“We find that one of the biggest fears is opening lockers. Be sure to have your children practice with a lock,” advised Sara Nichols, Christopher Farms Elementary School guidance counselor.
Locker practice was only one topic on the minds of parents and rising sixth graders attending Parent Connection’s free workshop “Making the Most of Middle School” Aug. 26. Staying organized, changing classes, maintaining open communication, using cell phones and wearing PE uniforms were among some of the questions and concerns fielded by two guest panels.
While parents asked questions of school division staff members in the auditorium, students gathered in the library to get the scoop on middle school from those who know it best – eighth graders.
“It’s better than elementary school,” eighth-grader Katie told sixth-graders. “In middle school you have a lot of different teachers. There is variety.”
“Always respect your teachers,” advised fellow panelist Luke. “One teacher of mine seemed scary at first, but she became my favorite teacher and still is. I wish she would move to eighth grade to teach.”
What about changing clothes in the PE locker rooms?
The panel of eighth graders empathized with the audience’s concerns.
“Just do it fast,” said one panelist.
“Don’t look at anyone else,” added another. “Just look into your locker.”
“If you don’t want to change in front of others, you can go into a bathroom stall,” shared a third student.
“And take your uniform home on the weekend and wash it.”
Someone emphasized deodorant and noted the availability of showers in the locker room.
Being emphasized in the parent session down the hall were routine and structure. “Outside of being a toddler, puberty is going to be the fastest growing time for them,” said Jeff Hofmann, assistant principal at Salem Middle School. “Middle school should work like a routine, but they will need some time for freedom and independence to build parent trust.”
A parent expressed concern about how her son may handle his newfound freedom and independence at school.
“I’m concerned with all the time to change classes. My son is not concerned, but I am. How can I make sure he’s not a drifter?” she asked, noting she expects he’ll want to spend time talking to seventh- and eighth-graders instead of getting to class.
“Middle school is set up to have all the sixth-grade classes together, all the seventh-graders together and all the eighth-graders together,” Hofmann explained. “The students move together in their teams, and teachers and staff are in the hall to help monitor. We see which students are ‘exploring’ on their own and get them to where they need to be.”
Another parent sought advice on how to maintain open lines of communication with her son. “They need their parents even more for guidance at this age. How do we keep the door open?” she asked.
“Don’t give up,” responded Nichols. She offered suggestions she’s known families use to encourage conversation.
Set a special time to talk about the week. Use a notebook to write notes to each other because children may be embarrassed to talk about certain topics. Older siblings or a family member other than a parent can help broach topics. Nichols also encouraged working with guidance counselors at the school.
Susan Tolley, retired educator and principal, suggested talking at dinner every night about the “rose and thorn of the day,” or best and worst thing that happened. “When they know it’s expected, they’ll share,” she said.
Rephrasing questions can be helpful. Tolley said instead of asking, “What’s bothering you?” ask, “If an alien spaceship landed tomorrow, who would you have the aliens remove from school.” Sharing a personal story, Tolley noted her grandson more readily opened up with the second question to talk about what was troubling him.
Brandon Middle School guidance counselor Leigh Powell agreed with Tolley.
“Direct questions are not good,” she said. “It is normal for them to start pulling away, and boys are not always as verbal as girls. Some of the best times to talk are when you have them ‘captive’ in the car. Listen to them and ask questions.”
The hour-long parent session addressed additional questions about the middle school zero bell, AlertNow text messages, school safety drills, bus transportation and altering class schedules. Panelists agreed that staying connected with the school is the key to success.
“If you have questions, please call the school,” said Hofmann. He noted schools are often contacted after matters have been festering for a while, and early communication to administrators or guidance counselors does help.
Hofmann advised checking Parent Portal regularly to review class grades and assignments, and help students stay organized by ensuring their binders and backpacks are free of loose papers that need to find a home.
“Prevent the backpack black hole,” Powell advised with a smile.
In the Parent Connection workshop’s closing session students and parent shared their lessons learned with each other.
“You can always talk to us,” one parent told the returning students.
“Don’t be scared of what you see in movies – middle school is not like that,” said a student.
A good tip for her sixth-grade peers and parents alike.
To find more Parent Connection events and resources, visit http://www.vbschools.com/ParentConnection/.