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Tips for Middle School Parents

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By Jake Burnett At a recent information evening, MS Principal Jake Burnett gave parents some advice for helping their children navigate Middle School. Read his speech below! You may have heard me mention that one of the key points of excitement – and tension – in the journey through the Middle School is that we are navigating that fascinating phase where students join us as children, having been part of an ‘elementary style’ system of education, and then, in a few short years, when they leave the Middle School, they are young adults, prepared and ready for ‘high school.’ That is a heck of a lot of change in a short time, and one of the key things that I have learnt is that this journey is not an exact science. It’s messy. Braden Bell wrote a fabulous article in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago, where he likened the journey through Middle School as a continual ‘dress rehearsal’ – the more polished and precise and managed the dress rehearsal is, the more likely the final performance will be lacking. In fact, this very piece is inspired by his structure and his observations, as well as some recent conversations I have been having with a very good friend of mine, Mr. Doug Palm, the Principal of the Senior School, and proud dad of two great kids in Grades 6 and 8. Because of this ‘messiness,’ we worry that it will lead to a disastrous future for our children. With good intentions, we jump in and initiate, fix and micromanage, telling ourselves we will stop when our child matures enough to take over. But as I said, Middle School is supposed to be messy. This is how our how kids mature. This means making lots of mistakes, then experiencing consequences just strong enough to be an incentive for correction, but not strong enough to be damaging. This can be summed up in five brief snapshots. 1) Help your child to advocate for themselves, rather than stepping in. There will be times when your child thinks his teachers are unfair, or his peers – or even friends – are mean. Your child might well be right. But letting them handle this won’t hurt; it will teach some important lessons, such as how to resolve problems. Most routine actions that occur in school – including grades, class placement, discipline or unstructured play – will absolutely not hurt any child’s future. If it becomes necessary, please contact the teacher who is most involved in the situation to help facilitate a discussion. We are here to help, to clarify and communicate. If this isn’t working, please do let me know and I’ll do my best to help. But if you don’t step back in middle school, when will you? High school? College? First job? At your child’s marriage? Every problem we solve directly as adults is likely to delay the development of responsibility and independence. 2) Help your child understand the importance of perspective. This is closely related to not intervening. Middle School can be an extraordinarily difficult time for students. Living through all the changes – social, physical, emotional – is enormously complex, and that’s before adding academic and extracurricular stresses. This requires tremendous effort and strength. If you were to pause on only one moment of that process it might seem terrible. In the Middle School, a day can appear unending and remorseless. A relatively minor event can take on epic or tragic proportions (or both) in the mind of an adolescent. As an adult, it’s easy to either discount these times or to overreact. One of the greatest gifts adults can give at these times is to listen with empathy and then provide assurance that this does not last forever, that things will get better. All of the adults in the GNS community could respond to almost every difficult moment with some version of, “I am so sorry. I know this is hard. It will be okay. You can do this. It will pass, I promise.” 3) Recognize effort and ‘doing your best’ rather than outcomes. Our children’s future happiness and success will be determined largely by their ability to work hard and to push through difficulties. To that end, this is the place to reinforce work ethic, determination and kindness. We all want our students to make progress and learn well, but it is always the most useful to really dig into how our kids got to where they now are (wherever that may be). We have been working hard so that our Middle School students learn to study and prepare, to persist and persevere. We are helping our children to learn to plan time and be balanced and develop ongoing self-management skills. The right habits will eventually help yield good grades. Habits, attitudes, attributes and relationships will endure, good or bad. 4) Work on ways to nurture and develop empathy in your child. This is where it is so important for us adults to model good listening habits with our children. And also to ask questions about what the other person might be thinking or feeling. Most adolescents are keenly aware of how they feel but are almost completely, sometimes comically, unable to see the other side of any situation. Empathy can be broken down into learning to imagine what someone else is seeing, thinking and feeling. 5) Have tons of fun and laugh along the way! Middle School is when children are old enough to be more independent while still being young enough to be affectionate and childlike. It’s a special time, and it goes fast. Laughter is a powerful corrective. It helps create perspective, defuses tense situations and gives grace to someone who feels that they have failed. No one single thing, in my experience, that any Middle School student I have known has ever been so heinous that there isn’t a place for laughter as part of the reflective process. No one single poor choice or action that any Middle School student I have known has ever made affected a resumé, came up in a job application or interview, or affected anyone’s entry to university.