Lisa Appelbaum knows the feeling-stress from the
unpredictability and uncertainty of the middle school years. With
one son heading into eighth grade and one entering sixth, Appelbaum
knows that in many ways the worst is behind yet in front of her at
the same time.
"In seventh grade, the big worry is the ISAT score and
attendance, and in eighth grade you sit for the selective
enrollment exams for high school," the Chicago mom says. "It gets
you freaked out in sixth grade for no reason."
Appelbaum's sons attend the high-performing Bell School on the
city's North Side, which placed in the top 10 of a 2007 Chicago
Sun-Times list of the highest-scoring middle-grade programs in
Illinois. Attending such a high-achieving school has its perks,
such as learning multiple languages and highly accessible
But there is a downside, too.
"Some parents started going to high school open houses in
seventh grade," Appelbaum says. "I didn't do it because it would
stress out my oldest son. We just didn't need to add that to the
Unfortunately, many parents of middle-school-age children don't
have Appelbaum's sanguine attitude. And that's where the problems
Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist and author
of the acclaimed parenting book, The Parents We Mean to Be
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), calls this "the real danger in
the achievement craze."
"In the last 30-40 years, achievement and happiness of your kids
has become 'a project,'" he says. "Some parents in some communities
think they are cheating their children if they're not pushing them
hard to achieve."
Weissbourd thinks focusing narrowly on high achievement can
compromise the development of children, especially their sense of
But, he says, there are ways parents can help promote
self-development while helping kids achieve their personal best in
"It's important that we have authentic conversations with our
kids about what it means to achieve and about why achievement is
important," Weissbourd says. "We, as parents, have to stress that
achievement is important, but also be just as supportive of other
aspects of our children's lives as well that don't have to do with
At the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning
(www.casel.org), a non-profit
organization based in Chicago that works to advance social and
emotional learning (SEL), research found behavior has a profound
impact on academic performance.
In fact, its December 2008 study across the K-8 grade range
showed that SEL programming improved students' achievement test
scores by 11-17 percentage points.
"When you address kids' social and emotional needs, it's not at
the expense of academics. That's a false premise. When children can
learn to calm themselves and work towards a reasonable goal, they
can improve academically," says Mary Utne O'Brien, University of
Illinois at Chicago research professor of psychology and education
and a UIC SEL Research Group collaborator.
The SEL approach to education in middle school worked well in
the Hinsdale (District 181) schools. Jeanne Osgood, communications
outreach coordinator for CASEL, pioneered this process when her
children were in school there. As project manager for SEL
implementation in the district, Osgood learned that the best way
for children to develop their social and emotional side along with
the academic is through a solid family/school partnership.
"In the suburbs, especially around middle school time, you and
your kids start to encounter new faces," Osgood says. "When my kids
got to seventh grade, we started very informal parent-to-parent
meet-and-greets through e-mails and over coffee to build some
common ground with parents of new students.
"We'd discuss what happens outside of school and got to know
each other through stories, experiences."
Getting to know parents of your children's classmates and the
school's surrounding community is crucial to developing a
"One thing we rarely stress with children, but which is crucial
to raising a well-adjusted middle-schooler, is that their
neighborhood and school are communities that they have a
responsibility for. There are many ways we can build that feeling,"
Weissbourd says. "For example, we don't let them treat the school
custodians or waitresses at a neighborhood restaurant as invisible.
If a neighbor does a good deed, we should point that out."
At Francis W. Parker School, the prestigious Chicago K-12
independent school, there is a heavy focus on community-building
starting in middle school.
"The philosophy of the school is founded on the sense that each
child has the chance to learn the most by living the ethos of
community, and we are all responsible for each other in a variety
of ways," says Dan Frank, Parker's principal.
In addition, community can be integrated into daily lessons. Tom
Rosenbluth, Parker's intermediate and middle school head and former
English teacher, explains, "Our teachers don't get up and lecture
one way each class. I make sure our teachers are having group
discussions with the students regularly, publishing students' work
and posting their art on display. That way we are celebrating
everyone and not just high-achieving individuals."
Unfortunately, in the typical middle school, rankings and scores
are what matter most.
"Your kids start in sixth grade learning that they have to work
harder for good grades," Appelbaum says. "By seventh grade, you are
really concerned about grades."
But it's important to remember that in that process, children
need the opportunity to not only be successful students, but caring
and empathetic citizens as well.
Tips to use
Richard Weissbourd, author and child and family
• Respect your child's teachers and work to piece together
your perspective and the teacher's perspective on a child. Make
high achievement one theme in the large composition of a child's
• As a parent, model the type of behavior you want your
children to emulate. That means, in part, caring not just about
your own child but about other children in the building and about
how the whole school community functions.
Jeanne Osgood, communications outreach coordinator for
• Have perspective and try not to get caught up in other
parents' stress. It's OK for your child not to be in the top 10
percent of everything.
• Keep the ultimate end-goal in mind at all times. Is the
ultimate outcome for your child to win at all costs, or to have a
lifelong love of learning and fitness and activity?
Tom Rosenbluth, educator, Francis W. Parker School:
• Try to find a faculty member at the school with whom your
child can build a benevolent relationship-someone who's not solely
focused on your child's curriculum but also the social and
emotional issues he/she may be facing.
• Let go a bit. Have adult-like conversations with your
children about rules and policies to create an interdependent
relationship rather than a co-dependent one.
Sara Fisher is a Chicago mom and freelance writer.
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