Surviving and Thriving in Middle School

Get tips from expert sources


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Middle school is not for the faint of heart — for both students and parents. Social media pressures, juggling multiple teachers and athletics, communication breakdowns and, of course, hormonal roller coasters are just some of the challenges students face.

On Nov. 18, 2015, Carolina Parent hosted a live Facebook chat with Dr. Robert Littlejohn and Matthew Breazeale of Trinity Academy of Raleigh about parenting challenges during the tumultuous middle school years. Here's a transcript of the conversation. (This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.)

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: Welcome to our “Surviving — and Thriving — in Middle School” LIVE Facebook chat with Trinity Academy of Raleigh! Today we'll be talking with Dr. Robert Littlejohn and Matthew Breazeale about parenting challenges during the tumultuous middle school years. Welcome Robert and Matthew! Onto the first question: How can I learn about what is happening in my child’s life when she no longer talks to me beyond one-word answers?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Middle grades students will still share when they’re excited too — adults just have to work harder to identify the questions middle schoolers want to answer! Generic questions (How was your day?) will get you the same one-word answer and shoulder shrug. If you know a novel they’re reading, read it so you can ask informed questions. Or ask a typical question but in an unusual way: “What was something that happened today that made you wish you had magical powers to change?” Ask, "What was the best thing and the most difficult thing?" or "How would you have wanted this day to be different?"

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Other tips: consider using a journal where you write back and forth. Night conversations sometimes lead to better vulnerability than right after school when they're still processing the day. Also — be the parent that drives folks around and listen in as they talk!

Carolina Parent Magazine: Great perspective! Spicing up the question is sure to get an answer.

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: Here's a tough one: When do I step back and let my student struggle/fail?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Now! The middle grades years are about your student learning to be responsible for themselves in an environment where there is, for all intents and purposes, very minimal consequences for missteps and/or failure. When there is an issue, you can help provide ideas and suggestions; however, your student has to accept ownership or else you’re preparing him/her for future struggles in high school. This applies to academic as well as social issues. An important element to this is that you are ready to step in and comfort them when they do experience failure or struggles. Let them experience it but then surround them with your love and support to help pick them back up again!

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: During the middle grades years you shift from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” providing cues but not leading the way.

 

Micki Bare: Do you have any suggestions for how we can manage smartphone use by our middle schoolers? Once they get their own phones, it's hard to keep tabs on how and when they are using them.

Carolina Parent Magazine: Great question, Micki! Thanks for asking this question.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: The first question is what is the purpose of the cellphone? If you want them to have a way to call you when practice is over, then purchase a true cell phone and not a mini-computer that also receives phone calls. Flip phones that essentially just dial and require punching the #2 twice to type a C is perfectly fine for anyone who needs to be able to call mom and dad when practice is over. Another way to think about it is would you purchase a computer to place in your middle school student’s bedroom? When you buy a smartphone, you are buying a computer that they carry around with them all day. Students can access any website, download apps and text in ways that disappear within seconds all without you knowing.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Ultimately, however, whenever you decide for your student to have a cellphone, it all has to be centered on trust and clear expectations. Explain that you trust them to use it as intended (and outline those intentions) and then define the expectations. Some suggestions: Cellphones should NOT be charged in their bedroom. Have a turn-off time regardless of where it charges. Restrict it at the meal table. Have established what happens if it is used at school. (And please do not text them at school yourself!) With trust, clear expectations and accountability, many of the pitfalls of cellphones can be avoided.

Micki Bare: Thanks!

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: On a similar note to the cellphone question: How do I monitor my child’s social media networks? Should kids have accounts to these various services?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: We suggest putting those accounts off as long as possible. The average middle schooler is prone to respond emotionally and with the public social media, issues can snowball quickly. If they have an account, have your email as the notification contact, make sure you know the password, and closely monitor it and check it daily. This is not to catch them "wrong" but to help guide them through situations that appear. These accounts now follow them through life, which they are not at an age to understand — their brain is not yet developed enough to weigh long-term consequences.

 

Rita Barnes: Do you have suggestions for how to answer their "Why" questions? For instance their questioning why they should do something you've asked them to do, like homework or clean their room, and then continuing to question why after you answer.

Carolina Parent Magazine: Great question, Rita! Thanks for participating.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: As students develop, the why question is normal for the middle school student. Trinity Academy teaches logic starting in 8th grade just for this reason! They enjoy engaging in lively banter but parents should feel no hesitation to pull rank and show authority when necessary. They crave that, too! I have told you why, clearly you do not like my answer, but you still need to now go and do it.

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: How do disorganized middle school students get organized, now that they’re going from one elementary class to six or more separate classes? This is a big jump!

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: While in many areas parents need to take a step back, organization is an area where they can step in to help set-up a system that the student then becomes responsible for maintaining. Have your student show you their agenda each night at home and expect it to be filled out completely. This will not only help you know what is happening at school, but it requires them to do something you know will help them learn to be organized! Likewise, identify what their schedule looks like and the expectations for their school. Can they combine their subjects/classes into just a few notebooks? Set up the system, help them initially maintain it, and then step back and let them maintain it themselves (including the bumps in the road that most likely will come).

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: At Trinity, we view 6th grade as an important bridge year and purposefully designed a program that is not elementary nor fully middle. It is still somewhat self-contained (two main content teachers) but some experiences in middle school setting as well. Also, in grades 7-8, we use two large binders — one for all morning classes and one for all afternoon classes.

Carolina Parent Magazine: Great advice, thanks!

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: How much involvement is too much for the middle school student (school, sports/activities within the school, sports/activities outside of school, etc.)?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: This is a question about family priorities; however, the more I watch students get stretched to the maximum, the more I become a personal advocate for less is better. The rush to do everything prevents students from having the chance to be bored (which is a good thing sometimes!) and subtly teaches them a lesson that their best may not ever be enough. My personal advice is to pick a few activities to prioritize. Students who rush from structured activity to structured activity never have the opportunity to learn how to be creative, how to entertain themselves, how to get along when adults are not right there to fix every problem.

Carolina Parent Magazine: And those are SUCH important life skills (creativity, entertaining oneself, etc.)! Great ideas.

 

Lauren Isaacs: How do we equip students to find adult guidance when they often no longer turn to their parents? How can this be authentic and natural for the student and not “forced” upon them?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Parents still remain the main point of influence even though it can feel like your student is pushing you away. We encourage you to be available for them to find you in unexpected moments. However, we have found that providing them adult mentors (coaches, teachers, college students, youth group leaders, etc). At Trinity, we have partnered with Cru strategically to help with this and are extremely careful with the selection of any young adult who will have the opportunity to influence our students.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Parents still remain the main point of influence even though it can feel like your student is pushing you away. We encourage you to be available for them to find you in unexpected moments. However, we have found that providing them adult mentors (coaches, teachers, college students, youth group leaders, etc). At Trinity, we have partnered with Cru strategically to help with this and are extremely careful with the selection of any young adult who will have the opportunity to influence our students.

Lauren Isaacs: Thank you! Great advice.

 

Beth Poland Shugg: Many tweens and teens develop an interest in the opposite sex in middle school. Technology has changed the playing field quite a bit. How do we help our tweens and teens manage the delicate emotion of love in this modern day and age when texting is equivalent to flirting?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Great question! Face-to-face and phone conversations (old fashioned ways) should be heavily prioritized to help them learn how to interact with different genders. Written comments can be so easily misinterpreted and/or passed on to others without the sender's knowledge. Texting can be a part of it but limiting it is perfectly acceptable and has a lot of merit! Encourage group activities (especially middle school)! Invite kids to your home — be the place that kids hang out. If it is a desire to just have that one "special" someone, allow them but have it be family activities (common areas, whole family activity, etc) and share those expectations with your student and the other student's family.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Model and teach your student how they should treat the opposite gender and how you expect them to be treated by the opposite gender. That includes showing them how that works with the technology of today.

Carolina Parent Magazine: What about when there is "trouble in Paradise"? What are your recommendations for navigating boy/girl drama. Where do you begin?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: There is no way to avoid this but there are ways to mitigate the drama. One way to limit the drama is to limit, heavily, social media and access to texting. Much of the boy/girl drama involves technology and then becomes significantly worse because it spreads. Middle grades students are in the midst of a whirlwind so the drama of the day passes quickly; often adults make it bigger than it had to be which makes it last longer for the student. Hold their hand, give them a hug, let them cry, and then everyone move on. You do not need to fix the problem but just let them process aloud and be the constant, steady presence. Do not let other students continue to get them upset about it — once others realize it is no longer an issue, then they move on to the next most interesting thing.

