NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 2, 2014

The Daily Parent: How to build strong supports for your middle-schooler

The Daily Parent
Lori Day

---- — When parents have very young children, they often feel like they are in the trenches, fighting for basic human rights like the opportunity to take a shower or talk on the phone without interruption. It is not usually a time of great personal reflection because getting through each day can be exhausting.

By the time children enter school and what psychologists call the latency period of childhood, parents can collect themselves and recover from all those sleepless nights and tantrums, and prepare for the next unstable period of childhood — puberty.

One major difference between the difficulties inherent in caring for very young children and those that come with the territory of raising young adolescents is that parents seem to have fewer support systems. No longer members of Baby & Me classes, story time at the library and cooperative nursery schools, today’s parents of tweens and teens are more likely to both be working, to have several children and their numerous activities to manage, and to be more disconnected from their children’s schools. Most middle schools hold parents at arm’s length by design, as well, to discourage hovering and help kids become more independent.

Here are some tips for building support systems while your child is in middle school:

Support System No. 1: Your child’s teachers and school

The home-school partnership is much more than a buzz term. It is the mechanism for ensuring that the necessary communication, agreements, roles and responsibilities of each party are set out clearly and lived out daily.

Read the parent handbook to understand how the school views this partnership. Ask questions, make suggestions and play an active role in defining how this relationship can best support your child. While things are going smoothly — in anticipation of when they might not be — think through the best protocol for expressing concerns to your child’s teachers or members of the administration. Whom should you contact first? Whom should you contact if the first person cannot resolve your concern?

Find out how the school operates when it comes to parent communication. Some schools use email widely, while others prefer that email only be used for minor issues or to set a time for a phone call or face-to-face meeting. Keep in mind that teachers often need more time to read and respond to emails than parents do because they are in front of children all day. Also, some teachers like using email, while others really do not. Parents will get the best result if they follow the school’s lead on when/how to use email and remain cognizant of the perils of email “tone.”

Avoid going “straight to the top” unless the issue involving your child merits that level of concern. If the issue can first be brought to a teacher, try that. If the teacher does not or cannot help you, then perhaps go to the vice principal, guidance counselor or department chairman. Go to the principal only after you have followed the proper “chain of command” so that you do not alienate the staff. In cases of emergency, or when other options have been exhausted, do go to the principal and voice your concerns, and expect to be heard.

A lot is being written these days about the erosion of respect — not just of kids for parents, but of parents for school personnel. There is no better way of sabotaging yourself and your child than treating teachers and administrators in a disrespectful manner. And you have every right to expect the same respect be shown to you as a parent!

Find out how you can support the school, within the limits of your available time. Join the PTA, serve on committees the principal sets up, help with fundraising, be a room parent or volunteer in the classroom. Parents who give of their time and resources to the school are better able to navigate the system when they need to enlist extra support for their child. This happens because involved parents are known by staff, are seen to be contributors to the partnership, and are networked within the school so they know to whom to go and how to be best-received.

Be honest with the educators working with your child. If you are experiencing a stressful time within your family (divorce, death of a grandparent, job loss, etc.), let school personnel know so they can better support your child. Otherwise, they will sense that something is “off,” but not know what they can do to be helpful. If your child has a learning disability, social challenges, psychological or emotional issues, or is taking any medications the school should know about, tell the staff upfront and work together to make a support plan. This may involve formal evaluation, an IEP or 504 Plan, or simply a verbal or written agreement on action steps at home and at school.

If the school staff is unwilling or unable to support your child properly, you do have recourse as a parent. You may always seek second opinions, outside evaluations, support services within the local community, legal advice and so forth.

Support System No. 2: Other parents

How can parents at the middle school level make connections with other parents when the school environment is less facilitative of these bonds than was the case in elementary school and preschool? Here are a few ideas:

It takes more effort, but get to know the parents of your children’s friends, just as you did in the early years. This gives you a needed window into their family values and allows you to have some level of connection should a time ever come that you need to have an important conversation with one of these parents.

Seek parent connections through school-related committees or events; via Scouts, sports teams or other organized kid activities; or through church, synagogue, or other religious or nonreligious communities.

During the middle school years, connections with other parents do not happen as easily as they used to. They do require a concerted effort as kids become more independent in their social relationships and schools do not want parents hanging around as much. Try to plan out a couple of ways to make these connections so that you have them before you need them. You’ll be glad you did!

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Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport. Her first book, titled “Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More,” will be published in May.