Care and Feeding

How Do I Prep My Middle Schooler for Hanging Out With High Schoolers?

A boy plays in a high school marching band.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My middle school son was given the opportunity to do marching band with the high school next door, so he will be spending a lot of time with high schoolers next year. Is there anything I should do to prepare him for that environment? He is a pretty quiet and observant kid. There will be a few other middle school students, so he won’t be the only one, but he might be the only one in his section.

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—Early Bandmission

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Dear Early Bandmission,

This sounds like a great opportunity for your son! What an awesome self-esteem booster to be accelerated like that and for your son to have a chance to push himself and work with some older kids.

I suppose that there are two potential worries here. First, that your quiet kid will have trouble making friends, particularly if he is the only middle schooler in his section. Second, that he will be exposed to some mature (or immature) behavior from the high schoolers.

In either case, there isn’t much you can do. With these growing up things, the older kids get, the more you have to let them figure things out on their own. You can be there for them, to listen and to advise, but it’s best to keep those words of wisdom until they ask for them. In my experience, offering unsolicited advice to my children is an exercise in futility.

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If you ask your son what anxieties he has about participating in a high school marching band  and he reveals that he is worried about making friends, you can tell him to try to talk to people on the first day. First impressions are big and it can be hard to break in once friend groups are formed. But again, if he doesn’t ask, there’s no point in lecturing him.

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As for worrying that he might be exposed to more mature behavior from older students, it’s important that your son feels he can talk to you without any recourse. Listen and let him talk through it. Odds are it won’t be anything too bad or anything that he hasn’t already witnessed in middle school. If it is something worse, trust that he’ll come to you and you can deal with it together. Other than that, let him enjoy this great opportunity! And don’t forget the sunscreen and hydration! Those marching band kids are working just as hard as the football players, if not harder!

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—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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My 3-year-old son is transitioning from a great daycare where he’s been for the past two years to a Spanish immersion pre-K school this fall. He’s very loved at his daycare, and they have mentioned frequently he’s very advanced in his vocabulary for his age and loves to learn, which is why we thought this new school would be great for him. However, at his daycare he was moved up early to an older class and has struggled with the transition. He’s had two different teachers, and also some accidents at school, which is unusual. It took a couple weeks, but now he is again thriving and fully potty trained.

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I would love tips on how to make a smooth(ish) transition to his new school where they’ll also be speaking a new language he doesn’t yet know 70 percent of the time. We’re not native speakers but I try to speak to him in my rudimentary high school Spanish when I can, and he’s picked up some phrases. We’ve scheduled a family vacation for the week between his last day at daycare and first day at his new school thinking a lot of one-on-one time beforehand would help and provide some space between the change. We’ll also be attending events beforehand that his new school is hosting (park meet up and meet the teacher day). This preschool requires him to use the bathroom himself which he can do no problem, but I worry when his routine gets changed like this he might get thrown off again. Anything more can we do to help him have a great experience at his new school and an easier transition? We don’t expect it to go perfectly of course but avoiding a full-on regression would be nice!

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—Let’s Move Forward

Dear Move Forward,

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I say this often, but one thing for parents to remember is that there are very few things young children can control. They don’t get to pick where they go, what they do in a day, who they encounter—everything in their environment is out of their hands except for whether or not they eat, and where/when they go to the bathroom. This fact explains a lot about their behavior, I think. As adults, we exert control over our environments in lots of little ways, many of them very stupid. When I am stressed about work, I waste time in a thousand useless, compulsive ways. I fuss with the formatting on my word documents. I curate the perfect playlist. I reorganize my entire desk/classroom. None of these things alleviate my stress, but they allow me to exert control over my working environment.

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Likewise for your child—he can’t control changing classes or going from one stable, familiar teacher to two rotating, not-yet-familiar teachers, but he can decide suddenly he’s going to void when and where he pleases. Furthermore, many kids have accidents the first few days of a new school because a) they’re not used to having to ask to go or b) they’re not comfortable asking their teachers yet. At the preschool I worked at, we had set bathroom times, and for the students of mine who were newly toilet-trained, prone to accidents, or going through big life changes, we asked them periodically if they wanted to try to go. But I worked in a special education preschool, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to be the case at a regular-ed pre-K class.

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But this larger issue of control is all part of the mindset I want you to have when looking at this transition. It may not be true regression in terms of his control or ability to tell when he needs to go. It may just be a stress response, and it’s completely normal. Unfortunate, but normal. And there are ways you can help! First and foremost, if/when you go to the classroom for meet the teacher day, ask for your child to see the bathroom. Let him in the room alone, and have him find the light switch and flush the toilet on his own. The teacher may already have him do this. It sounds silly, but familiarity with the bathroom may give your child that sense of comfort and control in the situation when it happens at school. You can also pre-set him with the school expectation. At home, he goes whenever he wants. In pre-K, he will need to raise his hand and ask to go when he wants to go. You can tell him this beforehand, and even role-play it so that he has practice before he has to do it “live” in front of his teacher, who is effectively a stranger to him for the first day. Even better—practice it in Spanish!

