Making Middle School a Success: Tips for Parents

“I can’t do it.” “I don’t want to go to school anymore.” “Nothing I do matters.”

If these statements frequently echo from your child’s bedroom as the alarm goes off for school each morning or as she sits down to do her homework each night, you may have on your hands what Carol Randstad, the Director of Academics at New Leaf Academy of Oregon, a therapeutic boarding school for girls aged 10 to 14, refers to as a “discouraged learner.”

Discouraged learners are not unintelligent or hopeless – they are, as the phrase implies, discouraged. These students lack confidence in their skills or abilities at school and feel hopeless about the prospect that their situation will ever change. Because of their anxiety and low self-esteem, they end up choosing to fail rather than risk the embarrassment and disappointment of trying and failing anyway. In order to achieve successes and feel good about their accomplishments, discouraged learners need guidance and support from their parents, teachers, and outside professionals.

Helping the Discouraged Learner

How does such a young child decide so early on to give up on school? There are many possible reasons. He may have felt discouraged or unsupported by parents or teachers in the past, or he may have learning disabilities that weren’t identified or diagnosed in school. Whatever the reason, parents are always the first line of defense in helping their discouraged learner. Here are a few tips Randstad recommends to parents confronted with a middle schooler who feels hopeless at school:

Set Realistic Expectations

Parental expectations that are based on the parents’ own personal successes or desires can set a child up for disappointment. Though many parents see their child as an extension of themselves, meaning the child should excel in the same subjects or earn the same grades, this is not always the case.

In addition, just because a child shines in some areas doesn’t mean he should or will necessarily shine in all areas. Parents often mistakenly believe that if their child just worked hard enough he would succeed in everything, not realizing he may have a learning disability or challenge, a lack of interest, or another reason behind his struggles.

“The trick with parenting, which is so difficult to master, is finding the balance between acceptance and high, but realistic expectations that are in line with an honest, accurate understanding of the child’s skills and abilities,” explains Randstad.

See Your Children for Who They Are

Parental expectations are often best managed by knowing your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and seeing him for who he truly is (not necessarily who you pictured him to be or wanted him to be). This can be accomplished by taking the time to get to know your child. Help him with his homework, ask him about his day, and meet with his teachers and counselors as often as possible.

The next step is granting enough freedom to allow the child to grow and mature at his own pace. According to Randstad, it is essential that parents never stop conveying a message of hope to their children. Sometimes subjects click in middle school, but sometimes students reach high school, or even college before their brains are sufficiently developed to process certain types of information. For example, some girls excel at math later in life than boys, and some boys excel in language and writing later in life than girls – but neither should make the decision that they are simply “bad” at a subject early on in their development.

“If the student continues to work hard, maintains her hope for the future, and remains patient with her still-maturing mind, her success will grow with each year that passes,” says Randstad. “Knowing your child and giving her realistic hopes for the future is one of the most effective ways to avoid the snare of the discouraged learner.”

Celebrate Small Successes

For many parents, success means earning the best grades or outperforming one’s peers. Instead, Randstad recommends that parents tailor their definition of success around their child’s work ethic and degree of effort – and then celebrate the child’s successes, no matter how small. This way, the child will build the confidence to pursue even greater successes.

If parents define success early on based on specific outcomes they hope their child achieves, such as a certain grade point average or level of advancement, they may find their definition is far too limiting. Even if the child achieves the desired outcome, she may still fall short of where her potential could’ve taken her if the definition of success were more flexible and effort-focused.

Randstad, who has worked with at-risk kids and discouraged learners her whole life, continues to marvel at what encouragement and small celebrations can do. “With guidance and support, children can become confident risk-takers who grow to believe ‘I can do it, and I can do even more than you think I can,’ without fear of failure,” she says.

Ask the Professionals

Helping a discouraged learner gain the tools and confidence to excel in school is no easy task – for parents, and even sometimes professionals. If you’ve reached a point where your efforts don’t seem to make a difference and your child is headed down the wrong path, the best thing you can do for your child is get help before it’s too late. Private boarding schools like New Leaf Academy of Oregon, which offers a unique combination of intensive academic support and a broader emphasis on emotional growth, specialize in rebuilding discouraged learners’ confidence and ability to learn.

New Leaf Academy of Oregon is unique in that girls are placed in classrooms based on their developmental level, not their grade level, so that they can fill in the building blocks they may have missed in earlier grades without comparing themselves to other students who are not struggling in the same areas. For the first time, students feel safe – and are rewarded for – reading out loud in class, raising their hands, and actively participating in the classroom experience. By the time they leave New Leaf, students have filled in the knowledge gaps and have a strong foundation for continued success at their appropriate grade level.

Dealing with a discouraged learner can be a trying experience for any parent. Randstad’s final piece of advice, then, is, “Don’t be ashamed to reach out and ask for the help your child needs. Know that there are professionals who are excited to help kids get back on track in school and help families develop healthy patterns.”