If you talk to parents of middle school-aged children, you are likely to hear an exasperated story about how different their child has become after just one year. Some tales are funny while others are frustrating, but they all reveal that middle school can be a tough time. With increased responsibilities at school, issues such as time management, organization, and prioritization are often encountered for the first time. Finding the right balance for success can be challenging for both children and parents. To gain some insight, beijingkids talked to school counselors and parents for their take on the subject.
First and foremost, here’s a brief neurological recap: The frontal lobe of the brain, where functions such as planning and self-control set in, is not fully developed until a person reaches their 20s. So, kids in the middle school age bracket are expected to manage extra details in their lives when they simply do not have the full capacity to do so.
Head of Years 8 and 9 at Harrow International School Beijing, Anna Fournier says that parents want to understand why their children go from being loving and caring to sullen and uncommunicative kids who believe that grownups are trying to ruin their life. “[One] thing that [parents]can hang on to is that the part of the brain that empathizes virtually shuts down during the teenage years. Basically, kids become much more selfish. They are not thinking about the effect their actions are having on you; they just care about their role in a situation.”
Add hormones to the equation, and it’s an all-around difficult time in an adolescent’s life. Kids are unfamiliar with all of these changes, which can lead to a lot of stress. It’s important for parents to be sensitive during this time of uncertainty and trust that their kids will get through it at their own pace.
Milvia Winters juggles the needs of her four children, who range in age from 9 to 18. “Just when I think I have it all sorted, [the kids]throw a curveball,” says Winters. Does gender make a difference? Not in her household. “I think it’s personality type that determines ability to organize and prioritize, rather than gender. I have two girls and two boys, and they are all completely different.”
From elementary to middle school, kids are ushered towards a variety of new opportunities and responsibilities. This is often the stage in school where they move from class to class instead of remaining in one room with one teacher. They have to know what materials are needed and when, and if it’s their first experience with lockers, they must organize their belongings and memorize a locker combination. Homework tends to increase during this time, requiring a better handle on daily time management. Depending on the school, there are enrichment or elective courses available, after school activities, and a host of sports teams or clubs to join – each with their own expectations for time and dedication.
Jennifer Gold, a middle school counselor at the International School of Beijing, explains: “At this stage, kids really want some independence from their parents. They want to think on their own and they want some power and control over their lives. And that’s age-appropriate. However, it’s also at this stage when kids aren’t necessarily the best judge of time, how long things will take to do or how long they might need for homework.” Parents can help their kids by establishing good routines and habits early on, so that their kids can ultimately do it on their own.
Gold herself is the mother of an 11-year-old. She admits: “I have the same hopes, dreams and fears for my own child as they do with theirs, and I make some of the same mistakes. Even with all of the knowledge and resources I have, I still have to think a lot about the best way to support my son through this stage.”
Ingrid Jones has adjusted how she works with her own children to get those good habits in place. Her daughter Avery is in Grade 8 at Beijing City International School, where prioritizing has become increasingly important. Avery does her work independently, only asking for help when she needs it. Ingrid gives her that independence, stepping in if there are signs of struggle or feedback from teachers. With her younger son Ethan, who is in Grade 5, she is more proactive in teaching time management strategies. They created a weekly worksheet that helps Ethan visualize homework and estimate the time needed to complete it. “I have seen the stress of him coming home and saying ‘I have so much homework’ to feeling confident that he can get it all done if he plans his time. He is very proud of this – as am I for him.” It’s much harder to backtrack if routines are not set in place early.
As middle school students advance, there will likely be more transition. Gold says that teachers spend a lot of time in early sixth grade helping the students with reminders, teaching skills that help the kids take ownership of their time management. In seventh grade, the social part kicks in a bit more, and teachers often need to rein in the socializing that comes with feeling more comfortable in their position at school. The eighth graders are at the top of their division, hopefully having mastered some of these organizational skills, yet tend to fret more during the second semester about the looming high school years.
Harrow International School Beijing provides daily guidance to students in the form of a personal tutor. Anna Fournier explains: “All students are part of a tutor group (about 10-12 students) who are looked after by a personal tutor monitoring their academic and social progress and needs. The tutors develop an ongoing relationship with their tutees – [meeting every morning and afternoon], rather than just seeing them when they need help.”
“When kids move into middle school, it really is a big transition for all, even those who are the most organized,” says Gold. “In any transition time, whether it’s from one division to another or leaving one country and starting in another, the more quickly people get routines established and in place, the easier it is for kids to regain that solid footing needed to move forward.”
Stepping In or Stepping Back?
No parent wishes for his or her kid to fail. “Struggle” is a more accurate word to describe what is sometimes needed to teach kids life skills that will ultimately help them in the future.
Winters has children in elementary school at Dulwich College Beijing and at university. She has watched each of her children mature, sometimes with a struggle. “We need to teach our children to face the consequences of their actions and not always step in and save them. It’s a good life lesson for when they grow up.” Winters is not there to monitor her oldest, who is away at the University of Cambridge, but she can trust that her daughter has the tools to manage her time independently.
