- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

Lisa Van Dusen, a mother of three, likens entering middle school to being "shot out of a cannon."

The Northwest Washington architect and property manager has been through it once already as a parent daughter Ellen is 16. Ms. Van Dusen will experience middle school again this fall when her son Dave, 12, enters seventh grade.

"There's a huge difference in elementary school; the kids are rather coddled there, and the parents are always in the protective mode," she says. "It's a loss of basic control you had over them. The kids, of course, love it, because they have newfound freedom. For the parents, it's worrisome because you don't know what the plan is day to day."

Those years of grades six through eight (or, in some cases, seven and eight) are filled with glory and strife for students and their parents. Physical changes are associated with puberty, peer pressure becomes more magnified, and concerns about social issues become vital. New friends, lots of teachers and a higher level of academic independence place new demands on organizational skills and amplify parental jitters.

There were 10.8 million public middle school students nationwide as of 2000-2001 (the latest statistics available), according to the Department of Education.

The middle school years are a natural part of growing up, and parents should enjoy those years, says Paula DeForest, a doctorate-level school psychologist at Irving Middle School in Springfield and a member of the National Association of School Psychologists.

"Yes, there are some hurdles, but with supportive parents, kids will make it through this to high school and beyond," Ms. DeForest says. "However, those first few weeks of school are very stressful. We advise parents to be tolerant. The kids are on display and feel like everyone's looking at them. Give them distance and support."

@$:A magnified interest in the social world around them can be a major hurdle for young adolescents, middle school teachers and counselors say.

These concerns "feed into feelings about body image and concern about appearing different," says Eileen Goldschmidt, also a doctoral-level school psychologist, who serves the middle school population of Hayfield Secondary School near Springfield.

To explain this preoccupation, Ms. Goldschmidt points to a behavioral description called the "imaginary audience," coined by child-development scholar David Elkind. The imaginary audience, Mr. Elkind has said, is a feeling shared by many adolescents that everyone else is as interested in them as they are in themselves.

"Many adolescents think they're constantly on-stage," Ms. Goldschmidt says. "There's a lot of anxiety that comes with that. Adolescents are still pretty egocentric. They believe that they are the focus of attention and are very sensitive about the way they appear to others."

In this context, Ms. Goldschmidt says, it might be helpful for parents to remind their middle schoolers, "Just as you are worried about people looking at you, other people are worried about you looking at them, so others have the same feelings and anxieties."

Friends also take on paramount importance in middle school, says Sharon Monde, principal at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington. She has worked with middle school students for 23 years.

"In elementary school, they're in a classroom of 26 kids, and they usually find their friends within those 26," she says. "In middle schol, they're choosing from a broader range. And how important are friends? In some cases, very important. First of all, they've chosen them themselves, and they get to interact with them without always having an adult there to guide the interaction."

Ms. Van Dusen well remembers her daughter Ellen's experience navigating the social network of middle school.

"Ellen loved it; she thrived on it. She handled it very well, but I think it's a tumultuous time for kids. I think socially it's a time when kids have very close relationships with their friends, and I suppose there's some shenanigans that go on between being a part of a group or not part of a group," Ms. Van Dusen says.

Middle school is a time when children are anxious to gain distance from their parents, she says.

"We'd try to anticipate if anything was amiss," Ms. Van Dusen says "We'd ask questions, but nothing specific because I think they like to manage their own social interactions. If I asked too many questions, she would basically not answer, and I'd get nowhere. So it would be better to throw out general questions and work backward to see if you'd get anywhere. And if you think things are miserable in terms of losing touch, things begin to get back under control or reeled in by about ninth grade, in my opinion."

Parents should expect their children not to be as forthcoming in middle school, agrees Irving Middle School's Ms. DeForest.

"If you're ever at a loss of what to say to your child, practice active listening," she says. "Sometimes all these children need is a sounding board. Help them through the pros and cons. That way, the parent is not taking ownership of the problem."

New school structure

Nancy Schultze, director of middle school instruction for Montgomery County Public Schools, characterizes the middle-school-age child as someone who's still eager to learn, still excited about school despite the obvious social angst.

"Within sixth grade, we try to hold their hand; in seventh, we try to walk alongside them; and then in eighth, we try to give them a push to get them off," Ms. Schultze says. "We try to give them progressive independence. They have the option of having seven teachers in a day. That can be of concern to kids, but in a lot of ways, that turns out to be better because they have … a variety of people to work with instead of just a few."

Most middle schools including those in Montgomery, Arlington and Fairfax counties work within the framework of "teams," she says. Each child entering middle school is placed on a team consisting of 100 to 125 children; each school has five to nine teams, depending on its size. The core teachers for each team including a guidance counselor meet weekly to discuss students, schedules and curriculum. Parents are encouraged to stay in touch with the team.

"Sometimes elementary school parents are nervous about the 'black hole' of middle school," Ms. DeForest says. "Parents are kind of threatened by that just the change in class structure and size. But these kids are not floundering out there. Middle school is not a black hole, and the child is not out there hanging."

Although the Van Dusens believe the school staff will be there to support their son when he enters middle school next month, Ms. Van Dusen says she is concerned about the organization required to navigate middle school academics successfully.

"I do worry about that a great deal, because Dave is not a naturally organized kid, and I worry that he hasn't developed good study habits although he's a good student," she says. "We'll have to see if we can find out due dates on large assignments to make sure he's pacing himself. I have talked to him about how he's going to have to be on top of assignments, cut out TV and video games. I don't think he believes it yet. His sister is also telling him the same."

Annie Mahon says her daughter Maddie, 12, had a good initiation into middle school when she entered Alice Deal Junior High in the District last year.

"She had a fabulous year," says Ms. Mahon, a stay-at-home mother in Northwest Washington. "She was very, very happy and was academically motivated much more so than in elementary school. I was shocked. She was really motivated by her teachers and also by the level of independence they're given."

Ms. Mahon says she noticed a decline in the involvement of parents once their children hit middle school. The difference seemed more obvious to her because she has three children still in elementary school.

"You don't see what [the students are] doing day to day," she says. "With my [middle school] daughter, I never saw anything but the report cards, really. We went in once for a conference, and you had to wait in line to see the teachers. And even when you see them, it's not like they really know your kid because they only have them for one hour a day. You really have to trust your kid that everything you've taught them all along has stuck and that they're internally motivated."

Parents have to be involved in their children's lives, even while encouraging an appropriate level of independence, Ms. Schultze says.

"Many parents are active at the elementary school level, but they need to be active partners in the middle school, too," she says. "Verbally, the kids will tell parents, 'I don't want you to be here,' but they're really so proud to see their parents being active.

"Come in and meet with the team. Come in and volunteer. Attend after-school functions. Join the PTA. Find out what the academic requirements are and help the child follow through on that. If a child comes home and says, 'I don't feel good about going to [gym class],' find out what that means."

Teachers and administrators say middle school is a venue for children who are still eager to learn, really want to be in school, want to be challenged and want to be with their friends.

"They are still amenable to adult direction, and you can really get a kid to soar at that point," Ms. Schultze says. "I've had young people come back to me and say, 'If it wasn't for you, I don't know where I'd be today.' People really have to be attentive to what kids are saying and how they're feeling."

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