Beth Poland Shugg: We don't allow our 14-year-old daughter to have SnapChat on her phone but there are probably other ways she could send a video to someone. She hasn't done anything like this that we know of, but technology makes it very hard for parents to maintain control over these types of situations.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: You are so right, Beth Poland Shugg. This is an ever-increasing problem for parents. We shared some ideas in a question earlier in the chat that may help a bit but close and daily monitoring of the phone, as a loving parent, is the best solution. Equipping students for the why and how to manage the larger principles hopefully will help carry over to any new technology options too.

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: How should kids respond to being left out of parties and excluded from popular groups?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: This issue is now more prevalent than ever given the ease of pictures and other items being posted online. Sometimes, those postings are intentionally malicious while other times they’re just one group celebrating their fun … but at the same time unintentionally hurting others for having been left out. Before these types of situations occur, speak with your student (especially if they have social media accounts) about this issue. How does it look if everyone was invited to something except for one or two people and then we all post pictures about it? Kids get this but often just need someone to explain it to them.

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: If it happens to your kid, hug them. Process how they feel. Explain that it happens and then redirect them to something positive. Do not let them dwell on the negative. Have them act as if nothing happened. Prepare them for an answer if it gets brought up at school. They do not need to lie (that just opens up other issues) but they can have a response ready. “I saw that online. Looks like you all had fun!” and then move on. And hug them and love on them.

Carolina Parent Magazine: So true! Kids can be so mean, whether they know it or not.

 

Michelle Tennant Nachnani: The issue of teachers showing favoritism or disdain towards students is a topic we talk about more often than other topics. As Christians, we teach our children to show Christ's love towards others in their actions and words, but when they don't see this attitude in teachers, it can be very disheartening and confusing to our children. How can we guide our children in this area? How do we know they are not exaggerating?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Very well put question. I appreciate your willingness to know that what you hear may not be exactly the way it happens (although their perception is their reality). If you feel like you're hearing this theme, go to the teacher first for a face-to-face chat (without telling your child you're doing so). Ideally it should either not be reality or it may be they're unaware of how their action appears to students. If the conversation with the teacher does not help your student's perception, then go to the administration of the school.

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: I think we have time for one more question! How does a student report a case of bullying? Some schools offer anonymous hotlines. Is this a good idea?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Having served as an administrator at a large public middle school, I know that the anonymous lines are monitored; however, it is significantly more difficult than if we know who is reporting the information. Often, a person would leave a tip anonymously but leave out some important piece of information without which we were limited in our ability to respond. I always prefer when someone will speak in person (confidentially) so that I can go back to them for more details if needed. At the end of the day it boils down to trust — do you trust the school administration to protect your confidentiality?

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: To report it though, they need to speak to an adult they trust to be confidential and who has the ability to either get involved or pass it on to someone who can.

 

Carolina Parent Magazine: That's all we have time for, folks! Thanks for all of your questions and thanks again to Dr. Robert Littlejohn and Matthew Breazeale of Trinity Academy of Raleigh for their time and expertise! Middle school is not an easy time for student or parents but these tips will be sure to help!

Trinity Academy of Raleigh: Enjoyed it! Thank you for allowing us to engage with you all today!

Carolina Parent Magazine: We had a blast! Thanks again.

 

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Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30 or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the mill's...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), Free/Child (ages 6-under)

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Geocaching is a treasure hunt where participants use GPS coordinates to track down hidden “caches.” Learn what geocaching is all about and head out to find a real geocache in the park....

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-2117
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Enjoy free, live performances from the best artists from around the Triangle in front of Stone Theatre as well as kid-friendly activities. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Park West Village
Morrisville, NC  27560


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Enjoy Raleigh’s premier Japanese animation and culture convention. Concerts, educational panels, limited merchandise, unique artwork and more highlight the event. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $65/person

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2018-19 Education Guide offers 678 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools, academic resources and an Exceptional Child special section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.