From Parent to Coach: How Your Role Changes When Your Child Goes to Middle School

We've all heard about how kids change in middle school and don't seem to want their parents around. That's not true. Kids always want you around, they just want you in a way that's different from how they needed you before.

This time last year, I was lucky enough to spend some time watching the Houston Texans practice. As I watched, there was something about the interaction between the coaches and players that made me think of parents with kids making the move to middle school.  When I sat down and gave it some thought, here's what sticks with me:

Every week coaches around the country spend time huddled in their offices with their team to replay the previous week's game. They pay attention to what was well executed and what happened that their players weren't quite ready for. Simultaneously, they study the next opponent so they can prepare their players by teaching them what to look for, giving them the skills to play the game and time to practice both in a low-risk environment.

Once the coaches have a plan for who is going to teach which skill, they sit the players down and scrub them in. Players listen, take notes and prepare for the week a ahead, knowing exactly what the end goal is. That week, coaches and players focus on 1-2 things that will help them become markedly more successful in the coming game. At the beginning of the week, players walk through the drills. Literally walk. Coaches move them from place to place sometimes physically showing them how it's done. Players follow their lead. As the week progresses, so do the players' independence and confidence. And the coaches back away, giving the players space to make the plays their own. During this time, players fail. Coaches and sometimes other players will jump in swiftly and say, "Hey, when you did this, you opened the door for {insert unintended negative consequence} to happen. What you want to do is Y. Let's try it again." And they practice it again and again until the player gets it.  Nobody freaks out. Why? Because during practice you're supposed to fail. Now don't get me wrong, when players fail to execute a skill after much practice, there's a consequence, a natural one. If they aren't ready, they don't play in the game, and I haven't met a kid yet who enjoys being on the bench during game time.

So what does this have to go with parenting a middle schooler? In elementary school, your kids need you to be enthusiastic about everything they do and bring home from school. The need you in the clingy, lovey kind of way, and want your attention, your guidance, your hand. In middle school that looks a bit different. Your kids want to be independent and what you and I know for sure (a la Oprah) is that eleven year olds don't wake up one morning in August with independence left under their pillow like a gift from the tooth fairy.  We've all heard about how kids change in middle school and don't seen to want their parents around. That's not true. Kids always want you around. They just want you in a way that's different from how they needed you before. What they need is for you to give them the skills they need for the big game--the moment when they are on the field and you're in the stands unable to rescue them. They need you to sit with them at the table on Friday nights and replay the week. To help them make a game plan (a downloadable version is below) for the coming week. They need you to walk them through what doing it right feels like and show them how to know when they are doing it wrong. All without freaking out--why? Because this middle school experience, is practice, and you're the coach.

Making the Leap to Middle/High School

In a couple of days, some families will truly turn the corner, saying goodbye forever to elementary school. You’re walking away with fond memories of all those handprint arts and crafts, class parties and homework/projects where you could actually be helpful.  You are abundantly thankful for the nurturing atmosphere, and you might be even happier that you managed to meet and make a few mommy friends along the way.  Ahhh….elementary school.  Bliss.

But then there’s what’s next…middle school.  The sheer thought of its size alone makes you a little squeamish. How will your kid who’s been in such a small, nurturing environment fair in a system so large? How will she adjust to all of that movement? From being the bigger kid on campus to being the smallest one? Have you seen the size of those 8th graders? Thinking, if her middle school experience is anything like mine, we’re in for a wild ride. And let’s not even talk about the difference in workload? Everything about moving to middle school just seems so…scary.  (If it didn’t before, it surely seems that way now, no?)

Take a breath. Take another one.  

What your kids experience in middle school will be different from what they experienced in elementary. That means how you support them in the process will also need to be different. In elementary school, your kids need you to delight in their academic learning, to celebrate the light coming on, to “oh, wow, that’s awesome” every moment so that they learn to value and appreciate the act of learning. In middle school, kids learn how to manage their time, how to navigate social circles, how to fail and how to rebound, how to be organized and make plans. They should learn what kind of people they don’t like to be around, and somewhere along the way, they should learn some academic content as well. It’s a lot to process for a kid who a couple of months earlier left a class of 22 with a sweet, loving teacher in a well-controlled environment.  Middle school is their first introduction into anything that resembles the real world, and your kids need you to be present. They need you to be their coach—realizing it’s their turn to go out and find their place in all of the madness, making sure they have the tools and skills to put their best foot forward while giving them quick, re-directive pointers when they fall. To that end, here are a couple of things you can do to be present without risking being a helicopter parent.

1. Talk to your child about how middle school will be different.  Don’t project your experience on to him, but talk about the things you already know about. Here are a few questions to guide the conversation.  I typically have these kinds of chats over ice cream or while hanging outside to make them seem more off-the-cuff.

  • How are you feeling about going to middle school next year?  
  • How do you think it will be different from X Elementary?
  • You nervous? or What are you most nervous about? (Listen carefully to the answer here, this will be your first opportunity to coach him/her through the first difficulty.)
  • Own your nervousness: You know, I’m a little nervous too. {insert why here}
  • Add something reassuring about how you two will figure it out together.  

