If there is one adolescent trait that I value and quite frankly bet on every time, it is that adolescents are among the most resilient creatures on earth. This resilience is catalytic in their growth, and in helping them deal with all manner of challenges. Unfortunately, adults’ much lower level of resilience often makes working through such challenges more difficult.
Educators of middle level students often discuss what it means to be a parent of an adolescent and how we need to communicate with this understanding foremost in our minds. Middle school is often the time when parents stop being their child’s ultimate teacher. Adolescents are testing the waters of independence, and as a result, they seek detachment from their parents in a variety of ways. At the same time, they increasingly seek support for academic, social, creative, and athletic challenges from peers.
Likewise, the relationship between adolescent student and teacher evolves as students start navigating their identity as pre-adults. Adolescence has been described as “adulthood with a safety net.” As a result, students begin seeing their teachers less as their parent at school and more as the cool aunt or uncle, and in some cases, their buddy.
Educators need to understand how this shift affects parents, and thus the parent- school relationship. No longer acting as primary teacher and confidante, parents experience their own emotional separation anxiety, which has a direct effect on the parent-teacher relationship. The trust dynamics and potential skepticism are different than with younger children and their teachers. Understanding this emotional shift is integral when communicating with parents.
The old adage “kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” applies equally to parents. When we communicate with parents, information IS important, but less so than conveying very clearly that we really care about their students.
Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment.
As educators, we need to make kids feel safe, secure, and confident before helping them self-actualize, which is a vulnerable process that cannot take place unless the other needs are satisfied. Doesn’t this hierarchy also apply to how we relate to the parents? Parents need to believe their child is safe, secure, and valued as part of the community. Being mindful of these needs for student and parent alike allows for all communication with parents to be positive and supportive, even when we have to discuss challenges.
When communicating with parents, we must be mindful that although we have 20–24 students to discuss, they have one child in your class, and in each conversation, we need to treat that child and that conversation as the most important one we have.
Jeffrey Rothstein is director of grades 6–8 and athletics at Cliff Valley School in Atlanta, Georgia.