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Parenting: teens

Top 10 skills junior secondary school students need to thrive, and how parents can help

Pick the right friends, be organised, don’t get emotional, indulge your passions, recognise your limits – these are among the tips for successfully navigating the early years in high school

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

In primary school, I was too shy to address my teachers when I had a question. I also was the new girl, and the existing cliques seemed impenetrable. To make matters worse, I was a late reader.

By junior secondary school, I was ready to throw myself into the mix. It wasn’t always pretty. I got tossed out of classes for giggling uncontrollably. I navigated earning my first “D” and getting demoted in maths. I had a knack for choosing overly dramatic and bossy friends.

On the plus side, I figured out how to connect with teachers, and learned I could solve maths problems when I made an effort. I discovered that books kindled my imagination and provided a mental escape. Sports played a useful role too, allowing me to burn off excess energy and improve my focus. I shifted social groups more than a few times. Overall, it was the typical junior high experience, one I relive frequently as a school counsellor and as the parent of children in seventh and eighth grade.

There is no manual to develop “soft” skills like perseverance and resilience. Just as I did, most children learn through trial and error. As parents, our quest to protect our children can be at odds with their personal growth. It can feel counter-intuitive, but we mainly need to take a step back. I have come to believe that certain social emotional skills are particularly useful as kids navigate junior secondary school and beyond. Here are my top 10 skills, and ways parents can help without getting in the way.

1. Make good friend choices

This typically comes on the heels of making some questionable choices. Kids figure out quickly which friends instil a sense of belonging and which ones make them feel uncomfortable. It can be helpful to ask your children these questions: Do you have fun and laugh with this person? Can you be yourself? Is there trust and empathy? Common interests are a bonus.

2. Work in teams and negotiate conflict

Few students get through junior secondary school without feeling like they had to carry the load on at least one group project. Maybe they didn’t delegate and divide the work effectively at the onset. Perhaps they chose to take ownership to avoid a poor grade. Help them understand what happened and consider what they might have done differently.

3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch

Unless there is abuse or discrimination, don’t bail them out by asking for a teacher change. They can still learn from a teacher they don’t like. Let them know it’s a chance to practise working with someone they find difficult. Remind them that if they can manage the situation, they won’t feel helpless the next time. Focus on concrete barriers to success in the class, not the interpersonal conflict. Is it miscommunication? Study skills?

4. Create organisation and homework systems

Make sure they are the architects of this process. Encourage them to come up with solution-oriented plans and tweak them as needed. Do they need to use their planner? Create a checklist? Their motivation will come from ownership.

5. Monitor and take responsibility for grades

If you care more than they do about their grades, why should they worry? Let them monitor their own grades, and if they don’t do well, don’t step in to advocate for assignment extensions or grade changes. Let them experience the link between preparation, organisation and grades. Conversely, if they are perfectionists, they will learn they can survive and manage the disappointment of a low grade.

6. Learn to self-advocate

By junior secondary school, they should be learning how to ask teachers for help or clarification. This may be in person or through email. When students bond with teachers, they connect more intimately with the material, too. Unless there is no other option, try not to reach out on their behalf.

7. Self-regulate emotions

Children often need assistance labelling strong emotions before they can regulate them. Help your kids identify any physical symptoms that accompany their stressors. This may help them know when to take a breath before reacting. In real time, point out when they handle an emotional situation well. Also, help them make connections between their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Are they stuck in all-or-nothing thinking?

8. Cultivate passions and recognise limitations

When your children are fired up about something, run with it and encourage exploration. Seize the opportunity to help them go deep. Get books, go to museums and be supportive even if the subject does not excite you. In the process, you will help them figure out what drives them. On the other hand, it is OK if they struggle in a specific area. No one needs to be good at everything.

9. Make responsible, safe and ethical choices

Teach them to respect their bodies, and to make safe and healthy decisions. It is equally important to talk about how to avoid putting others at risk. Have open conversations and discuss plans for different scenarios they may encounter. Try not to be overly reactive if they askdistressing questions. Keep the lines of communication open.

10. Create and innovate

Our changing world needs imaginative creators and divergent thinkers. It also can build confidence to think independently. As your kids do their homework, read required texts and take standardised tests, remind them that these benchmarks are not the only ways to measure success. Encourage them to make connections across material from different classes, and to build, write, invent and experiment.

The Washington Post

Phyllis Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counsellor and school counsellor in the United States