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By: Whitney Fleming of Your Teen Mag

When Michelle Brandseth’s seventh-grade son came home in near tears one afternoon, she knew something was amiss.

“He felt like he had studied hard for his math test, but his grade said otherwise,” said Brandseth. “He bombed it, and it totally shook his confidence.”

Middle school can be a wake-up call for many students who cruised through their primary years. Unfortunately, many tweens and teens aren’t forthcoming about their struggles, so parents might not fully grasp the situation until the report card shows up. Test scores are not the only indicator your student may be falling behind in class, however.

“Kids who have anxiety about going to school or doing their homework might be exhibiting signs that they are stressed about falling behind their peers academically. They often start being combative with teachers or their parents. Some take an excessively long time to finish homework. Or they may suddenly have trouble sleeping,” says Rebecca Thumann, Secondary Education Teacher at Logan View Public Schools in Nebraska.

In Brandseth’s case, her son started shutting down whenever school was mentioned. “Looking back, there were signs he was struggling to keep up since the beginning of the school year. He used to proactively tell me about a grade he received or a cool science lesson, but he suddenly pulled back and started complaining about how school was boring. He didn’t want to do his homework and he became belligerent when I offered to help.”

What steps can a parent take to get their middle schooler back on track?

1. Talk to teachers.

Teachers often see a different side of your child than you do. And they can be the first line of defense when recognizing if your student is off track. It’s important to share the behavior you are seeing at home. Ask what the teacher sees in the classroom and if your child’s behavior has changed significantly. Discuss what extra help or resources are available. Ask the teacher to help develop a plan that can be executed in the classroom and at home to keep your student accountable and keep the lines of communication open.

2. Look holistically.

There could be many reasons your student is struggling. Some examples include:

  • They don’t understand the material
  • They find it difficult to manage time between schoolwork and sports
  • They exhibit lack of effort.

Additionally, assess what external factors could be impacting your child’s school performance and make sure you reduce any commitments or distractions that might impede their success.

3. Go back to basics.

Most seventh graders are still learning basic organization and study skills. Some kids have no problem managing multiple classes, but for others, it can be a real challenge. “Encourage your child to use a planner, and then make sure they show you what they need to work on each night, including test and project scores from previous work,” says Thumann. “Looking at the planner together can spark discussion at the dinner table or in the car about upcoming tests or projects, and allow you more insight into how they feel about school.”

4. Consider outside support.

Some children do well just using the steps above, but others will benefit from extra help. The pace of a specific class may be too fast or the new concepts difficult to grasp—but that doesn’t mean your child should struggle through the school year. A tutor can provide the extra support your student needs, and perhaps even get them ahead, so they feel more confident in class. Some tutoring services, such as Sylvan Learning, offer personalized skills assessments, in addition to subject-specific tutoring, to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses and home in on problem areas.

While parents are understandably anxious to turn things around, it’s important to resist the urge to tighten up existing homework rules. “My first instinct was to hyper-control my son when he first walked through the door from school, which only increased his stress,” said Brandseth.

Instead, give your student some control over the situation. Does he need half an hour to decompress before he starts his homework? Should he work in shorter increments with frequent breaks? Does he need a new distraction-free area to get his work done or an incentive to finish his project? The best chance for success is to work together to create a homework routine that works for you both.

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