Long before children are ready for middle school, their parents have heard the horror stories.
Online bullying, gender identity, social media, vaping, drugs, sex and dating…the list of potential pitfalls and obstacles can feel overwhelmingly endless.
It’s enough to disrupt even the most stable of households when a child shifts from the safety and security of the known into the uncertainty of a new school—especially if it’s around a milestone like the first day of middle or high school.
UBC Okanagan’s scholars and researchers want to help. Experts from across disciplines provide a few tips to help parents successfully navigate this new phase of their journeys.
“Make a plan,” says Dr. Stephen Berg, Associate Professor, Okanagan School of Education
The start of another school year is an exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking time for everyone in a family. New activities and routines begin, so taking the time to plan and communicate with everyone in the family can help ease anxiety and nervousness going into the year.
Along with this, it is so important for children and youth to have proper nutrition. Having them take a water bottle to school—if allowed—helps maintain hydration and planning for healthy snacks and lunches helps with alertness and self-regulation in the classroom.
Of course, being physically active throughout the day is just as important. Even if there are no activities planned, something like going for a walk or other cost-effective activity gets children outside and can also be a great way to communicate and connect with each other.
“Encourage kindness,” says Dr. John Tyler Binfet, Associate Professor, Okanagan School of Education
A previous study involving 191 Grade 9 students from Central Okanagan Public Schools demonstrated that when the teens were encouraged to be kind, they surpassed expectations.
Within one week, more than 940 acts of kindness—sharing school supplies, giving compliments, helping with chores or encouraging others—were accomplished. As the bulk of the kind acts took place at the school, the findings show positive effects on school climate, student-to-student relationships and student behaviour.
I think adolescents can be misperceived, especially in schools. And if educators and parents can model kindness or provide examples of kindness, it will make being kind easier for adolescents.
“Keep the big picture in mind,” says Dr. Jessica Lougheed, Assistant Professor, Psychology, Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
For kids and teens in middle school and high school grades, back to school can be an especially challenging time. Often, tweens and teens are experiencing developmental changes in many domains at the same time—these include puberty, with more intense and less predictable emotions, as well as new activities, peer groups and schools.
Relationships with primary caregivers, understandably, can become more strained. The back-to-school season is yet another change. When routines change in such a big way, we typically see a period of less predictable daily dynamics in the household before everything settles into a new routine. Often, what’s going on in one area, such as your child’s school or social life, will influence other areas including their emotions or how they relate to family members.
If you notice a lack of balance in your household dynamic at the start of the school year, it might be helpful to keep the bigger picture in mind. Change is hard, and your tweens and teens are navigating an acute change to their daily schedules and activities at the same time as all of their other developmental changes. Irritability might be directed at you, but it might not be about you.
Check-in with your child when things are quieter and calmer, and it might be easier to make a connection then.
“Communicate well, and communicate often,” says Dr. Shirley Hutchinson, Lecturer, Psychology, Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Transitioning back to school, especially a new school, can be hard for both students and parents. Much of the anxiety stems from uncertainty and one of the best ways to deal with uncertainty is to try and collect as much information as possible.
Communication is key.
Parents should talk to their children and explore the new or returning school environment together. Talk about what the children are excited about and what they may be nervous about. And most importantly, talk about what worries are within their control and which ones are not. Knowledge goes a long way to reducing uncertainty and easing anxieties.
“Get those steps in and keep active,” says Dr. Ali McManus, Professor, School of Health and Exercise Sciences
Physical activity is just another word for movement and it can look like anything including riding your bike to school, cleaning your room, mowing the grass, walking the dog or playing sports.
The easier way to keep active is to get your steps in. In Canada, the recommended daily steps are 13,000 for adolescent boys and 11,000 for girls. But in middle school steps tend to decline and across Canada less than 10 per cent of our teens meet these guidelines. Here are four easy tips on ways to get more active: start small, make it social, do things you enjoy and make time in your day, every day, for activity.
“Provide a non-judgmental space to chat about the risks of vaping and smoking,” says Dr. Laura Struik, School of Nursing
Vaping has become common in school environments, with youth stating that the commute to school, school washrooms, recess and lunch are contexts where they are frequently exposed to vaping. Having open discussions about vaping with your child can help if they are feeling pressured, or even curious, about vaping.
Parents might also get some empty vape devices, free of charge at a vape store, to start the conversation and address the curiosity that frequently contributes to trying vaping. Role play can also help prepare a child to proactively think about how they might manage peer pressure situations that could make vaping tempting. And parental or family disapproval can play a strong role in preventing uptake of vaping among children and youth.