Care and Feeding

I Can’t Help My Daughter Calm Her Nerves About Middle School

A middle schooler walking with her head down.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

My child is really nervous about middle school. I wouldn’t say any of her anxiety is out of the ordinary, from what she tells me (just that it’s so much bigger, navigating changing classes, she’s worried it will be much harder, etc.). But I’m trying to come up with the right things to say to calm her nerves. Everyone else is, too, doesn’t seem to be cutting it. Any thoughts, or tips for how to navigate it?

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—Middle School Nerves,

Dear Middle School Nerves,

There’s nothing you can say that will take away her anxiety about attending middle school. What will take away her anxiety is attending middle school.

She may get lost a time or two, but she’ll learn her way around. I’ve never had a student who still got lost after the third week of school. Changing classes will become second nature; she’ll wonder how she ever stayed in one classroom all day. Her classes will likely feel exactly as hard as her elementary school ones felt.

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So don’t worry about saying the right thing. Just listen. Let her get it all out. Give her the space have to have big feelings.

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The only thing that might reassure her a tiny bit is “Everyone feels that way.” Let her know that even the kids who look like they’ve got their ducks in a row are struggling with the same thoughts and concerns she is.

And maybe think about how you might be influencing her attitude. How do you feel about her attending middle school? Because guess what: She’ll be fine.

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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My young elementary age kiddo was recently diagnosed with “high functioning” autism. She’s a super smart, wonderful kid. The struggles seem to be social. She doesn’t make a lot of eye contact and doesn’t know how to engage naturally with kids her age.

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Her doctors are pushing for a lot of intervention from school. One recommended a full-time paraprofessional to help her with social issues. Another said we had to get an IEP. Both said the school bureaucracy would be our enemy.

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The school has offered to have her meet weekly with the counselor and speech therapist and put her in the (mainstream) class that focuses the most on social-emotional intelligence. “They’ll talk” about the issue of her playing by herself at recess every day.

I don’t really know what to do next. Do I need to push for an IEP? She had no academic issues last year. (She’s way above grade level in all academic subjects.) I’m torn between the easy path (believe the school will do right by her without me needing to push) and the hard path (believe the doctors that I’ll need to bludgeon the school into giving her appropriate help). What would you do if it were your kid?

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—Should I Push?

Dear SIP,

This may be my school-based bias I don’t like the adversarial framing the doctors have set up for you. Bureaucracy is always a challenge, regardless of setting, and our entire educational system is a constant struggle between what we know is good for learners versus what politicians are willing to let us do. Nevertheless, the people at the school are likely the first line of defense when it comes to advocating for supports for your child. Any services will likely come through the school, and that means you will be in a partnership with the teachers and providers at your child’s school. Viewing them as “the enemy” is going to make that partnership hard.

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If it were my child, I would ask the school for a psycho-educational evaluation (a psycho-ed, for short). A psycho-ed will evaluate the need for all kinds of services—counseling, speech, and academic. If there is a need for services, the school would write an IEP. Autism is a qualifying diagnosis for an IEP, so there shouldn’t be additional necessary steps if speech and counseling are the only services they need, and she should qualify even if she doesn’t need academic support. If you have concerns about her fine- or gross-motor development, you should bring them up! She may also qualify for OT/PT, and this can be evaluated formally or informally at the same time as the rest of the psycho-ed.

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As a parent, you have the right to request an evaluation at any time. Often, for students who were not struggling significantly in academic areas, we teachers would privately hope parents would ask for them. The school team is in your child’s corner, but psycho-eds cost the district money, and we can’t just do them for every child. We have red tape on our end. But if a parent—especially a parent whose child already has a qualifying diagnosis—requests one, we have to provide it. Once that process is in motion, it’s a clearer path for us to provide the supports we want to provide. The school may be required to provide RTI services (like the less formal sessions you mentioned) for a certain amount of time before they can begin the psycho-ed, but if you put the request in, the school knows you are asserting that right.

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Speech therapy, in particular, may be very beneficial. It’s a fairly common service (in my experience, the speech pathologist typically has the largest caseload of service providers in a building), so your child is likely to receive speech services in a group. The layman assumption is that speech therapy is like diction class. However, especially as kids leave early childhood, therapy focuses on pragmatic social skills as well as grammar. They play games, practice engaging in conversation, learn “soft” social skills like how to ask follow-up questions.

I don’t think you have to choose between trusting the school and advocating for your child. Those should both be parts of a good partnership with the school. For example, you can share the doctor recommendations with the school, and they can tell you from an educational perspective which recommendations make most sense (unless there are behaviors you haven’t mentioned, a paraprofessional is unlikely to pass the justification process!) and, together, you can make a plan to support your daughter in her elementary school career.

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

I am the parent of two younger boys. My older child is just going to start fourth grade. Florida’s curriculum is way too difficult for most of the children. They spend all their time studying for Florida’s state math and ELA tests (their fsa’s) and forget most everything else. That includes spelling, grammar, most science, social studies, etc. Their FSA tests are so difficult that most of the students average C’s at absolute best, many are much lower. They are asking questions that are way over many adults’ heads, let alone third graders. I’ve talked with most of the administration, the teachers, parents, and students. They all agree. But nothing is being done about it. All this is doing is making the children feel like failures. My child believes he is “stupid” and comes home crying most days. The best of what my son’s school has done is to confirm he is “stupid” (according to him), and they put students in 504 programs to get special help.

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What can I do about this? This is a widely known problem, but it seems no one is doing anything. It’s ridiculous.

—F the FSA

Dear F the FSA,

So many of us are as fed up as you are! I am not sure that the FSA is overly hard (or any harder than other states), but regardless of its difficulty, standardized tests leave kids hating education (and woefully undereducated in the process), drive teachers away from the profession because they see it being butchered, and infuriate parents who know their kids deserve better.

In all cases, the most important thing is that we make kids feel like they matter as individuals, that they are not defined by test scores, and that they can find joy in learning. While it may be tempting to speak out at your local school board or call your state representative or any of a dozen forms of protest against the abysmal state of public education (seriously, as a Floridian, I feel I can say that the state is quickly becoming one of the worst places in America to raise your children), the real action that needs to be taken is to help your sons see their self-worth. Whatever subject they are most interested in, let their teachers know (that reminder never hurts) and pursue it wildly at home. History? Have documentary nights and play time period-based board games. Science? Sites like YouTube and Pinterest are full of fun at-home experiments, and you can do everything from take them on nature hikes to maker-space projects through your public library.

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I know that part of you is screaming “the schools should be doing that!” and I agree. If I had a good advocacy group to send you to, I would. I got as far as reaching out to an education professor in state who basically told me I would need to start the revolution myself. I can offer the condolence that the FSA is being phased out. Will its replacement fix the problem? I doubt it. It’s another standardized test.

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What’s important here is your child and how you can help him enjoy learning again.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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