Making the Most of Middle School

By Rebecca Bauer

Does the idea of your child entering middle school fill you with dread? Are you anticipating an increase in eye-rolling, friendship drama and awkward conversations? Or are you already dealing with the changes middle school brings and need H-E-L-P?! Well, we have help for you and your preteen.

During a recent episode of Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast, Phyllis Fagell, author of Middle School Matters, and school counselor discussed the rapid changes adolescents go through and how we can help kids make the most of these years.

A Neglected Life Stage

The rapid changes that adolescents experience can be overwhelming, but this phase also offers repeated opportunities for kids to practice crucial skills like decision-making, problem-solving and navigating difficult social situations.

Fagell—who has been through middle school with two kids and has one in middle school now—cautions that we tend to overlook middle school and the opportunities that come along with it. We tend to focus on early childhood and college and career readiness, but frame middle school as something kids just need to get through.

“[Middle schoolers] are changing almost as rapidly as they when they were babies in that 0 to 2 phase,” said Fagell. “And they’re changing in every single way, physically, intellectually, morally, intellectually. They’re solidifying their values. Their confidence can either peak or plummet during these years. So, it’s a time that we really want to capture.”

Advice from the Expert

So how exactly can you help your child make the most of this stage of life? Fagell offers tips on the topics that tend to cause the most concern among parents.

On Friendships…

As a parent, when you don’t like who your kids are friends with, you may be tempted or compelled to tell your child about their friend’s negative influence and issue a directive for them to stop hanging out with that friend. Fagell cautions against that because research shows that only 1% of a child’s friends in seventh grade are still their friends in 12th grade.

“You can make observations,” she said. “You can note that some other friend was really thoughtful when they called when they knew that [your child] was out sick. You can point out that perhaps your child looks like they’re trying really hard and doesn’t look comfortable when they’re with that particular child.”

Fagell emphasizes that if we deprive our children of the opportunity to learn what makes a good friend and who makes them feel good and who makes them feel bad, in the long run, they may not be able to recognize what is and isn’t a healthy relationship.

On Social Media…

From cyberbullying to oversharing, there are many pitfalls of adolescent social media use. Fagell emphasizes that children need guidance and support in this area.

“They need to have you spot-checking, at minimum, their posts and talking to them about what an appropriate and inappropriate comment is, and using any mistakes as teachable moments,” she said. “I believe in generating rules with kids. Also, treat them as more mature [then] they’re more likely to comply with those rules.”

On the transition to middle school…

Fagell also offered some concrete ideas for easing children’s nerves around the start of middle school. She encourages first determining what your child is most nervous about.

“Some of these fears they have are so easily extinguished, because they relate to things that have to do with familiarity…feeling competent versus incompetent, like using a combination lock. So parents can extinguish a fear like that simply by teaching them how to use a combination lock ahead of time or taking them to the school and walking them through the schedule,” said Fagell.

For even more helpful tips and parenting wisdom, listen to the full interview with Phyllis Fagell, available wherever you listen to podcasts!

Rebecca Bauer is the family engagement specialist with the Center for Family Engagement at National PTA.

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