We Are Westridge

A community blog featuring Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor, the Westridge Leadership Team, our esteemed faculty members and occasional special guests


How Parents Can Help a Struggling Middle Schooler

Insights from a Dean of Student Support

by Lower & Middle School Dean of Student Support Carol van Zalingen

Many parents can find themselves at a loss for how to help when they see their middle schooler struggling with her homework, a large project, or preparing for quizzes and tests. It’s normal for a 7th or 8th grader to resist any parental support with academics. She wants independence and a sense of agency, but for parents this can feel very frustrating when it looks as if she’s going about it in ways that are not going to help her. Stepping in to help when it’s not wanted can lead to some unpleasant and counterproductive encounters. So, what are parents supposed to do?

  1. Reassure her that middle school is supposed to be hard (aka challenge her.) Girls who have cruised through lower school with minimal effort can suddenly find themselves confronted by more complex and demanding work. It is not uncommon for middle school students to react by doubting themselves and wondering if they were ever smart to begin with. This doubt can be coupled with a fear of disappointing people―their parents and their teachers. This is when parents can be most helpful by reassuring their child that middle school is supposed to be hard. Students, even very smart ones, are not supposed to have all the answers and desired results are not supposed to come effortlessly.
  2. Reiterate that middle school is the time to discover the strategies that are most effective for tackling complex learning tasks. For each student, those specific strategies will vary, but on the whole, they should be active strategies, not passive ones. Looking over notes before a quiz is a passive strategy. Making themselves a quiz on the material based upon the notes is an active strategy that will be significantly more helpful because it helps students hone their metacognitive awareness, their ability to know what they know and what they don’t know, as well as their ability to figure out how to learn that which they don’t know.
  3. Gently nudge them to meet with their teachers. Because many middle school girls are struggling with self-doubt about their ability to learn and fear of disappointing others, they are keenly resistant to seeing their teachers for help. They don’t want to appear “stupid” in front of their teachers by admitting they don’t understand something. When faced with this, parents can remind their child that the challenges in middle school are harder, intentionally so because all learning and growth comes from some stress and nudging beyond one’s comfort zone, and that they fully believe in their child’s potential to achieve success. Sometimes explaining the utility of seeking a teacher’s help can best be expressed with a metaphor. No athlete reaches an Olympic podium alone. Before any athlete ever receives a medal, she is the beneficiary of lots of help from a knowledgeable coach who works with her not because she is terrible at her sport, but because the coach believes in her potential to do great things. Middle school teachers are like Olympic coaches and they would love nothing more than to coach their students toward fulfilling their own potential.
  4. Call in support. Another resource for parents who are at a loss for how to help their middle schooler is their child’s advisor and the dean of student support. Both your child’s advisor and the dean can check in with her and have similar conversations, reassuring her that it’s very normal if the school work is feeling harder than it has before (because it is harder than it was before), and letting her know that we also believe in her ability to learn what she needs to in order to be successful. We can assist her with developing a repertoire of learning strategies, help her reflect on the effectiveness of each strategy, and help her arrange times to see teachers about content that is feeling confusing. These kinds of struggles help build the confidence and grit that will lead to a lifetime of being able to persevere until she finds the success she wants.
  5. And finally, a don’t: Don’t focus on her grades. It’s most helpful if you can focus on the effort, not the outcome. Harness the power of “yet”: “I understand that this is hard, and you may not understand the concepts YET, but with effort and persistence, I know you will get there.” Assure her that you value her willingness to seek help and to continue trying more than you value the final outcome because these are the traits that will build her resilience in the face of setbacks. They are traits that will serve her well in life, not just when she’s confronted by a low score on a test.

It’s also helpful if students know that you value the learning and a true understanding of the content more than a grade. Students who memorize for a test only to forget the content a month later aren’t using their time in meaningful ways. They might approach their studies with a different lens and strive for an enduring understanding instead of cramming for a test if they know that you value what they are learning more than a score on a test.

It is easy to forget these things when you have a frustrated teenager in your home, but middle school is a place for learning from failures. Colleges don’t look at middle school transcripts, and there’s a reason why. The hormones of middle schoolers are going haywire. Their brains are rewiring themselves, creating new synaptic pathways and paring off old ones during these few years adolescence when they are at their peak ability to learn. At the same time, their bodies are continuing the changes that began in lower school, and they can react with a flood of tears one moment, and then be laughing with a friend five minutes later. It’s a lot to manage for a 7th or 8th grader, and for a parent at times. But this is all part of the process, and both you and your middle school student are supported by caring faculty who not only understand adolescents, but also genuinely enjoy working with them as they navigate the challenges of middle school.

Posted by Samantha Chaffin in middle school, westridge thought leader, Empathy & Connection, from our faculty on Friday October, 11, 2019


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