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Seven ways parents and educators can improve kids’ middle school experience

(Delphine Lee/For The Washington Post)

“I just want to get my child through eighth grade,” my friend Jon told me. “I expected middle school to be tough, but not this tough.” In seventh grade, his daughter’s friends shunned her when she broke up with a boy who told everyone she had fabricated the relationship. “It was the perfect storm, the kind of experience that toys with a middle schooler’s self-worth,” Jon said.

Stories like this perpetuate the cultural narrative that middle school is a time of social churn and suffering, but they paint an incomplete picture. Yes, tweens can be impulsive, insensitive and mean, but they also are empathetic, attuned to injustice and wired for moral action.

As a school counselor, I know many parents feel powerless to help, but this isn’t a phase to sit out, especially because middle schools are often misaligned with tweens’ needs to belong, assert autonomy, connect, establish a positive self-identity and exercise independence.

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“Suddenly, there may be no more recess or choice time; they’re going from teacher to teacher with new sets of peers; and they’re feeling more achievement pressure,” explains Nancy Deutsch, director of the Youth-Nex Center at the University of Virginia and a leader of the Remaking Middle School Initiative, a national movement to improve middle school.

The data shows these efforts are critical. Kids’ self-esteem, creativity and academic engagement all take a hit during these years. Girls’ confidence levels, in particular, drop 30 percent between ages eight and 14, according to a YPulse study, and researchers reported in the Journal of Early Adolescence that starting a new school in sixth or seventh grade negatively affects students’ motivation and academic self-identity.

As momentum builds to transform middle school, here are seven ways parents and educators can work within the existing model to better address tweens’ distinct needs and soften their journey.

Trust them with responsibility

When tweens are given responsibility, it improves their self-perception. Megan Vroman, principal of Ida B. Wells Middle School in the District, told me about an eighth-grade girl who got into a big fight with her younger siblings in front of the school and whose consequence was to greet younger students at the front door for a week. “She had such a fun time that she started coming to the front week after week,” she says. “She re-framed herself as a leader and didn’t get into any more fights with her siblings for the rest of the year.”

At Fulton Middle School in Missouri, students are part of the teacher interview panel, says Beth Houf, the school’s principal and author of “Lead Like a Pirate: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff.” “Kids who have a voice at the table feel ownership, and they’re less likely to tear down systems they helped build,” she explains.

Parents can encourage kids to take on more responsibility, too. Help your child brainstorm ideas, whether it’s starting a babysitting business, preparing a family meal or helping a younger sibling with homework.

Help them with self-identity

Tweens are trying to figure out who they are and whether they’re good enough at a time when they most want to fit in. They can be intolerant of any differences, including their own, and they need safe spaces where they can explore salient aspects of their identity — such as their race or sexual identity — with peers who relate.

In one survey, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that students who attend a middle school with a gender and sexuality alliance hear 20 percent less homophobic remarks, feel 29 percent safer and are 48 percent less likely to be bullied. Affinity groups foster inclusion and acceptance for everyone.

Middle schoolers are more self-accepting when they understand everyone has a backstory, but that can only happen if they leave their social comfort zones. Schools can accomplish this by mixing up lunch room seating, says Joanna Lee Williams, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, “but it needs to be intentional so it’s not sorted stereotypically with gamer kids at one table and sporty kids at another.”

Parents also can instill a positive identity. Show your child images of beauty, power and intelligence that look like them, and talk about the origin of their name, meaningful family rituals and favorite family recipes. Then ask yourself: “Who does my child see me befriending? Do my friends all look like me?” If you model inclusion and avoid stereotyping people, your child will learn that everyone is worthy of respect — including themselves.

Give them ways to serve

Tweens are less likely to focus on perceived social slights or their own imperfections when they’re looking outward and serving others. Volunteering also appeals to tweens’ desire to make a difference.

Vroman said that when she took a group of middle school students to Europe, they were grumpy and complained incessantly. “They didn’t want to walk around the Louvre Museum because their feet hurt,” she says. The night before they left, the group decided to give their leftover food from dinner to homeless people they passed on the street.

