By Rebecca Honig, director of content
When my first child went to elementary school I basically went with her. I mean, I didn’t enroll officially, but there were enough PTA meetings, classroom volunteer opportunities, conferences, concerts, family nights, and field trips to give me the general sense that I was traveling through each grade right along with her.
I remember being at the final parent night of her elementary school tenure. We were there to talk about “the stepping up ceremony” in which our kids would venture off to middle school. We were just wrapping up a discussion of “should we celebrate with cake or fruit salad?” when one mother came up to me and gave me a big emotional hug. “Bye” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “Oh. Where are you going?” I asked, assuming with a goodbye like that she must be moving.
“I’m not going anywhere” she clarified, “But you know… Middle School.”
I was confused. Our children’s middle school was just across the street. You could literally see it from the window. “Won’t I still see you?” I asked, “You know… at all the school events? At the meetings? At the conferences?”
She just shook her head real slowly in this “Oh honey” sort of way. Like she was about to break the news about the Tooth Fairy to a child who’d gone on believing for a little too long. And then she explained. “As someone who has two kids in middle school, I can confidently say that family engagement is NOT a thing in middle school”.
And then she really spelled it out for me. “You can’t even go in that building. There’s no walking your child into school. You basically shove them out of the car without taking your foot off the gas.”
Looking for A Way In to Middle School
I immediately started phoning friends across the country, hoping to find a different narrative that I could latch on to. Surely someone had found an inroad to middle school parent engagement?
A friend in California shared that if she drove past the school around 8:03, she could usually spot the back of her daughters’ head through a window in the ELA classroom.
A friend in Ohio offered that she found the grocery store was the best place to bump into her sons’ Math teacher. And that she had once followed him down the frozen foods section trying to work up the courage to ask about algebra homework.
But, other than those two “inroads,” I came up empty. No matter where they were from — big cities, suburbs, rural communities, everyone I spoke to expressed the same general sentiment: “Parent engagement in middle school??? What?!?”
I, like many middle school parents, walked away with a whole new picture in my head of my role as a parent in my daughter’s middle school experience. And I have to say, now, four years later (yup, she’s in 8th grade), that picture was… pretty accurate.
Challenges of Middle School to Parent Engagement
Research tells us that in addition to the usual hurdles to engagement such as limited time, limited access to information and language and cultural barriers, a whole new host of family engagement challenges emerge in middle school.
As Nancy Hill and Diana Tyson summarize in their insightful article, Parental Involvement in Middle School, “middle schools are large and complex, often making it difficult for parents to figure out how to become effectively involved.”
“Family engagement improves classroom dynamics and increases teacher expectations, student–teacher relationships, and cultural competence, regardless of students’ age groups.”Boberiene, Liepa V.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol 83(2-3), Apr-Jul 2013, 346-351
Instead of one teacher serving as home base for most subjects, middle school is departmentalized. Kids travel from room to room and teacher to teacher for each academic subject. This makes it hard for parents to know who to reach out to for insight and support. I had to make a little spreadsheet reminding myself of which teacher taught what subject, just so I could follow along when my daughter was telling me about her day.
The one conference I went to was like speed dating. I arrived in a room where five teachers were lined up at desks and I was allotted three minutes to chat with each. It was a whirlwind and made it really hard to get the Big Picture on my child’s strengths and areas for growth.
Parenting Middle School Students
Adding to this is the growing desire for independence that emerges in adolescence. It’s a time when kids want their space. Middle school students “want to be trusted that they will manage their responsibilities. That is, adolescents often indicate that they want their parents’ help but do not want their parents to visit the school.” (Hill & Tyson, 2009)
In elementary school I practically had to peel my daughter off of me at the start of school. If I came into her class to read a book or help with a craft she celebrated like it was a national holiday. Compare that reaction to the one time I tried to follow her into the middle school building. I just needed to ask her advisor one question. She threw herself against the door and hissed, “If you take one step into this building I will literally NEVER forgive you. EVER!”
And to top all that off, many of the concepts kids are learning in middle school are… well, I’ll just speak for myself, beyond me.
Case in point: how many parents would be comfortable guiding their adolescents in “using the equation of a linear model to solve problems in the context of bivariate measurement data, interpreting the slope and intercept.” CCSS.Math.Content.8.SPA.3
And research tells us that “many families, particularly those from special populations, have had a negative experience with school themselves, which reduces the likelihood of their initiating engagement with their child’s school without intentional strategies on the teachers’ side to engage families.” (Hindman et al., 2012)
All the factors above lead to a bit of an equation: “The older the child becomes, the more disconnected families feel from the school community and the more unsupported by the school and community.” (Kelty & Wakabayashi, 2020)
And Yet, Research Shows Middle School Family Engagement Matters to Student Success
But here’s the thing… and it’s something we all know. When parents ARE engaged in middle school, the gains are tremendous. In their meta-analysis of family engagement research, Family Involvement In Middle and High school Students’ Education, the Harvard Family Research Project summarized a wide variety of outcomes that improved through family engagement:
“Adolescents with supportive parents exhibit higher rates of self-reliance, identity formation, school performance, and positive career-planning aspirations, as well as lower rates of depression and delinquency. Youth who share trusting relationships with their parents—characterized by mutual and sustained bonds and open communication—have higher grade point averages (GPAs) and better physical health and are more likely to disclose information to their parents that will keep them out of trouble.”
And as Kelty and Wakabayashi cite, “family engagement improves classroom dynamics and increases teacher expectations, student–teacher relationships, and cultural competence, regardless of students’ age groups.”
Finally, research also shows that parents and caregivers WANT to be involved. “Studies have shown that families want to be included in their children’s education at the middle and high school level, regardless of demographics” (Ferguson & Rodriguez, 2005)
Middle School and Texting Go Hand and… Phone
Research has also found that text messaging can be just the way to reach and engage families. We know that the ParentPowered approach of texting families 3 times a week with information on critical skills and easy ways to support those skills at home leads to learning gains and increased family engagement.
And there’s a rapidly growing body of research on the positive effects of texting middle school families, including from Bergman and Chan, 2019 and Cortes and Holzman, working paper.
So, in response to the critical importance of and need for middle school family engagement, families’ desire to be engaged, and the evidence behind texting as a highly effective way to reach and engage all families, we’ve made a decision (drum roll please)…
ParentPowered is extending our evidence-based family engagement program delivered via text message to middle school.
Same Evidence-Based Approach for 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Families
We now reach families with research-based, standards-aligned strategies and information that helps kids thrive as they grow into and through adolescence. Like always, our messages are mapped onto each new phase of development. Because we all know (and likely can remember from our own middle school years) 6th grade is not the same as 8th grade. Like all of our programs, our middle school program:
- breaks down family engagement barriers;
- reaches families wherever they are;
- connects in the languages they speak, and;
- provides strengths-based support.