10 Tips for Guiding Your Child Through the Middle School Years

The years of early adolescence are full of change and challenge. At Waynflete, we see this juncture as one of profound growth and discovery. Our students are leading community drives, working with younger peers, mentored by Upper School students, and otherwise immersed in the curriculum. We emphasize skill-building and perspective during the three years. Our faculty are invested in Middle School and have broad experience in supporting students and families, and we offer the following advice as you anticipate your child’s entry into Middle School:

1. The Middle School years are a continuum

We see such growth and differentiation over the middle school years. Psychologists refer to adolescence as a spectrum or continuum, and your child may find themself in various places based on the skill or habit they are cultivating. Other than the years between birth and two years, the middle school years present the greatest amount of development within the narrowest time frame. We encourage parents to work on seeing their child as an individual on this continuum, and resist the urge to seek comparisons to other grade-level peers.

2. Appreciate Middle School for its own sake

The faculty at Waynflete are devoted to Middle School- they cherish the chance to support students during a tumultuous time. Part of what they bring to the program is an appreciation of Middle School for its own sake. While these years provide a bridge between childhood and young adulthood, they are also discrete moments that can stand on their own. There is an immediacy to the experience—when students learn about themselves as students, figure out what works for them in the classroom, work through issues in friendship and relationship, and take on the challenge of thinking critically—that is unique to this time.

3. Let the foundation build and focus on skill-building

The words “skills” and “skill-building” are at the center of conversations between students and faculty in the classroom. We believe that organization is a multi-faceted skill that needs to be nurtured and developed through real, lived experience. Our faculty members walk students through the fundamentals across the disciplines, from linear note-taking to how to structure a five-paragraph essay. Faculty members work in 6-12 departments and work in tandem to structure skill development in meaningful ways. The challenge for parents at times is to resist the urge to “take over” a project. Instead, we encourage parents to go back to the skill(s) that are developing and ask questions of their child about the process. As the frontal lobe of the brain develops, the skills of executive function and organization deepen, and our teachers are here to help students as they get to “know themselves” as learners.

4. Encourage self-advocacy

Each student has a grade-level advisor who also teaches them in one of their academic subjects. Students begin homeroom each morning with their advisor and a group of grade-level peers. Advisors are here to support students in the day-to-day moments, and we work hard to create a setting in which students can ask for help and become self-advocates as they navigate the challenge of multiple assignments and commitments. Parents can play a huge role in encouraging their child’s self-advocacy. It may be the first time that a child has needed help with an assignment or additional support and guiding them towards taking the first step establishes agency and voice.

5. Let your child fail gracefully

Sometimes, our students fail in their efforts to complete an assignment or another academic commitment. Our teachers create an environment where it is safe to fail; failure can open up dialogue and further self-advocacy. As a teacher myself, I value authenticity above all else; I want to know my students as they truly are. Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of parenting is letting your child fail gracefully. While we do not underestimate the challenges involved, we encourage parents to do so, as that’s where learning and growth can happen. Our program is structure so that students “start over” each quarter; grades are not cumulative, which allows students to apply what they have learned from their experience within a set time frame.

6. View teachers as partners

As you support your child in speaking up and advocating for their individual needs, we don’t want to miss out on valuable conversation and context. Our teachers value the opportunity to work with parents and students in tandem, knowing that those relationships inform their work and the program overall. We hold parent conferences twice a year to encourage those conversations, knowing that so many interactions and moments occur before and after the formal conference. It can be reassuring to talk to your child’s teacher, and they always walk away with greater insight about how to support your child. Give them a call!

7. Learn to say ‘no’ and set boundaries, especially around technology

Every year, students remind us that they need boundaries and parameters in order to thrive. At school, we collect iPads before every school vacation as a way of setting a boundary between the academic program and family time. In her book The Big Disconnect, psychologist and educator Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair reminds us that setting norms at home is a way of protecting family relationships. Each family functions differently, and so parents need to create boundaries that work for their unique circumstances. Learning to say “no” can be so important, and it is reassuring to children to see that their parent is in charge and looking out for their best interests.

8. Allow for more independence over the Middle School years

Our eighth graders remind us of the growth that occurs in a two-year period, and our approach needs to honor that development. Having the same rules and expectations can feel confining to students as they develop. Open up a conversation with your child about what works for them, how they are feeling and what they would like to see in terms of greater trust for their own independence. Allowing children to ‘earn’ their privileges can be beneficial, as well as establishing regular times to talk about what’s working and what could improve.

9. Don’t talk about issues in moments of conflict

Some of our best conversations take place in the car, en route to school or an appointment, outside of a moment of conflict. In a heightened period of self-consciousness, talking about issues in a more general fashion can be more productive. For parents, asking “How might you approach this situation?” or “What could _______ have done differently?” can lead to open dialogue. Then, when you are in a moment of conflict, you can refer back to the shared context of a meaningful conversation for reference. Your child learns about your own values and hopes in these moments, instead of remembering solely the tone of the interaction.

10. Know your story/narrative

Raising children can activate and remind us of our own stories and narratives, especially in moments of challenge and conflict. This is especially true if you struggled mightily in Middle School. At Waynflete, we offer many opportunities for parents to connect and share as a way of honoring those stories and understanding them more deeply. Your child is not you- they are their own unique person whose story is unfolding. Cultivating an awareness of your own story- how you handled moments in your childhood- can be hugely beneficial in separating what is yours from what is theirs.