By Alex Merrill of Alliance Tutoring

It can be difficult to find a balance between supporting a young student in middle school or high school as they study for their classes and being a bit too nosey.  Indeed, there are many things to consider when weighing how much you should be involved and when in his or her development.

Too much when they are too old can invite the presence of a “crutch” and potentially slow their development.  The “helicopter parent” syndrome is a real threat, and as a teacher of many years, I experienced its damaging effects first-hand. What springs to mind is the prototypical late teenage boy whose mother still shotguns his planner for him while he sulks in the background playing video games in a passive aggressive stew. This product is a messy one.

But if you do have a child who is slow to develop, it can likewise be damaging to leave them to their devices, to neglect to teach them and guide them in developing healthy executive habits in their academics.  This is not an innate skill for most, so they need support, and not only just in school, but in the home, as well, where they complete most of their work.

This is a thin wire to walk, particularly when the natural parent/child relationship, fraught with decades of little moments of conflict over brushing teeth, putting on a jacket and eating vegetables often become weighty cumulative baggage. It’s natural for a child to be resistant to the coaching of a well-meaning parent, especially one that he or she feels an affinity towards or secretly wants to impress.

While I can’t offer any magical solution to this challenging dynamic, perhaps I can illustrate what a healthy, ideal version of it looks like based on my experience in education and as a parent:

  1. The Planner: The planning system is critical to academic success. When assignments are due, when to work on them, how to manage a busy life: the secret to cracking these adversities lies in a system of organization that is reliable and that works for the person using it. In middle school, a parent shouldn’t necessarily be filling it out, but they should be providing one if not given to them in school and helping the child set up some kind of calendar or organizational system for completing work and checking in on it daily is reasonable at that age. Once they reach high school, I would hope that they become more independent about the system they are using and don’t need daily check-ins. Allowing them the leeway to try out their system and manage it themselves is critical. If and when it fails, it’s important to remain calm and be understanding while pointing out gently that what they are doing (or not doing!) is not working.
  2. Advocating for Themselves: My son, notably a little younger than our topic of consideration, forgot to bring his gloves to school the other day, when it was 30 degrees out.  He came home nearing frost bite.  When we asked him why he didn’t tell his teacher about it, he shrugged his shoulders.  It’s a reminder that for some kids, they don’t inherently have the penchant for speaking up for themselves.  Academically, the manifestation can be comprehensive, but let’s start here:they won’t ask if they are confused about something or need clarification. Obvious failure typically follows in the absence of this clarity. To support a more reticent middle-schooler in developing this school, it’s appropriate to ask them every day about they’re getting their basic needs met: food, drink, clothing, etc. No matter what the area, the skill will translate into academics.  In high school, I would recommend stepping back on those questions unless the teen brings it up on their own.  “Picking our spots” turns increasingly into a game of finesse as they age.  They need to feel the space to be able to fail in this, and in all other skills, as the hit the mid-teens.  
  3. Self-Regulation: Being able to control our emotions, focus on the task at hand, and follow directions are critical soft skills.  Deficiencies in these areas will quickly land you on the negative side of a teacher’s ledger, and major deficiencies will make it difficult to learn much at all in a classroom setting. Luckily there are practices we can institute at home to support them in developing self-regulation.  In the middle-school years, it is critical to provide them with a clean, quiet, stress-free workspace for them to do their homework. Coaching them through assignments directly, particularly in the pre-adolescent years is appropriate by interpreting assignments and structuring their work.  As they hit the teenage years, it’s important to back off a bit and give them space to discover their strengths and weaknesses in these areas and learn their own ways to deal with their own deficiencies. Again, any feedback you provide at this point should come only if asked directly by the student.

These pointers provide a general framework for understanding age-appropriate parenting support for developing these absolutely essential executive functioning skills. While all kids are different and offer different strengths & weaknesses and different developmental curves, having a sense of what it should look like can obviously help a great deal in calibrating the degree of involvement.  Keep in mind, like all of parenting, this will never be perfect; expect some ugly moments and hopefully some clean ones. Best of luck to all of you in finding your balance.