By Katie Wester-Neal
Five or six different teachers. A labyrinth building. Lockers. New friends. Moving up to middle school can be overwhelming for parents and students alike. But it doesn’t have to be.
By increasing engagement, parents and their children will become more comfortable with middle school, sending student motivation and performance skyrocketing. Parents often have misconceptions about getting involved in middle school. Here are four common myths about parent involvement in grades 6-8 and how to debunk them.
Myth #1: Children don’t need their parents as much in middle school.
Some parents get to middle school thinking their kids know all about the school routine, so they don’t need to be as involved. But the evidence says otherwise. Even at the middle level, parents still play an important role.
Research from Harvard University’s Family Research Project shows that the children of involved parents tend to do better in school across a number of measures, including a higher overall GPA, better scores on standardized tests, and an increased likelihood of enrolling in college. Engaged parents can also reduce the effects of negative peer pressure that often push kids to become unmotivated in school.
Even though students may roll their eyes about moms helping at school, parents can be reassured that their involvement has long-lasting positive effects on their children’s academic motivation and performance.
After letting parents know why they still need to be involved, educators need to recognize that it can be difficult for parents to participate in school. Schools can make information on volunteer opportunities easy to access (in more than one language, if needed) and work with parents to create more ways to get involved. We might begin by asking them when they are free to volunteer.
Myth #2: Middle school classrooms don’t need parent volunteers.
Some parents and teachers think classroom volunteers are for elementary schools, but middle school teachers can often use parent help too. Teachers can check their weekly schedules to see where parents can participate. Math games and read aloud sessions, for example, are easy spots for incorporating parent help. I have also used parent volunteers to help with copies and cutting or sorting lesson materials.
Schools can also make volunteering easy by coordinating take-home activities where parents can help without coming into school. Labeling new classroom library books, sorting and bagging sets of math manipulatives, or assembling learning games for the classroom are all possibilities. Although this may be a less direct form of involvement than always volunteering in the classroom, students are often motivated to follow parents’ good examples, even if the example is at home. When a parent is involved in school, the child will have a role model to follow.
Myth #3: Middle schools are hard to navigate.
Students usually have several new teachers each year, and middle schools are often large. Intimidated or confused by all the changes and the sheer scale of things, parents can feel unmotivated to get involved. But schools and teachers have the power to change those feelings by making it easy for parents to find their way in your school.
Schools can coordinate events at different times of day to make it easier for parents to visit the school and feel more comfortable. At several middle schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, parents can visit with the principal for morning coffee or attend evening dinner meetings with guest speakers.
Teachers can make themselves more visible to parents by mailing welcome postcards or sending an introductory email. Once parents get to know the teachers, they can feel more motivated to be engaged in school events. Teachers can also set the example to encourage parents to get involved.
When planning to attend school events, teachers can help parents feel motivated to participate by letting them know that they’ll be there too. Teachers can thank parents for attending school activities and encourage them to be involved again. Students who feel lost in the shuffle of middle school can feel more motivated when they see that their parents are active and enjoying school life.
Myth #4: Parents can only participate at school.
Student motivation and performance goes up when teachers are explicit about high expectations for students, and parents who are also clear about high academic expectations can produce the same positive effects at home. For example, parents can give verbal encouragement—along with a healthy breakfast—on the morning before a test to boost kids’ motivation to perform well.
One year I connected with a parent who shared my love of reading, so we set up a book exchange, recommending good books to each other. I let my students know about the idea and encouraged them to recommend and trade books they liked with each other. When the children read at home, parents could help by discussing whether the book might be good to trade with a classmate.
With so many new classes and teachers, middle school students need to be organized to complete their assignments on time, and that organization can start at home.
Parents can also participate by setting up a home-school routine, which might include: creating and updating a calendar with due dates for projects and tests; daily homework and study time; and a morning backpack check for necessary materials and work to be submitted before heading to school. Through classroom/grade level newsletters or reminders at conference time, teachers can encourage parents to use these strategies to motivate students.
Results Definitely Worth Educators’ Efforts
When teachers and schools work to debunk these myths for parents, middle school can be welcoming and supportive. Even though parents may not respond in droves initially, parents will, through persistence, realize that their middle school wants them to be involved—and their involvement is important to their child’s success as a student.
Better test scores, greater attention to schoolwork, and most important, increased numbers of kids with higher self-esteem are all benefits of robust parent participation in middle school activities and initiatives. Teachers and schools can improve student motivation by reaching out to include more parents and helping parents relate with their children, putting more kids on the road to success—in academics and beyond.
Katie Wester-Neal is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, where her work focuses on middle grades teacher education. A former middle grades language arts, social studies and math teacher, she earned her Master’s degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.