Mother and daughter sat beside each other. It was probably hard to determine who was more uncomfortable.
“She used to be such a hard worker in her old school. Since she came here she’s taking things lightly and it’s very worrying,” said the mother forcefully with earnest eye contact. Her daughter, aged 11, looked down at her fiddling fingers, squirming with embarrassment. She had clearly not wanted her mother to come and raise her concerns.
I found myself empathising with both of them simultaneously, but in different ways. Both mother and child were coping with new environments and looking for stability, consistency and a ‘new normal’. Both mother and father had started in new jobs, as well as having a new home to set up, after their move to the city (and hoped that the daughter would understand in the short term that they were busy, had a lot on their minds and were ‘a bit stressed’). In the mother’s eyes, any drop-off in her daughter’s stellar academic achievements was more trouble than she wanted and demanded ‘someone to blame’ as it added to her burdens.
“Your school came highly recommended to me. I hope we haven’t made a terrible mistake selecting this school, coming here. She’s never been any trouble,” the mother went on. She turned to her daughter, “Why aren’t you doing as well as before? Do you like it in this school? Are the teachers teaching properly?”
In the mother’s anxiety this was becoming a two-pronged attack on the daughter and the school – at least one of which was adding to her stress arising from a change of home, city and job. It would have been tempting to get at least a little defensive, or to help ensure that the implication was created that the blame should be parked with the child, not on our school. I’m glad to say I resisted the temptation.
I turned to the young girl, “Have you made some good friends since you joined this school?
“Well, sort of. I’m slightly friends with a few people, but they already have many friends,” she replied hesitantly.
“Did you have some really close friends in your old place?”
Her face lit up as she replied, “Yes, my two best friends are there. We were friends in school and used to meet for play dates and sleepovers at weekends”
In a nutshell, here we had the entire source of the problems. You don’t need to be an expert on tweens, middle-schoolers or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see that for this child, until she’d been able to settle her social issues of the change of school, academics and school work would be an insignificant after-thought. Even for children of this age who don’t have a change of school, the aspects of their lives that draw upon their executive skills, the soft skills related to communication and interpersonal skills assume a significance and importance that can overshadow everything else.
This is beautifully highlighted in this sensitively written article from a school Counselor, writing about the ten most significant social emotional skills needed by a child in the Middle School years;
Out of the ten skills listed, at least seven have some link to the interrelationship between the child and important other people in their lives – peers or teachers. The remainder relate to organisation and self-management as the child assumes a greater responsibility for organising themselves. Those relationships with peers are critical for children of this age, and never more so than when they experience a change of school, city or even country. Some will appear to navigate the journey effortlessly, while for others it will be challenging. As concerned adults, we need to pay close attention and make judgements about when to intervene and when to hold back. It’s important that we provide a sounding board for the child to talk about their personal interactions, about how they’re making decisions about others and building effective relationships.
In my experience, the very best educators working with this age group understand the importance of these social emotional aspects for the children, work to get to know the children, understand and support their needs. However, in my experience there are still too many teaching this age group who see these things as a hindrance to the more academic approach they would like to be taking.
The children who can master these skills are, in my experience, far more likely to succeed and fulfil their potential academically through Middle School and beyond.
The good news in the case i mentioned above was that the mother realised her daughter’s need to be supported as she addressed her critical social needs. She soon built some very solid friendships with classmates and was very soon back on a healthy, positive academic performance with little price paid for the transition.