Bag of Tricks: Surviving the First Middle School Conference - FamilyEducation

Bag of Tricks: Surviving the First Middle School Conference

November 08,2011

The first school quarter is over and done with--thank goodness. Both kids brought home their report cards on Friday, although Scott and I had already snooped at L.'s grades via the online portal the county provides so that parents can keep up with their kid's progress. It seems a little Big Brother-like, but I like having access to L.'s grades and to information on assignments--when they were turned in, or whether they were turned in, as the case may be. L.'s 5th grade teachers tried to run something like that last year, but it failed miserably and the information was never updated, or was inaccurate, which drove us crazy. But this year we can see how well an online system like that can work, if teachers are committed to updating the assignments/grade information on a daily basis.

Ironically, the class that L. is struggling with the greatest happens to be the class he is most interested in: science. It's becoming obvious to us as his parents why this is the case, but we're not 100% sure what to do about it. L.'s teacher has a very dry and sarcastic way of being funny, and while he's a great teacher, and L. is quite taken with him, he needs very direct and specific instructions, and certainly doesn't "read" sarcasm well. As a result, he's missing too many instructions, and having trouble connecting class time to actual and measurable assignments and, consequently, having trouble turning in those assignments. Also, his class involves a lot of collaborative work, and the sensory "noise" from interacting with others is a huge obstacle to L. being able to focus and stay organized and on task. Some of L.'s teachers have already told us that L. likes to create a physical "bubble" around him in the classroom, giving him a safe place to work without being too close to other students. We don't know for sure if this is the case, but I suspect L. is unable to do this in his science classroom.

We were no strangers to parent-teacher conferences and emergency IEP meetings all throughout L.'s elementary school years, but we aren't too sure how to approach a middle school conference. L. is doing very well so far, and is actually enjoying school, but he is also a child who can easily be derailed by a few unpleasant or disappointing experiences. Instead of benig motivated to do better by these setbacks, he becomes defeated and gives up. If your child is like L., I think it's extremely important to meet with his teachers early on to make sure that school continues to go well for your child. But how can you prepare for a middle school conference? Will it be any different than a parent-teacher meeting in elementary school? Scott and I are definitely experiencing some first-conference jitters as we prepare for our first parent-teacher meeting.

This is the process we've been going through to prepare:

First of all, have an open discussion with your child about what he thinks could be going wrong. This is very difficult to do with L., who has a hard time troubleshooting that way, and you may have trouble figuring this all out with your own tween. But try and pick up on clues. Is your child frustrated with the kids in the classroom? The teacher's method of delivery? 

Look for clues that your child is stressed. Is he "forgetting" to bring home work? Avoidance is often the direct result of a child's anxiety over a particular class or subject material. Even with my "adult" students I teach (they are legal adults, but many of them still need so much guidance) I see this avoidance pattern set in. The students who feel badly about their writing skills don't turn in papers, then avoid me by skipping class, and then they fall even further behind, and feel even worse about their abilities. It's a vicious cycle.

Don't give in to feeling that you need to be "hands off" with your tween, because he or she is now in middle school. Teachers and staff may not be as outwardly approachable as they are in elementary school, and you might be getting the message that your child is old enough to tough it out on his own, but your child is still your child, and he still needs you to be his advocate. We've been trying to teach L. more responsibility and independence, but he still needs us involved with his teachers. I think this is the case all through high school, and into college, too. We can slowly model responsibility and good work habits, and encourage self-motivation but our kids won't necessarily be able to do all these things the minute they turn eighteen.

Involve your child in the conference process. Some parents and kids have great success with student-led conferences; these don't work so well for L. But we have been involving him in e-mails we send to his teachers, and in strategizing about what we can do to help him with his science class. L. is a kid who needs to feel a sense a control, and part of the daily challenge is giving him some measure of control over his life while at the same time remaining the parent-in-charge. Involving him in the communications back and forth between teachers helps him feel a part of the process.

Prioritize your concerns. Sometimes we parents are so close to the situation that we have trouble picking out actionable concerns and prioritizing them. We turn up at parent-teacher conferences bubbling over with anxiety, concern--sometimes even anger-- and valuable time and energy ends up sucked out of the whole process (been there, and done that). There is little we can do to change a teacher's sense of humor, or delivery style, so there's no point getting stuck on that. We can, however, problem-solve some solutions around this (helping the teacher understand that L. might need more written instructions, rather than verbal ones, for instance).

We're so relieved that the first quarter is done, and that L. has a solid foundation under him. But, in many ways, the honeymoon period is over and we see some challenges setting in, and some familiar issues beginning to creep to the surface. There's still a long school year ahead, and this first parent-teacher conference will be a chance to set a positive tone for the rest of it. It's a test of sorts, too--for all of us. First conferences with teachers are not unlike first dates: you hope there's good chemistry between you, but there are never, ever, any guarantees.