Dear Mr. Dad: I enjoy reading your columns every week. You recently wrote about kids making the transition from elementary to middle school. Your suggestion of keeping the communication lines open with teens is excellent. More listening than talking is very good indeed. But I think you focused too much on the parents and how they should stay in touch with the teachers. What about the kids themselves? Don’t you think they should be taking more responsibility for their own education?
A: You’re absolutely right (and so are the other readers who wrote in with similar comments). Middle school isn’t just about the parents; kids should definitely be learning how to be more responsible and self-sufficient. However, early on, they may need a little help. Here’s are a few suggestions (including some from readers)
- Be Interested: Ask what she’s learning or doing in the classroom, with friends, or on the sports field. Insist on answers that are longer than one word. When I pick my 7th grader up after school, she’s not allowed to fire up her phone until she’s talked to me for five minutes about her day. Knowing you’re interested in her education will help your child stay (or get) motivated to stay on top of things on her own. Other ways to do this include volunteering at the school and attending as many school events (including teacher conferences) as you can.
- Organization: Many—but not all—schools require kids to have a calendar or planner for keeping track of their homework, projects, and due dates. But having a planner doesn’t mean your child will actually use it, or that completed assignment will make the arduous trip from his desk, into his backpack, and into the classroom. Keeping a checklist by your front door can help eliminate a lot of problems. (Lunch? Check. Soccer cleats? Check. Homework? Check. Are you sure? Yes. Really? Oh, wait, it’s on my desk….) Help your child find a system that works for him, whether it’s lists, separate binders, directories on the computer, or whatever.
- Prioritizing: Talk with your child about how to identify tasks that need to be done right now vs. those that are due tomorrow or next week. If your middle-schooler tends to get frustrated or overwhelmed, help her break larger projects down into smaller, less-daunting chunks. Instead of doing 100 math problems in one sitting, divide them up and intersperse them with other assignments. Help her come up with a system that works for her and her individual learning style.
- Routines: Having a set schedule for homework can keep your child on track. A short decompression period before diving in is good, as are regular breaks. If possible, stay nearby. That’s so you can help your child stay focused and be there in case she needs help with an assignment.
- Praise: Grades offer pretty good feedback on how a child is doing in school, but not everyone gets good ones. It’s especially important that you acknowledge the time and effort your child put into a particular project or homework assignment even if the grades were less than ideal.
- Trust but Verify: For the first part of the year, it’s okay to make frequent reminders and require your child to show you her progress every day. But don’t turn into a crutch—or a helicopter. Over time, make fewer and fewer reminders.
- Consequences: As your active involvement and reminders decrease, your child’s freedom to make decisions will increase. Gradually, he’ll also learn to deal with consequences, which could range from winning an award to failing a class. It’s up to him.