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Ten Ways Parents Can Help Middle Schoolers Thrive, with Author Phyllis Fagell

In November, Crofton House School was fortunate to have a special guest speaker, Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counsellor, certified professional school counsellor and journalist. Over two days Phyllis spent time meeting virtually with students in Grade 5 to 7, Junior School teachers, and parents in separate sessions to talk about her book, Middle School Matters, as well as how the pandemic can make its “ten key skills kids need to thrive” all the more timely. 

“Our time with Phyllis Fagel built on and supported the Trauma Informed Practice sessions we had with Dr. Newlove earlier in the year; she added more tools for teachers to use in the classroom,” said Kerry Harding, Program Coordinator, Grade 6–7, Junior School. “It also helps to give ourselves, as teachers, permission to let these girls—and ourselves—have these emotions.”

At a critical time of change in every aspect of their lives, including the natural move towards peers, quarantine has meant being kept apart. Masks and other barriers like physical distance and communicating through a screen make reading social cues even harder than ever. Students wanted to know, how do you make a new friend? How do you cope with losing a friend? How do you maintain a friendship so you don’t lose it over time? 

The truth of middle school friendships is in the numbers:

  • Only 1% of Grade 7 friendships are intact in Grade 12
  • Roughly 2/3 of friendships last from fall to spring at the start of middle school
  • Only about half of “best friend” nominations are reciprocated

“I didn’t share these statistics to upset or alarm students; I wanted them to understand that when their friend groups change, it’s not because there is something wrong with them,” said Phyllis. “It’s because this is when kids are doing the hard work of figuring out what they need from a friend, what they want from a friend, asserting their own identity, and in the process of doing that they have to try on different identities.” But that doesn’t diminish the pain of losing a friend or feeling like you’ve been left out. Parents can support by validating these feelings, recognizing that it is hard, and even partnering with the school to get some ideas on who might be a good friend match. 

“These are critical years for parents to help kids take risks, and we have to do that at a time when they are mercilessly self-critical and risk-averse,” said Phyllis. That’s why we’re happy to share Phyllis’s ten key skills middle schoolers need to thrive, and how parents can support them:

  1. Make Good Friend Choices: Instill in them the importance of being there for their peers. Validate their feelings around friendships that end, and fan the flames on new friendships. You can even talk to the School to get some ideas on who might be a good friend match. 
  2. Negotiate Conflict: Help middle schoolers recognize who is at the core of a drama and then ask questions about whether or not they want to engage. 
  3. Manage a Student-Teacher Mismatch: “I don’t know one middle schooler who goes through middle school without thinking at least one teacher hates them,” said Phyllis. Kids in this age group misinterpret feedback about 40% of the time. If your child is concerned about their relationship with a teacher, try to get them time alone with that teacher. If it is truly a mismatch, it’s an opportunity to help students think critically about how they are going to handle it, just as they would with a boss, family member or colleague. 
  4. Create Homework and Organization Systems: In the context of the pandemic, it’s an easier sell to get your kids to take periodic breaks from online activities than to try to control the total screen time. If you’re having a lot of conflict at home over schoolwork, enlist the School’s help in the discussion.
  5. Consider Others’ Perspectives: If they can consider that everybody’s idiosyncrasies can be wonderful, they are much more likely to embrace their own. Help them see the upside of every quality.  
  6. Self-Regulate Emotions: Help give language to your kids’ range of feelings.  Work on mindfulness with them. Try creating a “worry box”—a place they can write down what is bothering them and then literally set it aside; we want them to understand they can take a break from their worries. 

  7. Cultivate Passions and Recognize Limitations: At this age, kids may want to quit lessons and activities—let them. This is a rare time when they can truly experiment, and figure out the intersection between their strengths and interests. It also bolsters their courage muscle to try new things. And, telling them not to quit can send the message that it’s wrong to leave a situation that’s not working for them, which can have repercussions later if they’re in a draining job or unhealthy relationship. 
  8. Make Responsible, Healthy, Ethical Decisions: It’s hard to make good life choices when you lack perspective and experience. That’s why Phyllis recommends doubling down on values. Try using the “Values Card Sort” to help kids find out what their top ten are. Then, whenever they are in a situation where they’re not sure what to do, if they make choices consistent with their values, they’re more likely to make a good decision. You can also preview scenarios with kids, and walk them through the choices they may have. If you do this for enough scenarios, kids will start to think more flexibly in their lives. 
  9. Self-Advocate: Try the “I do, we do, you do” model. For example, if your child needs help, write an email to their teacher as they sit next to you. Next time, they write it while you sit with them. And the third time, they don’t need your support at all. Once they learn a skill on their own, you should not do it for them again.  
  10. Create and Innovate: We want kids to continue putting themselves out there at an age they’d be inclined to pull back. If they’re unsure, rank the risk they’re considering on a scale of 1 to 10 and help them find a way to reach what is in an acceptable range. For example, maybe giving a speech in front of the whole school is a 10; but speaking to their class or club is an acceptable 5. 

In her webinar, Phyllis quoted the research of Dr. Ken Ginsberg, an expert on resilience who is a development pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. He said, “the wider the gap between who a child is, and who they think their parents need them to be, the more they’ll struggle.” “Our job is to give them strategies, and that warmth and connection to make these years easier,” said Phyllis. Parents should be spending about 80% of the time talking about kids’ strengths and building them up. They’re having about 20,000 thoughts a day, and 80% of them are negative. “Kids are meaner to themselves than they ever would be to a peer, or friend,” said Phyllis. 

If parents can handle the small stuff well, then kids will come to them with the big stuff too. Try starting with a hug. Hold it for eight seconds, more often than you normally would. Research shows that’s the magic number, especially in a pandemic where physical distancing is important for most of the day. For students, she recommended self-hugs instead of air-hugs, so that each child is getting the parasympathetic benefits of touch, even when it’s their own. “Her words on optimism language around the pandemic were the biggest take away for teachers, I think,” said Ms. Harding. “It allowed us to understand that this is the toolbox right now. We need to let students know that this isn’t going to be forever, and this is how we’re going to get through this together.”

Phyllis’s book, Middle School Matters, comes highly recommended for all parents and teachers. Her research cites the work of some of our past Whole Girl, Whole World speakers, making her’s another respected voice in our expert environment. Follow her on twitter, and visit her website for a lot more information blogs, and articles.