Middle School: What Every Parent Should Know

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 3 │Middle School: What Every Parent Should Know

Wednesday, September 18, 2019



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Phyllis Fagell

Middle school can be a difficult transition for students and their families as they navigate the developmental and social changes it brings. We dive into parents’ top concerns about middle school with Phyllis Fagell—school counselor, therapist, author and mother of three. She gives us a deeper look at what is going on with middle schoolers developmentally and how families can address adolescent friendship issues, social media use and bullying. We also offer practical tips and ways both families and schools can best support our tweens.


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Transcript (Disponible en Español)

Intro: [00:00:02] Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents and real educators so families can get the real behind the scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack. They tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast.

LaWanda: [00:00:37] Welcome back to another episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. If you're tuning in for the first time, I'm your co-host, LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications at National PTA. I'm here today with my co-host, Helen Westmoreland, who is our Director of Family Engagement. This week's episode touches on the tough transitions kids face when making that exciting new journey from elementary school to middle school.

Helen: [00:01:02] For many, middle school is considered an adolescence rite of passage. It's a time when your child is becoming more and more independent, exploring their identity. And it's become even more difficult for you as a parent to get any information out of them. How are you supposed to stay involved in your middle schoolers education?

LaWanda: [00:01:20] I know you have a little one at home, and my son is just entering elementary school. But I have to tell you, I'm already nervous about middle school. I am so not ready for that transition. And I'm sure many of our listeners can relate.

Helen: [00:01:34] I agree, Lawanda. And let me set the stage. You're a parent and your kid is heading off to middle school. They're terrified. You're terrified. The thought of making sure your child is not only ready for middle school, but they're also prepared for all the social changes that come with. It leaves a lot of parents worried. Think about it. Homework is increasing. The school environment is changing, and new friendships and sometimes romantic relationships are just starting. How can families prepare themselves and their child for middle school success? We've brought in Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author of the book "Middle School Matters", to help parents prepare for this exciting but overwhelming transition.

LaWanda: [00:02:13] Phyllis is currently the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., and has worked with K through 12 students in both public and private schools. She's a mother of three, a licensed clinical professional counselor and a journalist with a regular column in The Washington Post's. Phyllis has also recently published a new book entitled "Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond and How Parents Can Help".

Helen: [00:02:39] Thanks for joining us today!

Phyllis: [00:02:41] Thanks for having me. It's my favorite topic.

Helen: [00:02:44] Well, so tell us why that is. What got you really interested in these middle school years?

Phyllis: [00:02:49] I think it was the combination of starting in middle school as a counselor at the exact same time that my oldest started middle school. I was living the middle school dream at home and at work. And I just suddenly became aware of what my own kids were going through in a very different way. And also understanding what my students were going through and realizing that there was so much more we could do to ease the journey for kids as they go through middle school, and that there was so much that parents weren't necessarily hearing from their kids who become a little bit more withdrawn, a little bit more quiet, typically in middle school. So I felt like I had this opportunity to be a spokesperson for a tween. It's one of my favorite breeds of people because they are so curious and enthusiastic and inquisitive. And I think they have an undeserved bad reputation for seeking drama and being mean. And I don't see them that way at all. They aren't trying that behavior on for sure, but they really are just joyful and fun to work with.

Helen: [00:03:46] Well, you have got a great perspective on middle school. What motivated you to write your new book, "Middle School Matters"?

Phyllis: [00:03:52] So I have a different lens on the phase, I think, than most people because I am working with kids in both the private setting and the school setting. And I'm also writing about childhood development for a variety of publications. So I'm looking at research studies and I'm looking at what's evidence based and then also taking that back and trying to give those studies some practicality and come up with ways that I can help parents in very concrete, practical ways that they can use right on the spot without having to reinvent the wheel or come up with something on their own. It felt to me like everybody was taking a stab in the dark a little bit or trying things and trying to be creative and really doing the best they could when there was a lot of research out there that would help them make their job easier.

LaWanda: [00:04:35] Why is there a bad rap when it comes to middle school and kids?

Phyllis: [00:04:39] A lot of us don't have the best memories of the phase. I think that was part of it. I don't think most people look back on middle school and say, you know, those were the happy years. If only I could relive 12, 13 and 14. So we are bringing all of that to the table. And we experienced that at the same time as we went through puberty and at the same time as we had no life. Variance and no perspective. So it's very hard for us to understand that it's possible those negative memories are inflated, but I think the possibility of having to revisit the phase with our kids and then couple that with maybe some fears that they're not ready for the developmental leap or that they will also experience something similar. And it's the perfect recipe for a lot of anxiety all around.