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If you’re really concerned, a social story is always an option, but given that this is a pretty run-of-the-mill problem for kids to have, I wouldn’t stress too much about it. He’ll acclimate to the new classroom, and if he has a few accidents the first few days, no one at the school will be surprised.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

My son is going to be starting a highly capable program for his fourth and fifth grade years in the fall and I’m wondering how we, as his parents, can best support him and what we should be looking for as far as determining whether it is a good fit.

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He spent K-3 at a dual language school where he spent half of each day in Spanish and the other half in English. As he has gotten older, it has become clear that learning Spanish at school (none of us are native speakers or fluent in any way) is not enough of a challenge for him, and we are very thankful for the opportunity this new program presents.

So how can we best support him in this self-contained program? What are the marks of a high quality high-cap program? Our gut tells us this is the best move for him–he ended this year feeling like no one at the school, adults or kids really liked him–but neither his dad nor I have any experience with this type of program.

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—Prepping for the Future

Dear Prepping,

I think that you can do what all parents should do regardless of the school or program in which their child is enrolled: Offer to support your child whenever he needs it or requests it.

Seek to expand his world by introducing as many new things as possible while allowing him to dabble. Don’t force commitment at this age. Allow him to try a lot. Encourage him to seek his passions and explore places where his talents may be hiding.

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Fill your home with books of every kind and read to him regularly. Make the library a regular stop in your weekly routines.

Ask his teacher how you can best support his work at school. Support that teacher in every way possible, but especially through simple acts of kindness like a well written note of thanks, a few words of appreciation, and a willingness to volunteer if that’s possible.

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If your son was entering a program for struggling students or students with learning disabilities, I would offer the same advice.

Kids are kids. They all learn differently – both in speed and method – but all need the same thing: An opportunity to explore the world and all its possibilities in a supportive, structured, and safe way while knowing that the adults in their lives love them very much.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My 3-year-old son started preschool this year after being home for the previous 2 years (my husband is immunocompromised, so we were extra careful and quarantined more strictly and for longer than most). A few weeks after he started, his teacher let me know that he was trying to hug another child on the playground and getting too close to her face. She asked us to talk to him about keeping his distance because of Covid, the other kids didn’t like it, etc. I told him to not touch anybody at school or hug them, and the teacher let me know the following week that he hasn’t done it since.

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Subsequently, a child recently celebrated their birthday at school and apparently the teacher hugged the birthday kid, and the birthday kid gave out goodie bags and hugged some of the kids. Now my 3-year-old is super confused. He is asking questions about who he can and cannot hug and hold hands with. Who is a stranger, and who is a friend? If we don’t talk to strangers, then why did you talk to stranger in the park (I said good morning to a person that walked past us in the park). Then he wants to know why some kids hug the teacher sometimes (I think the teachers hug some of the kids if they fall/are crying etc). And well, I think I have confused the crap out of him.

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Help. I want him to understand concept of consent, but I think I’ve screwed this up. What can I do to explain this all better to him?

—So Many Nuances

Dear Nuances,

The unfortunate thing is that while in many ways consent is completely simple (respect the boundaries of others and ask before acting), there are aspects of our world that do complicate it. It is okay to have some kinds of conversations with strangers—saying hello, commenting on the weather, maybe making a mild joke about a situation—but not others. And even those are further complicated by who you are and who the other person is and all manner of other contextual factors. All of which are probably not going to help your 3-year-old if you try to explain them.

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Fortunately, there are some simple answers you can give. It is generally okay for kids to say hello to someone they pass on the street if those kids are with their adult. Saying hello is not the same as having a conversation. That’s a rule you could teach your child. And about the hugging—that’s tough. The accurate answer is that there is unspoken consent from children to adults for certain kinds of touch in certain kinds of circumstances (hugging, hand-holding, etc.). But, again, 3-year-olds are not known for their nuance, and frankly, some of that unspoken consent could be spoken. When I taught preschool, we tried really hard to practice verbal consent with our kids (saying, “do you want to hold my hand?” when kids reached out or “can my hands help you?” if they needed hand-over-hand prompts), but when a student was hurt and crying, we did often assume that a hug and rubbing their back would be okay. You can also talk through the differences and “whys” of the hugs: No one should be hugging at school unless there is a reason for hugging, and the only good reasons are if someone is hurt and a teacher is helping them feel better, or if it is a celebration and the person getting hugged said it was okay as part of the celebration.

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Unfortunately, this is the sort of issue where you may have to address every question on a case-by-case basis, though you may be able to find some social stories on safety or consent or whatever other question he has. As always, another option is to talk to the teachers and see what resources they recommend, especially knowing your child better than I do. Our social rules are challenging, and kids do learn them through practice. But you’re right that these can be tricky waters, especially when kids reach that “why” phase. Good luck!

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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