My son recently received his first B. Not a big deal, right? But he’s an over-achieving, perfectionist new middle schooler, and good grades have always come easily for him. Until now.
To say he’s disappointed is an understatement. He’s 12, so every emotion he feels is … well, D-R-A-M-A-T-I-C. I’m doing my best to help him process his emotions and come up with a plan to reach out for help.
It turns out middle school is a common time for students’ grades to take a little dip. There’s so much going on — academically, socially, and emotionally. So, what’s a parent to do?
Process The Disappointment
To figure this out, I reached out to Phyllis Fagell, school counselor, therapist, and author of Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond.
First, Fagell assures me that the intensity of my son’s emotions are perfectly normal. (Phew!)
“When kids make the transition to middle school, one of the challenges they’re faced with is new academic pressures,” says Fagell. “Developmentally, they are unaware of their shortcomings. They don’t have much experience dealing with letdowns. It feels like the stakes are very high, even when they aren’t.”
As a parent, your top job is to validate your child’s feelings, Fagell emphasizes. You can say something like, “If I was disappointed in my grade, I would be upset too.” You can also relay past experiences where you didn’t succeed in the way you’d hoped. The idea is to put this whole experience into perspective — something they don’t yet have at this tender age.
To Intervene, or Not?
Once you’ve given your child a safe space to “let it all out,” your next task is help them problem solve.
“The antidote to stress is to give your child back a sense of empowerment and find a path forward,” advises Fagell.
What should your role be in all this? Fagell says that parents of middle schoolers often think they have to completely step back and let their kids figure it out themselves — “let them fail.” But this may not be the best approach, at least at first.
Try Some Scaffolding
Teaching independence is all about scaffolding, Fagell explains. Tier one is modeling how to do something. Tier two is standing by as they do it. Tier three is having them do it all on their own.
In a case like mine, where my son needs to reach out to his teacher for help, Fagell says that scaffolding would look like this:
1. This first time, I write an email to his teacher, while my son watches.
2. Next time, I watch my son write an email to his teacher, offering suggestions if needed.
3. My son writes the email himself, without my help.
Brilliant! And sounds easy enough. I’m thinking my son will be on board, and we’ll both feel better having a plan in place.
And boy am I relieved that I don’t have to completely loosen the reins, at least not yet. I don’t think either of us are ready.
Wendy Wisner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Family Circle, and Parenting, and is a frequent contributor to Your Teen magazine at www.YourTeenMag.com.