Lisa Appelbaum knows the feeling-stress from the unpredictability and uncertainty of the middle school years. With one son heading into eighth grade and one entering sixth, Appelbaum knows that in many ways the worst is behind yet in front of her at the same time.
"In seventh grade, the big worry is the ISAT score and attendance, and in eighth grade you sit for the selective enrollment exams for high school," the Chicago mom says. "It gets you freaked out in sixth grade for no reason."
Appelbaum's sons attend the high-performing Bell School on the city's North Side, which placed in the top 10 of a 2007 Chicago Sun-Times list of the highest-scoring middle-grade programs in Illinois. Attending such a high-achieving school has its perks, such as learning multiple languages and highly accessible counselors.
But there is a downside, too.
"Some parents started going to high school open houses in seventh grade," Appelbaum says. "I didn't do it because it would stress out my oldest son. We just didn't need to add that to the mix."
Unfortunately, many parents of middle-school-age children don't have Appelbaum's sanguine attitude. And that's where the problems begin.
Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist and author of the acclaimed parenting book, The Parents We Mean to Be (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), calls this "the real danger in the achievement craze."
"In the last 30-40 years, achievement and happiness of your kids has become 'a project,'" he says. "Some parents in some communities think they are cheating their children if they're not pushing them hard to achieve."
Weissbourd thinks focusing narrowly on high achievement can compromise the development of children, especially their sense of self.
But, he says, there are ways parents can help promote self-development while helping kids achieve their personal best in middle school.
"It's important that we have authentic conversations with our kids about what it means to achieve and about why achievement is important," Weissbourd says. "We, as parents, have to stress that achievement is important, but also be just as supportive of other aspects of our children's lives as well that don't have to do with achievement."
At the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org), a non-profit organization based in Chicago that works to advance social and emotional learning (SEL), research found behavior has a profound impact on academic performance.
In fact, its December 2008 study across the K-8 grade range showed that SEL programming improved students' achievement test scores by 11-17 percentage points.
"When you address kids' social and emotional needs, it's not at the expense of academics. That's a false premise. When children can learn to calm themselves and work towards a reasonable goal, they can improve academically," says Mary Utne O'Brien, University of Illinois at Chicago research professor of psychology and education and a UIC SEL Research Group collaborator.
The SEL approach to education in middle school worked well in the Hinsdale (District 181) schools. Jeanne Osgood, communications outreach coordinator for CASEL, pioneered this process when her children were in school there. As project manager for SEL implementation in the district, Osgood learned that the best way for children to develop their social and emotional side along with the academic is through a solid family/school partnership.
"In the suburbs, especially around middle school time, you and your kids start to encounter new faces," Osgood says. "When my kids got to seventh grade, we started very informal parent-to-parent meet-and-greets through e-mails and over coffee to build some common ground with parents of new students.
"We'd discuss what happens outside of school and got to know each other through stories, experiences."
Getting to know parents of your children's classmates and the school's surrounding community is crucial to developing a well-rounded middle-schooler.
"One thing we rarely stress with children, but which is crucial to raising a well-adjusted middle-schooler, is that their neighborhood and school are communities that they have a responsibility for. There are many ways we can build that feeling," Weissbourd says. "For example, we don't let them treat the school custodians or waitresses at a neighborhood restaurant as invisible. If a neighbor does a good deed, we should point that out."
At Francis W. Parker School, the prestigious Chicago K-12 independent school, there is a heavy focus on community-building starting in middle school.
"The philosophy of the school is founded on the sense that each child has the chance to learn the most by living the ethos of community, and we are all responsible for each other in a variety of ways," says Dan Frank, Parker's principal.
In addition, community can be integrated into daily lessons. Tom Rosenbluth, Parker's intermediate and middle school head and former English teacher, explains, "Our teachers don't get up and lecture one way each class. I make sure our teachers are having group discussions with the students regularly, publishing students' work and posting their art on display. That way we are celebrating everyone and not just high-achieving individuals."
Unfortunately, in the typical middle school, rankings and scores are what matter most.
"Your kids start in sixth grade learning that they have to work harder for good grades," Appelbaum says. "By seventh grade, you are really concerned about grades."
But it's important to remember that in that process, children need the opportunity to not only be successful students, but caring and empathetic citizens as well.
Tips to use
Richard Weissbourd, author and child and family psychologist:
• Respect your child's teachers and work to piece together your perspective and the teacher's perspective on a child. Make high achievement one theme in the large composition of a child's life.
• As a parent, model the type of behavior you want your children to emulate. That means, in part, caring not just about your own child but about other children in the building and about how the whole school community functions.
Jeanne Osgood, communications outreach coordinator for CASEL:
• Have perspective and try not to get caught up in other parents' stress. It's OK for your child not to be in the top 10 percent of everything.
• Keep the ultimate end-goal in mind at all times. Is the ultimate outcome for your child to win at all costs, or to have a lifelong love of learning and fitness and activity?
Tom Rosenbluth, educator, Francis W. Parker School:
• Try to find a faculty member at the school with whom your child can build a benevolent relationship-someone who's not solely focused on your child's curriculum but also the social and emotional issues he/she may be facing.
• Let go a bit. Have adult-like conversations with your children about rules and policies to create an interdependent relationship rather than a co-dependent one.
Sara Fisher is a Chicago mom and freelance writer.