With the start of the intermediate-grade years, school gradually becomes the epicenter of a youngster’s life. It is where he hones skills that are every bit as essential to his allaround development and future success as English, math, science and social studies, even if they don’t appear on a report card. These include critical thinking, problem solving, respecting authority (and, when appropriate, challenging it), asking questions, defending positions and learning to get along with one’s peers.
This article focuses on the many ways that parents can help teenagers to succeed both scholastically and emotionally. Studies show that children whose families take an interest in their education earn higher grades and test scores, miss fewer days of school, complete more homework, behave better and enjoy school more, and are more likely to graduate and matriculate to college. Let’s get started by taking an overview of the challenges that face your teenager as he moves from grade school to middle or junior high school and on to high school.
Transition No. 1: From Elementary School To Middle School
This is what the first day of junior high school can feel like to a child:
Imagine arriving at work Monday morning to discover that your company has merged with two others. You settle into your new office, but every forty-five minutes a bell rings, and you get chased out and have to take refuge in another office.
Although you recognize a few familiar faces, who are all of these strangers streaming through the hallways? Say, here comes your boss. And another one, somebody you’ve never met before. And another one. And another one. This is getting a little nerve-racking.
Well, at least you have your work as a computer programmer to fall back on. You’ve achieved a level of proficiency and feel reasonably confident that you can handle whatever comes your way. So why are you being handed a welding torch and goggles? You don’t know how to weld. Oh. Apparently, you’re about to learn. What’s that? You want to go home? But it’s not even lunchtime yet.
Advancing from elementary school to middle school can be disorienting at first. Everything seems so drastically different: scholastically, socially—even the structure of the day has changed. Youngsters face many more demands and are often thrown off-balance temporarily. Research compiled since the early 1980s shows that, on average, boys’ and girls’ grades plunge during their first year of junior high. Most eventually adapt and thrive. Others, however, fall into a rut of failure so deep, they never climb back out. The first step to preventing “middle school malaise” is for mothers and fathers to fully understand just how different this new learning environment is and how much is being asked of their son or daughter. Compared to elementary school, middle school offers fewer opportunities for decision making and classroom discussion, with more rote learning. Grades take on added importance; consequently, teenagers grow increasingly conscious of who is an A student and who is a C student.
Probably the most striking difference is the amount of homework given. In fourth grade, one in five students spend one to two hours or more per day on homework; roughly half knock off their assignments in under an hour. By eighth grade, one in three students are putting in one to two hours or more per day. Incoming middle schoolers find their adaptability, self-motivation and concentration put to the test like never before.
“In elementary school,” observes Dr. Coleman, “a child has the security of one, two, maybe three teachers for all of his subjects. Now he suddenly has a different teacher for each subject. That could mean five, six or seven different teaching styles, personalities and organizational demands.
“Kids also have to make what we call cognitive transitions extremely quickly. They go from, say, math to geography in the course of just a few minutes. The need to be adaptable in each of these settings is dramatic.”
Elementary school is a highly supportive environment for children. Beginning in middle school, students are expected to take more responsibility for themselves, from completing homework assignments, to having their own locker, to perhaps staying after school for an extracurricular activity. From here on, a youngster’s academic success will ride largely on his inner desire to do well. No amount of external motivation from parents and teachers can compensate for a lack of industriousness.
Teenagers must juggle all of these new demands in an environment buzzing with distractions. Each class fills up with a different set of students. While the possibilities for forming new friendships multiply in a larger, more diverse school, so do the potential opportunities for rejection. And what subject could compete with the daily drama of who’s hanging out with whom and its inevitable sequel, who’s not speaking to whom? Just finding their way through the hallways of the new building can be overwhelming initially.
The transition to junior high school is often when attention deficits and learning disorders that have gone undetected for years are finally recognized. Some children are intelligent enough or their disabilities mild enough that they can get through third and fourth grade—another critical juncture academically— and graduate from elementary school. But the heightened expectations of middle school may prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Transition No. 2: From Middle School to High School
“In high school, students encounter a higher level of cognitive demands and achievement than what they were used to in middle school,” says Dr. Coleman, a former schoolteacher. The goal of attending college—which two in three high-school graduates will—is no longer a distant dream. Perhaps for the first time, youngsters may feel mounting pressure to achieve in order to get into the college of their choice.
Like the first year of middle school, the freshman year of high school marks a precarious point in a teenager’s academic career. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this is around the time that youngsters who’ve been struggling may drop out. An unhappy ninth-grade experience increases the odds of quitting before graduation.