…when all that planning ahead fails, as it likely will at some point another, what should you do? Here’s my most important piece of advice:

DON’T RESCUE!!! You will be tempted, as we all are, to bail your kid out of a jam. They left their assignment on their desk at home. They left their musical instrument at home. They didn’t complete their homework. They failed a test. They bombed a project. It’s going to happen, and your stomach will likely be in knots as you listen to your child wail and whine, blast the teacher, their friend, you…anyone other than the one who is really responsible…HIM/HER.

Failure and disappointment are facts of life. It happens to all of us. We learn best when something impacts us soundly, and we have to handle it. That’s when we learn how to be resourceful and resilient. We learn that, even when things don’t turn out the way we want, we can still figure a way out. That’s what’s important for you to do as the parent; be the guide, not the rescuer, to help them figure a way out.

Step 1: “So…what are you going to do about this?” That is the most important question a parent can ask at times like this. A) It lets your child know that YOU aren’t taking this on as YOUR issue. B) It lets your child know that you believe in his/her ability to solve the situation him/herself. This is critical for life success.

I had a popular middle school student who seemed to have it all. He was smart, well-liked, athletic, and good-looking. As he walked through the halls, the girls would swoon, the boys showed respect, and the teachers looked at him adoringly. He was perfect. As the school counselor, I saw a bit of a different picture…I saw a young man who lacked self-confidence, was a nervous wreck as he strived for perfection, and could not make a decision on his own. Why? Because his mom worked him like a puppet behind the scenes. She made every decision about his life. She turned in every form he was given, filled out every application, and took care of every mishap. One day I looked at her and said, “I know you love your son very much but, when you do everything for him, the message you are giving him is this: ‘Honey, I love you but you’re not capable.’” Her eyes flew open wide in astonishment. I went on to explain that I knew that wasn’t her intention, but that’s what came through loud and clear when she took all responsibility from him.

Be your child’s guide…not the puppeteer. When a situation arises, ask them what they plan to do about it. Listen…don’t suggest…just listen. If they have nothing to say, tell them to go think about it and then come back with a plan. And give them a time limit so they don’t think you might forget about it.

When they present the plan, ask the next question: “If you do this plan, what might be the positive and negative outcomes?” Write them down in columns so they can see it in print. Next question: “So looking at this list of pros and cons, do you think this choice will work for you?” If the answer is no, go back to the first question (“What are you going to do about it?”). Once a decision is made, let them know you are expecting to hear the outcome of that decision. And let them go. If it turns out well, you give them kudos: “I knew you would figure it out.” If it doesn’t turn out well, go back to the first question.

This won’t be easy. We all want the best for our kids, and we want to make things better for them when they are hurting or are disappointed. But we also want them to be good decision-makers in their lives, and we want them to know that their parents believe in them. If we do everything for our kids, they will never have that belief. So resist the temptation to rescue.

These tips don’t just serve the middle school student and parent…they serve the high school student and parent, and the college student and parent, and the job-seeking and employed child and their parent. These are life lessons. These are life lessons that promote resiliency, success, and happiness. And isn’t that exactly what we wish for our children?

This piece is part of a week-long series with tips for how parents can help their kids survive middle school. Check out some of the other posts about middle schooler's developing brains and how to survive social drama. More to come each day this week!

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