“The students came alive in a totally different way — it was something I hadn’t seen all trip,” Vroman recalls. “They didn’t speak the language and there were so many barriers, but they were so excited to serve. Middle schools need to reinforce that kids are not too young to make a difference, and then infuse that throughout the school.”

At home, talk to your child about problems they’ve observed, and help them engage in volunteer work that appeals to them.

Foster relationships with adults

Tweens benefit from consistent relationships with sensitive adults, but they may have to start from scratch in middle school. “It was a big shock for my son after having one teacher and one classroom in elementary school,” says Teru Clavel, the author of “World Class: One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for her Children.” “He would say, ‘I have no adult go-to person, the counselor only knows the disciplinary cases, and I’m a number floating in a sea.’ ”

In a typical middle school, “kids are less likely to believe their teachers care about them, feel less connected socially and their achievement actually declines,” notes Robert Dodd, the principal of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. He started Project SUCCESS in Montgomery County Public Schools to enable some middle schoolers to spend half their day with one teacher and a consistent group of peers.

Casey Siddons, a former teacher in the program, found that spending concentrated time with students allowed him to understand and help them. One student had a history of clashing with adults, but Siddons was able to tap into his desire to please his mother, a single parent. “I realized that everything the boy did — both good and bad — was about how she would feel,” he explains.

In schools without small learning environments, parents can leverage the role of counselors. Encourage your child to spend time getting to know their teachers and coaches, too, and help them identify potential mentors.

Help them relate to peers

Tweens need to feel they belong, and community circles allow them to share their feelings and perspectives with peers in a moderated environment, says Nathan Maynard, chief executive of BehaviorFlip and co-author of “Hacking School Discipline.” “For kids who struggle to use their voice, it’s a way to open the door to communication,” he adds.

Though developing a sense of belonging might seem like a touchy-feely goal, “tweens don’t learn if they don’t feel safe,” says Brad Weinstein, co-author of “Hacking School Discipline” and chief innovation officer of BehaviorFlip.

Parents can help socially struggling kids outside of school by enrolling children in activities that align with their strengths and interests. This gives them an opportunity to practice social skills with like-minded kids. Encourage them to maintain bonds with friends from other environments, such as a sports team, summer camp or religious youth group.

Build in opportunities for play

Middle schoolers are still kids, and they need time to play and decompress, but they’re also young adolescents who yearn for more autonomy. In schools with no recess, “there’s a mismatch — would-be young adults seated in a classroom, with little authority of their own,” says Lenore Skenazy, a co-founder of Let Grow, a nonprofit that helps schools incorporate more free play.

Free play is “how they learn to deal with frustration, make friends, read people, hold themselves together . . . and get to feel joy,” she adds.

When middle schools carve out unstructured time for kids to move, it improves the social dynamics and helps kids focus, Vroman says. At her last school, the eighth-grade boys and girls would play basketball against one another every day during recess. “Usually they didn’t intermix — even in class — so that pickup game of basketball let them connect in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.”

Parents can avoid overscheduling kids by cutting back on organized activities and identifying ways to give them more freedom.

Make it safe to fail

Tweens are insecure, and any sort of mistake can feel like a catastrophe. To teach them to fail and recover, normalize that everyone feels self-conscious and struggles at times.

Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia, devotes an entire week to failure. On Monday, the teachers project their biggest blunders onto a screen. For the rest of the week, the students learn skills such as juggling and reciting medieval poetry, then they perform this in front of a packed auditorium. The kids learn to laugh at themselves when they mess up.

Parents can share their biggest mistakes with kids, then explain how they regrouped. If your child is feeling embarrassed or disappointed about a setback, encourage reflection. Ask, “What did you learn about yourself from the experience?” Instead of focusing on the outcome, praise them for taking a risk.

If parents and educators celebrate kids’ unevenness, address their distinct developmental needs, and coach them through the inevitable ups and downs of middle school, these years can not only be tolerable — they can be a time of joy and self-discovery.

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