Supporting Your Middle Schooler During Covid-19

If you’re the parent of a middle schooler, preparing for another non-conventional school year can feel intimidating. After working with hundreds of middle schoolers and their families, I get that and I want to help. Read on to discover three priorities to keep in mind as you support your middle schooler in the year ahead. 

School closures in the spring weren’t easy on anyone. After talking with hundreds of families in recent months, I’m hearing that middle schoolers were hit particularly hard. Middle school is never easy. The typical stress is even more intensified with the loss of peer interaction, in-person teacher support, and hands-on classroom time that they’ve experienced during this pandemic. 

Make Decisions That Work for Your Family

A few weeks ago, local school districts announced that parents would need to choose between two days of in-person learning or four days of virtual learning this fall. If you’re a middle school parent grappling with this decision, I want to reassure you that there’s no one decision that’s right for everyone. Each option has pros and cons.

For example, four days of virtual schooling might provide a more consistent routine and academic experience, but children will miss out on beneficial social interactions. On the other hand, two days of in-person school will provide that social interaction, but you may find your child needs extra academic support while learning from home the other three days of the week. Neither choice is all-good or all-bad, so simply choose whichever is best for your family’s needs. Then, do what you can to “make up” for what’s lacking—perhaps by keeping the next two suggestions in mind.

Prioritize English and Math

As you monitor your child’s progress over the next year, pay special attention to Math and English. The skills learned in those middle school classes are foundational for the rest of their academic careers. In English, they’re honing their reading comprehension skills, which prepares them for the analytical and critical thinking that Advanced Placement subjects in high school will require. Similarly, in pre-Algebra and Algebra, they’re learning skills they’ll need in every math class still to come. 

Unfortunately, research suggests that school closures caused by COVID-19 could lead to serious academic setbacks. As reported in The Hechinger Report, one study suggested that “sixth and seventh graders would retain an average of only 1 to 10 percent of their normal learning gains in math for the year, and just 15 to 29 percent in reading.” Such losses could set these students back not only for the 2020-21 school year, but well into high school.

If your child needs additional help to catch up or keep up in these subjects, don’t wait for a normal school schedule to resume. Instead, seek out a tutor or use online resources to supplement your child’s learning. When your child enrolls in more advanced classes in the coming years, you’ll be glad you took the time to give them a solid foundation!

Make Room for Social Development

We can’t underestimate how critical the middle school years are for children’s social development. That’s why this age group seemed to struggle more than any other with the sudden loss of in-person relationships in the spring. Spending time with peers and mentors isn’t just a way to stave off boredom. It plays a crucial role in their mental and emotional health at this stage. 

Just take a look at what reporter Steven Yoder from The Hechinger Report found in speaking with adolescence specialists:

When puberty hits, the brain reorganizes dramatically, said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, who specializes in adolescence. The neural pathways dealing with learning about social connections become more active, helping adolescents become attuned to what other people are thinking and feeling and how best to relate to them.

It’s at this age that, through interactions with peers and adults, young people acquire the ability to read facial expressions and interpret nonverbal communication, Steinberg said.

Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Yoder that isolation “flies in the face of what their brains are telling them they need.”

This fall, remember that middle schoolers don’t just want social interaction. They need it. Look for opportunities to provide that however you can. Maybe you opt for two days a week of in-person school. Maybe you set up Zoom calls between your child and their peers. Maybe you arrange socially-distanced hangouts for your child with one or two friends in your backyard. How you do it is up to you, but ensure your child has opportunities to safely but consistently develop their social skills over the next year.

In the months ahead, I expect most middle school parents will face an overwhelming number of opinions, decisions, and concerns. Instead of getting bogged down in it all, try to remember these three priorities: Make decisions that work for your family. Prioritize English and Math. And make room for your child’s social development. Do that, and you’ll set your child up for success in middle school, high school, and beyond—no matter what the future may hold.

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