Understanding & Motivating the Middle School Student
Picture this dialogue….
Daughter: “Mom, I can’t go to school today!” (Stomping down the stairs)
Mom: Hugging her, mom says, “Why? Are you feeling ok?”
Daughter: “Are you kidding? Look at my hair….I can’t go to school looking like this! Can you imagine what my friends will think when I walk in looking like this!” (Tears pouring down her face)
Mom: “I am sorry hunny. You have to go to school. Is there anything I can do? How can I help?”
Daughter: “Don’t worry about it! Nobody can help this! I’ll just go. I can tell it is going to be the worst day ever!”
Has this, or something like this, happened to you? Has your child hit middle school? Whether your child starts middle school as a 6th or 7th grader, this is a time of massive and intense growth. Their bodies are flooded with emotions, making them susceptible to overreaction and mood swings. Because of the number of changes that take place, it can be a confusing, exciting, and challenging time for both parents and teens. One of the biggest things you will notice is your teen’s friendship network expands at the same time that they are adjusting to increases in school work. While grades remain important, how their hair looks for the day can sometimes rival as the top priority.
To a teen, middle school can be a great adventure. To a parent, it can be very scary! Parents may worry that their child is pulling away from family and relying more on friends for company and support. Parents may also begin to notice competing motivations between academic and social goals. This is because middle school is the transitional period when children begin to develop social and moral competencies, as well as intellectual skills. Both are important, but for different reasons. Making friends, being accepted, and gaining support from a group of peers is important to your child’s developing sense of self. Learning study skills and building good habits with regard to school is important for lifelong learning. While it is easy to compartmentalize the social and academic aspects of your teen’s life, it is important to understand that they actually go together. Research shows that those who feel connected to and supported by peers, parents, and teachers do better in school. Part of our role as parents is to recognize this and help teens develop skills to balance social and academic commitments.
Of course, parents want to see their children do well in school and in social situations. We have all heard, or even said ourselves, “I want my children to have it easier than I did“. While some studies have shown that the transition to middle school can make young teens vulnerable to declines in self-esteem and even grades, others have provided guidelines to protect young teens from potential setbacks. Here are a few things to think about as you help your teen develop good relationships and navigate their new school environment. All of these involve engaging in conversations, listening, and trying to understand what motivates your teen:
1. Instill an interest in learning. When middle schoolers can find satisfaction in the process of learning, they are more likely to persist in the face of challenge or failure. They are also more likely to feel good about school.
2. Focus less on achieving something than on the process of learning. Sometimes, middle schoolers can be motivated simply to achieve a good grade on a test or a high status position in a particular peer group. This desire to achieve is often driven by expectations, values, and foreseen consequences (good and bad) that are placed on them, either individually or by those whose opinions matter. Pay attention to whose opinions matter most to your teen, talk to them about why those opinions matter, and encourage them to surround themselves with people who share common expectations and values.
3. Understand that middle school is a much bigger world than elementary school. This can make it harder for teens to build relationships with teachers. Because these relationships are related to academic success, it is important that parents help teens find ways to connect with their teachers.
4. Don’t loose site of what it was like to go to middle school. Reflecting and sharing what it was like for you can help your teen disclose their own experiences. Tell them what you think. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, your teen is looking to you for guidance and support.
5. Stay connected to friends and the parents of friends. Develop coffee times, book clubs, or other social settings where you can get to know one another. Share your values and expectations, and let other parents know you are invested in raising healthy teens together.
6. Understand that it is sometimes through failure and setback that teens learn the most. Don’t rescue teens from their mistakes. Instead, be there to help them understand and learn from their mistakes. It is through their personal experiences that they will develop their own motivations.
Investing in our children is an emotional experience and one that can be joyful when things are going well and painful when we have to see them struggle. Helping them to stay on track in school requires accepting their increased motivation to spend time with friends as a normal developmental process, while also helping them learn new strategies to find the balance between social and school commitments. Being able to find balance is a life skill that will serve them for many years to come. And remember that having a bad hair day is a really big deal, with perceived social ramifications. Sometimes it is best to say nothing. Empathize and be present with them, and don’t take their lashings personal. You are their anchor, their harbor in the storm of middle school.