As children grow older and enter their middle grade years, young people crave more independence as they begin to explore who they are and their place in the world. As they are going through major transitions, parents often assume stepping back and giving them space might be the best strategy to encourage independence and self-esteem. However, it is crucial that parents do not step out or diminish their role but merely redefine it. Parental involvement during this critical time can make the difference between their childrens’ success and them being swept away by the powerful undercurrents in what has come to be known as the’ Bermuda Triangle’ years.
Some researchers associate the middle grades with the ‘predisposition stage’. This is when students develop educational and life aspirations. This is the time most commonly associated with a decline in academic achievement, motivation, and self-esteem. As they develop their self-concept and identity, students make decisions about what they are capable of and what they see as their possibilities. Students will make choices about secondary school, extra-curricular activities, friends, and future careers based on these perceptions. They will also become interested in academic achievement and community involvement based on their self-concept. Most importantly, they may give up or become depressed due to poor perceptions of their life possibilities.
Studies have indicated that parental involvement (which includes everything from reading and discussing daily events with their children, communicating high expectations, maintaining consistent household rules, and attendance or participating in school activities) must remain consistent and active. Parental involvement, especially high expectations, appear to have the most significant impact on long-term achievement of young people across all socio-economic, geographic, and cultural groups. It is clear that the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement is not income or social status but the parents’ ability to create a home environment that encourages learning, high but not unrealistic expectations, and consistent involvement in their children’s education.
When parents consciously make time to have conversations about everyday events, discuss readings, cultural activities or community events, regularly express affection, as well as clearly communicate the importance of education and establishing goals, children will adopt perceptions that support personal growth and academic achievement. They will feel more confident about making decisions, their ability to problem-solve and realize goals. The more they feel they can do, the more they will want to do and ultimately be more excited about the possibilities available to them. This upward spiral builds inner strength and self-esteem.
Parents need to create an environment that promotes learning by reinforcing what is being taught in school and the child’s responsibilities in their learning. They can enrich and extend learning that takes place in school by taking their children on trips to the museum, art gallery, theatre, or community events. By demonstrating interest in school activities and curriculum, young people come to believe that what they are learning is relevant and has meaning beyond the classroom. When parents teach and reinforce conflict resolution and positive communication skills by modelling and rewarding these skills, children learn to negotiate the system and feel more control over their lives. By establishing daily family routines such as consistent bed times, having dinner together, assigning household responsibilities, and doing homework, children gain a sense of security and connection as well as help them develop tools and habits that support their success. When parents demonstrate a love of learning and that achievement comes from working hard, children are much more likely to follow suit.
Most importantly, all children want to feel recognized and accepted. Praise is a parent’s most powerful tool. It must be genuine and related to specific achievements.
As children grow older, parents may make fewer decisions for them but must still actively coach, cheerleader, guide, reinforce, and establish boundaries for their middle graders. This may mean that they must step back and give them room to explore and experiment but does not mean that they should diminish the time they invest in building and maintaining their relationship with their child or lessen their involvement. The dance of the parent-child relationship may change in nature and form, but not in intensity or consistency. This will ensure your children do not flounder or lose their way during the turbulent years of the middle grades.
Hermine Steinberg is a teacher, parent, blogger, and children’s author.