This may seem like a no-brainer, but what’s really happening here is you’re sending the message that you are going to continue to talk to your child about school, even through middle school when it’s normal for parents to unknowingly give their kids too much room before they are ready.

2. Set a goal and a game plan. I know this sounds a little hover-ish, but hang with me. Your kid needs to know that he owns his own experiences.  Whether middle school works or not is within his control.  There’s no better way to teach that lesson than to teach that lesson. Here’s your first opportunity to be Mom/Dad the Coach.  Let’s say that your son said he was most nervous about doing well in math. That’s been a tough subject for him and he’s had to work really hard at it even in elementary school.  Here’s an example of how this coaching thing works.

"You know, I was thinking about you being nervous about math.  When I get nervous about something, whether I’m going to do well or not, making a plan helps me figure out exactly what I can do so I won’t be so nervous. Like last week when I was anxious about my project at work, this is what I did to get myself together." Show him a made up or real project plan using the fuzzy grid below but with your own content.  The model below is a sample of what a completed version might look like if your child said he was nervous about math.

You can download a student-friendly (read: way cooler looking) blank version below.

You can complete a similar chart for all kinds of things: organization, making new friends, trying new things, trying out for a sport team, completing a project—anything.  You can and should create new goals whenever there’s a need. The goal here is to get your son or daughter to start making the connection between input and output, correlating when she does well and what of her actions led to that and vice versa.  

No matter what the situation, if you stick to the “What happened? Why do you think that happened? What do you think you should do differently so that does or doesn’t happen again?” you can’t go wrong.  The trick is to lay that foundation as early as possible and to maintain that kind of problem-solving mindset throughout middle school. By 8th grade, it should be second nature. This is the type of engagement your kids need from you as they make the leap to middle school—this is the essence of coaching.  This is middle school.

And if you wish this was around for your teen who's now in high school, don't fret. It's never to late to teach kids how to be successful. Download the Success Game Plan and help your high schooler start the year in the right direction.

Know a friend or two who could use this? Click here to share this blog on Facebook.

Diversity in Schools: How it matters in school selection


Whether we are talking about racial or socioeconomic diversity, we cannot deny the impact diversity plays in choosing schools for our children. In some cases, this is deliberate: we want our kids to be exposed to and relate to people from all walks of life, and so we gravitate towards schools that embody this value. In other cases, we focus on a school’s academic performance in a vacuum, and those instances, we rely on rankings, turning a blind eye to diversity altogether. 

The reality is, diversity influences quite a bit more than our kids’ experiences with each other–it influences one of the most important factors in choosing a school: how teachers teach.

Take a look at these two photos: one represents a classroom at one of the highly ranked public schools in Houston (not one in particular, just in general terms) and the other picture represents a school a little farther down the list, but still in the A/B range. 

When you look at the picture on the left, one naturally sees kids who all look the same, but when you look at the photo on the right, you see variety in color.  Obvious, right? But here’s the point: when you look at the photo on the left, it’s actually harder to see the diversity that exists there because on the surface everyone looks the same. It’s harder to “see" the boy who needs to touch things in order to understand or to identify the girl who needs to hear from a friend in order to truly grasp the concept. If the diversity is harder to see, it’s harder to respond to. Because you can easily see the diversity in the second photo, you naturally expect to have to approach that group different purely based on the various shades in the image. This is true for teachers as well. When they look out onto a class of kids who on the surface are by and large the same, the teaching methods they use are by and large the same. However, when teachers look out onto a class of kids that looks diverse, they are visibly reminded that their kids come with varying academic levels, learning styles and preferences. And the reality is, we address and respond to what we can see easily–that applies to teachers as well.

If you have a child who is a natural learner, who can sit, listen to a lesson, follow the instructions given and do the work, you’re good. This may mean very little to you. However, if you have a child who needs to hear things a few times before she understands it, or if you have a child who needs to move around and engage physically before he’s able to process and “get” it, you may want to consider a school where the diversity not only makes it more likely that your child will be “seen” but that (s)he will also see himself in others. 

Truly gifted teachers know kids have various learning styles, and that the only way to be effective is to teach in the way students learn. And while it takes years of experience and training to recognize the different learning styles and effectively employ teaching methods that engage all students, you might find that teachers who do this best are tucked away in schools that wouldn’t initially be on your radar. They may even be hiding in the neighborhood school you’re avoiding.

So as you prepare to visit schools as a part of HISD’s Magnet Thursdays, which start this week and run through December, I encourage you to broaden your search. Be deliberate in thinking about the role diversity plays in how your child experiences school, both in and outside of the classroom. 

For a parent’s perspective on choosing a diverse school, check out Our School is Title I and We Like It. If you want to talk diversity in schools or about how to honor your children by choosing schools that fit them, email me at aisha@crumbineed.com