LaWanda: [00:05:24] That makes total sense, because I'm just flashing back to middle school and yeah, I don't want to do that again.

Helen: [00:05:29] I've actually, now to say that, I don't know if I've ever met someone who was like, "when I was a middle schooler, that was great."

Phyllis: [00:05:36] When you work in a middle school, you have a lot of people saying to you, oh, you know, as if I'm digging ditches or living. And I just can't imagine that it's a pleasurable experience. But it really is. And so can parenting a middle schooler. You just have to parent them a little bit differently than you do with a younger child.

Helen: [00:05:54] Why do you think those middle school years are so important for kids?

Phyllis: [00:05:58] I would argue that we have been neglecting middle school when it's probably the most critical phase of development. They're changing as rapidly as they are, almost as rapidly as they were as babies in that 0 to 2 phase. And they're changing in every single way, physically, intellectually, morally, intellectually. But unlike babies, they actually are capable of absorbing really sophisticated information. They're solidifying their values. They're deciding whether or not they feel good about themselves. Their confidence can either peak or plummet during these years. So it's a time that we really want to capture. And I think that we tend to spend a lot of time looking at early literacy or looking at that college and career transition. And those are important, too. But we end up losing out on this phase that we could really leverage to set our kids up for success.

LaWanda: [00:06:42] Can you talk a little bit more about the important changes during this phase so that our listeners can understand why it's so critical?

Phyllis: [00:06:48] We'll developmentally, kids are pulling away and they're individuating and they're trying to figure out who they are and whether they're good enough and whether they fit in. I was talking to a principal a few days ago who has a middle schooler himself, but he remembers that when his first child went to middle school, he really had this sense that he should maybe pull back and be less involved because he got the sense that she didn't want him to be as involved. But when he puts on his principal hat, he realizes that the exact opposite is true, that this is a phase where kids really do want their parents there, but just in a very different way. Coaching instead of managing them, problem solving with them instead of problem solving for them, allowing them to feel like the experts in their own lives and treating them with respect and involving them in decision making, but not just abandoning them because we don't love the phase ourselves or because we inaccurately perceive that we're unwanted.

Helen: [00:07:41] You talked, Phyllis, about this transition and how kids are going through so many things. What do you think middle schools do well to set kids up for that transition, and what do you wish, knowing all you know, that they did differently?

Phyllis: [00:07:54] So there's a big movement right now called the Remaking Middle School Initiative. There are a lot of people taking a good, hard look at the structure itself of middle schools, because too often we tend to either treat them like mini high schools or we treat kids too young like they're elementary school kids. And we don't appreciate the unique face for what it is. Some of the things we're getting wrong are that there is not enough restarts. There's not enough time for unstructured play for kids to build those social skills that are so important for them and for their resilience. Another thing I think we get wrong is that at the exact time that kids are most insecure, most vulnerable, most in need of consistent support from adults, most in need of comfortable relationships with peers. We take them out of their environment where they know all the families in where they have a homeroom teacher and maybe the schools in their neighborhood. And maybe they've gone to school with these kids for years. And suddenly we put them in this whole new environment where they need to master lockers and they need to take a bus and they may have an influx of students from a lot of different schools. And suddenly they go from one teacher who knows them well to seven teachers who may not know them at all. And they might be seeing 100 different kids a day. They're untethered from everything familiar and everything they knew at the exact time that they most want to fit in and feel a sense of belonging.

LaWanda: [00:09:14] You talked about how the kids may struggle. I think that parents go through that same transition. Can you talk about what they should be doing to help themselves with the transition?

Phyllis: [00:09:25] So it's a fine line because suddenly you want to stay involved and you want to be teaching your kids these values and these social skills and academic skills. But you also want to respect their need for more privacy and more autonomy. And I think parents can find this transition particularly unsettling because they go from being very welcome as volunteers in the school and from setting up play-dates for their kids and from knowing their kids, peers, families, to having to navigate this new environment where they're not sure which teacher to contact, if any. They're not sure whether or not they're welcome in the building. They're not sure their kid wants them there either. So it's, number one, a time for parents. To reinvent their own role and maybe branch out socially themselves. So to look at it as an opportunity for them to grow with their child and then in terms of supporting their child through the phase, the way I look at it, in the way I talk about it in my book is that there are certain skills we want them to acquire over the course of middle school. We want them to learn how to make good friends. We want them to learn how they learn and what they need to have in place to be successful students and to self advocate and to treat themselves in their bodies well and to be safe and to make the decisions.

Phyllis: [00:10:31] So in order for them to do all of those things, that doesn't happen by osmosis. Parents need to be there modeling it for them. Parents can ask questions. You know, I noticed that you're not yourself when you're with that particular friend, what do you think that's about? Or if their child's in a fight with a friend and they're really upset, they can problem solve with them and say, you know, what are your options? You're upset you weren't invited to this party. So what do you think you could do? And ideally, it's the kid who says, well, maybe I could invite Sally over for a sleepover instead. So the parent is leading them and helping them come up with these ideas as opposed to elementary school. And maybe they would call the other kids parent and say, you know, our kids are in a big fight. Let's see if we can help them resolve it. So they're still there, but they're not treating them like they're 8 or 6 anymore.

Helen: [00:11:13] Could you talk a little bit more about these peer and friendships and mental school? Because I think even thinking of my own experience, but also what we hear from parents where they take on a lot of that anxiety of there's a child in my friends peer group who's a bad influence or bullying or doing something like that. How do you sort of advise parents to handle their own anxiety and role in those situations?

Phyllis: [00:11:36] So if as a parent, you don't like who your kids are friends with, the temptation is to just flat out tell them, you know, I don't want you to hang out with Carl because every time you're with Carl, you end up cutting class or you get sent to the principal's office, he doesn't reflect well on you, but if you do that, you're going to end up in a game of tug of war. And you really don't want to give your child who is already trying to establish autonomy, anything to rebel against. You need to be a little clever about how you approach those conversations and instead you can make observations. You can note that some other friend maybe was really thoughtful when they called, when they knew that they were 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. But if you've put out an edict or you forbid a relationship, you're really not going to get the desired result. That is what's really challenging, because as parents, we have that perspective. We know who's a bad influence or we know who doesn't reflect well on our child. And we just want to jump in there and make their world perfect and fix it for them. And it can take such an incredibly long time for kids to realize that they're sacrificing themselves, recognizing that this is part of the challenge of middle school. This is the growth edge that they need to develop because they're friendships in middle school are shifting constantly. They might be shifting in two week intervals. The statistic that has always stuck out for me is that only one percent of a child's friends in 7th grade is still their friend in 12th grade. If you think about it that way, it'll sort itself out. It sorts itself out. And they're experimenting and they're learning through experimenting. And if we deprive them of the opportunity to learn what makes a good friend and who makes them feel good and who makes them feel bad, then we might do them a service in the short run. But in the long run, what we really want is for them to recognize what is and isn't a healthy relationship, because this will also carry over to romantic relationships much later on.

LaWanda: [00:13:30] I think that's such great advice to help parents ask questions and not force feed them, make them feel like they are making the decision, even though you're kind of helping along the way, but you're not pushing your opinion on them. I think that's super important. So I'm going to definitely log that in my brain.

Phyllis: [00:13:48] And also, if your child is genuinely struggling, parents can also fan the flames on emerging friendships and they can look for some support in the school setting. So if your child plays rock soccer and they're having trouble making friends, you could invite them to bring a friend to ice cream after a practice or if your child lacks social skills, but might do okay with an activity like bowling. You could make that happen or arrange a potluck with some other families that have kids the same age. You do want them practicing social skills. You do want them to have at least a friend or two that they can rely on. And if that's not the case, you want to be looking at why that's not the case, talking to their teachers, talking to their coaches and trying to get a sense of what might be getting in their way and giving them an assist.

LaWanda: [00:14:29] Can we talk a little bit about social media in middle school? I know that during this timeframe, a lot of kids are getting devices or have had devices, but now they can bring them to school. They have phones and they're starting to try to be on different platforms. And things can talk a little bit about that.

Phyllis: [00:14:46] So I like to think about social media almost as being folded in to wherever it shows up organically in a kid's life, because it is a real challenge in so many different arenas. So if they're doing homework and they're toggling between homework and texting or homework and Snapchat. Then they're probably not doing anything efficiently. Maybe they're also staying up too late and that's impacting their sleep, which will impact their mental health because we might not know exactly how social media is impacting kids, but we do know that lack of sleep can lead to depression and anxiety. So you want to be looking at those external factors. And in middle school, kids need a lot of support around social media. This is not the time to take a big step back. 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 and setting them up for success by not having screens in their bedroom at all, they should probably put them away at a certain time. There should be some limits. I again believe in generating roles with kids. I think you get more buy in and you also treat them as more mature and they're more likely to comply with those rules. But I've heard of people doing all kinds of creative things like putting the cell phone in a sealed envelope while they study or asking their child what they think would be an appropriate amount of time to spend it. Often the kid will be stricter than the parent. But on the social front, which is as a school counselor where a lot of my work comes in with social media. There is so much room for misinterpretation, for missed social cues, for misunderstandings, for FOMO, for feeling inadequate because you're looking at other people's perfect lives. I mean, we as adults know that it can be hard to look at social media too often and it can take a toll on our self-esteem. All of the studies show that it's doing exactly the same thing for kids. Even boys are really struggling with body image. The more time they spend online looking at other people's social media feeds. So it's not good for kids to spend too much time lurking online and looking at what other people are doing as opposed to just living their life. And they're not developing the social skills, those face to face social skills. So everything has to be in moderation. And if they are spending too much time online, I'd want to know why are they depressed? Are they finding similarly impaired kids online? Are they looking to interact with people who are willing to talk to them because they don't have friends at school? And then you want to be solving whatever that underlying problem is. But overall, social media, is this energy sucking really? Because they are spending all day socializing at school and then they don't get a break because they go home and it's more of the same. So just recognizing it's exhausting enough being a middle schooler layer on social media and they are just completely depleted from the energy of having to interact with people. So the greater gift I think we can give our kids is enforcing some time off in my own experience as a parent when I do that for my own children. They have been grateful to this day. My now 18 year old thanks me for not allowing him to be on social media in middle school.

Helen: [00:17:37] As a self-proclaimed introvert, I can appreciate that advice for all ages. One of the other things that comes up in social media, but in middle school in general, is it can be the start of this. I don't know how to say. It's like Lord of the Flies, right? It's when kids are starting to say, look who's in charge and who can I control? And I think for many parents, the first really scary experience, either that their child might be bullying another kid or being bullied by one or more groups of kids. What advice do you have for parents about just how they get a handle on that situation?

Phyllis: [00:18:11] The tendency for parents is kind of to storm the school and demand consequences. And bullying is much more complicated. Sometimes it's not really bullying. There's no power imbalance. There's no intent to wound. It's not happening repeatedly. It's just two kids in conflict. And so parents need to take a deep breath and assess what's actually going on and try to get a handle on the situation before they jump straight to bullying. If it is bullying, you never want to promise your child you won't get involved or that you won't say anything. A lot of kids will say to their parents, don't do anything, you'll just make it worse. You can problem solve with them and help them come up with solutions and assess what their options are. There might be a bullying form at the school. You might want to start with the school counselor as opposed to an administrator so that you don't have to ratchet it up to the top right away. But there should be an information gathering phase to just assess your child's story, get a sense of what other people are seeing, and then you can formulate a plan for helping them. But sometimes it is a situation where parents need to get involved and sometimes kids actually do need to change environments. So I do take bullying very seriously. But I think that parents often are on the side of thinking normal conflict rises to the level of bullying.

LaWanda: [00:19:16] In your book, you talk about the 10 key skills. Can you kind of give us a high level on what the 10 key skills are?

Phyllis: [00:19:23] So they run the gamut from things that have to do with their moral and ethical development, to their learning and understanding themselves as a learner and setting reasonable expectations and addressing things like perfectionism, to making good friend choices to self advocating. I think self advocating is one of the most important skills that kids can learn in middle school, because as parents were pulling back and if we're pulling back, they need to step up to the plate to make sure their needs are getting mad. And so as parents, we're scaffolding that for them through middle school, but working toward independence. So if we do it for them the whole time, they're not going to get to the point where they can do it on their own. And then I think that middle. There's a really important time to work on risk taking, healthy risk taking, because when you're at an age where you are so sure that you're being judged and watched by everybody, you know, there's that whole concept of the invisible audience. It's a time when you're least likely to take risks. So if you can figure out a way to empower kids to get outside of their comfort zone and I talk about a lot of different strategies for doing that, and there's so many opportunities, it could be a social risk. We will project onto our kids what we think a risk is versus what they think a risk is until we really need to understand what's risky for them and scaffold from there. And then you also want to be empowering them to bounce back from failure. We want to make sure that they know how to come back from a setback and that they have coping strategies and that they're accepting other people. That's one of my other favorite skills to develop during middle school. Because if you take kids who again, are all insecure and you tell them that they should embrace everybody's story and that everybody has a history and that everybody is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, we are conveying to them that that is also true for them. So by teaching them to embrace everyone else's differences, we heighten their ability to develop a healthy identity themselves. And identity development is such a critical part of those middle school years.

Helen: [00:21:14] That is awesome because I think we, like you said, often bucket middle schoolers into these like, oh my gosh, it's just a scary time. So you mentioned all of these skills and I'm curious, we've talked about it from the parenting point of view a little what you can do. What should parents be looking for in their middle school? Like, what are some of those little look for us to know if, you know, is my middle school, like, really helping my kid with these skills that are beyond academics?

Phyllis: [00:21:41] So one of the things that middle schoolers really need and we talked about this a little bit earlier in terms of the transition from elementary to middle, is they need adults that they can bond with in that middle school setting. And it doesn't matter if it's the security person or the cafeteria manager or their counselor or a favorite teacher or an administrator. But you really want to be asking your child who they're connecting with and you want to be hearing that they're connecting with somebody, that they have somebody in that building who feels like a safe person that they can go to for advice or for support or to have lunch with in their classroom on a day that nobody seems to be welcoming them in the cafeteria. It can be a really big blow for a seventh grader. You also want to be looking for home school communication. I spoke to a principal who told me she called herself relentless with social media because she posts at least 100 pictures a day. The reason she does that is because she wants to give talking points to the parents. She wants them to know what their kids were doing during the day so that they can initiate conversation. Little things like those homeschool communications can also help bolster your own relationship with your child.

Helen: [00:22:47] We said at the top of the episode, but middle school is often the time kids come home and the what do you do today? Nothing. How was school? Fine. But the more you can get to actually probe with your questions, the easier to have a conversation.

Phyllis: [00:23:01] There's two things I would share on that point. One is a friend of mine said that her child would come home if she called it the grunting face because she would say, how is school? And he would go UGH. And she was getting nowhere. And she would ask him things like, why did you learn in class? And again, she'd get the grunt. And she flipped it and started saying, what did your teacher teach you? What did your teacher talk about? And she just added in a little bit of emotional distance and suddenly he started talking again. So recognizing that things that don't feel intrusive to us can feel very intrusive to kids is important. And then the other thing I think we need to remember is parents. This goes back to how exhausting it is to navigate those seven teachers. Hundred kids a day, heightened academic demands, social churn, all of that that they're experiencing every day while also going through puberty with no life experience or perspective. I mean, that really is hard, that when they come home, they don't want to be assaulted with questions. They want to talk to nobody. It's not that they don't want to talk to you, their parent. They want to talk to no one. They want to just go sit in a closet often. So being patient and allowing them to come when they're ready to talk. And unfortunately, often we at that point are paying bills, are cleaning up dinner, and we're just not as accessible for them. But recognizing that we may need to set whatever we're doing aside and give them our complete attention when they're ready and do it on their time, I think is critical to communicating with middle schoolers.

LaWanda: [00:24:22] This is such an exciting topic. I know that we could keep going on and on and on about this. We've talked about a lot. What is one thing parents can do to prepare their child for the middle school transition?

Phyllis: [00:24:35] One thing that I think parents should know is what kids are afraid about and worrying about during the middle school transition. Some of these fears that they have are so easily extinguished because they relate to things that have to do with familiarity, that have to do with 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 or taking it. Edge of a mock school day that the school offers during the summer. It might be tempting to blow it off and think it's not a big deal, it's a really big deal because kids will transition much more smoothly if they feel a sense of belonging and a sense of comfort in that environment. In elementary school, you can take them to see middle school plays. You can get them accustomed to the building long before they arrive. You can have them meet with their counselor. The summer before, if they're particularly anxious, you can have them coordinate with a friend they do know to meet outside the cafeteria for the first week. So they know they have someone to sit with. But in order to know which interventions you should choose, you have to have a conversation with your kid about what it is that they're worrying about. As parents, we tend to go high level and we're worrying about bullying and gossip and they're worrying about how it might going to transition. When I only have three minutes between classes.

Helen: [00:25:45] Thank you Phyllis for coming in and sharing all of this great advice today. If our listeners want to learn more about the middle school transition, can you tell us where they should go to find out more about your book or other resources you think are really helpful?

Phyllis: [00:25:59] My book is "Middle School Matters", which is available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or anywhere books are sold. I also have a website Phyllisfagell.com and that's and I tweet a lot of resources about the phase @phyllisfagell.

Helen: [00:26:15] Thank you so much, Phyllis, and thanks to everyone listening in and joining us today. Keep the conversation going by using #backpacknotes on social media. And we hope you tune in next time.

Outro: [00:26:26] Thank you for tuning into notes from the Backpack PTA podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media at national PTA and online at PTA, dot org forward slash backpack notes.


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