Jones agrees: “Some struggle is really important for kids to learn from, because it teaches resiliency. It’s one of the ways that kids learn to bounce back when things don’t go their way. You can’t really learn that when you’ve never had things go wrong.” She points out, however, that kids need to realize you are not abandoning them. “Make sure they know you’re a safe place to ‘land’ when they fail and that nothing is wrong with failure – it just means you tried something that didn’t work or that some help or support is needed.”
When work becomes overwhelming and things aren’t getting done, it’s time to step in. Try to develop a system for better time management, so there will be some time left for fun. Winter suggests, “A firm set of rules should apply, especially online, as this can take them away from school work, so it needs to be monitored diligently.”
There are simple ways to show your child that setting priorities takes practice. Fournier encourages parents to show kids how you organize yourself. “Tell them that it is hard, that people forget things, but in order to stop this happening, you need to come up with a system that works for you.” Reinforce that they should always try to do their personal best and not compete for the sake of competing. Discourage multitasking too much, as it greatly reduces productivity, and encourage participating in a wide range of activities to keep things in perspective.
Striking a Balance
Parents often wonder if all of the many possibilities for their middle school-aged child are just too much; the kids want to be involved in everything! But middle school is a time for all those extras – exploring new things in a safe environment.
Fournier believes that the extras actually help with time management and the development of multiple skills. “Universities do not just want Grade A students; they want dynamic people who are going to get involved, be part of teams, make things happen and be a positive addition to their institution. Children who get used to doing a range of different activities when they are young are far more likely to be able to manage them as they get older.”
Technology is another addition to the wide spectrum of available tools that many parents did not have themselves during school years. Computers are an essential part of the education process and are not going away, but they can also be a distraction.
Fournier actually encourages the use of apps on mobile devices to help students get organized. “When I suggest this, they often look amazed. Why not? There are brilliant apps available to help everyone organize themselves and this generation is so tech-savvy that they will find it really easy to set up a system that works for them.”
It’s all about balance, says Gold. Kids are exploring other interests, often participating in something that encourages a healthy lifestyle. “It takes some parental help in the beginning, such as ‘Remember that you have soccer tomorrow, so let’s plan ahead on your homework. What do you think?’” Involve your kids in the process, so that they can ultimately take over without much direction.
Factor in Feelings
With all their newfound responsibilities, it’s easy for kids to feel overwhelmed. Gold says that kids might feel like they are always disappointing their parents or teachers – that everyone is frustrated with them. “They get down about that,” she says, “and it’s important to remind them what they are experiencing is normal. There’s nothing wrong with them and they don’t need to feel bad about being overwhelmed.”
Winters, like all parents, wants to see her kids succeed in whatever they choose to do. But she also wants them to realize that school is school, and there is more to life. “We have tried to make them feel that if they want to do well it has to come from within, [along with]of course, support from us. We don’t reward good grades with gifts, as I feel this makes them work for the gift and not because they themselves have the desire to do well.”
Gold reminds us that involving your child – as much as they will allow – is important. “If parents solve everything or dictate all things, you might be setting up a real power struggle that can be very difficult to withdraw from. It’s important to not let those struggles damage your relationship but instead work with your child to solve problems.”
Talking at home is also important, says Fournier. “Think about how you deal with adults – your partner or colleagues at work. If you are picking up vibes that they are not in the best mood, don’t push them; just try again later.”
With many international schools in Beijing and students from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, it is challenging to manage different cultural expectations. Parents who were raised in an environment vastly different from that of their children may not have a frame of reference when dealing with these issues. It can be extra confusing and troubling. Talking to school counselors in situations like these is important, as it’s their job to help both students and parents succeed during this time.
Gold offers this advice to parents, “Your limits are set based on your family’s values.” Take the resources from school – computers, extra-curricular opportunities, social lives – and apply them with the lens of your family’s values.
Winters says: “I do think it’s very important to stick to your own family values and not get sucked into what other people are allowing their children to do. I believe when you set boundaries in a way that shows you are concerned with their welfare, they are more likely to accept your guidance. I try to make sure we all take time to reconnect with each other and to keep talking to our children about how they are feeling and to know how they are coping and dealing with issues before they get too big.” She also suggest being open to changing the way we parent.
What Can Parents Do?
Adolescents are experiencing changes physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s a confusing, yet exciting time for them. Kids at this age need guidance, but want independence, and while it’s difficult to parent them at this stage, taking an active role is the most important job yet.
Sleep is essential, no matter how much they resist resting.
Connect with your children in regular conversation rather than talking at them (or they will only hear lecturing).
Take an interest in what they are doing, which ultimately motivates them in many different areas.
“Catch” them doing something well. It’s more frequent than you think!
Be proactive in helping them through struggles.
Give them credit – sometimes they are right.
Acknowledge their individuality.
Work with your children to set limits that encourage a safe and balanced lifestyle.
We all want to do our best for our kids, but we must also remember that no parent gets it right all the time. Most of all, realize that even if they do try to push you away, your kids still need you and want to know that you are there.
The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers: The Secrets to Loving Teens Effectively by Gary Chapman
Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens + Teens by Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D. and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.
Raising Caring, Capable Kids with Habits of Mind by Lauren A. Carner, Ph.D. and Angela Iadavia-Cox (www.habitsofmind.org/store/books)
Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen by David Walsh, Ph.D.
*Recommended by Jennifer Gold and Anna Fournier
Photos: MISHKA FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY AND IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO