Leading from the Middle: Four Things Middle School Leaders Want Parents to Know

Research is clear that family engagement in middle school is essential for student success. Yet it sometimes feels like schools and families are more divided than ever. Middle school leaders must build stronger partnerships that help both constituencies achieve their shared goal: success for the whole student.

In celebration of Middle Level Education Month #MLEM, AMLE sat down with middle school administrators from around the world to learn more about what they wish parents and caregivers knew about middle level education and their role as school leaders. Here, we capture their top four messages for families. This article is part of our #MLEM Leading from the Middle series.

ONE: We want and need you to stay actively involved in your child’s life and education.

Regardless of a student’s family dynamics, research clearly links the involvement of families with higher levels of student achievement, improved student behavior, increased school attendance, improved student emotional well-being, and greater overall support for schools. At the same time, tweens’ natural desire for more independence leads many parents to believe their children don’t want them involved during the middle school years.

Middle school leaders know that, often, parents may be struggling in their own relationship with their kids, says Linda Roth, the Executive Director of Community School in Roanoke, Virginia. That makes it even more important for a positive, ongoing relationship between school staff and families. “The best we can do is to make sure that we have a collaborative relationship,” Linda explains, “When things are not going well, they’re not going to hear us if we have not included them in the past and they don’t feel like you’re on their child’s side.”

Kula Gaugen-Haili, Middle School Principal at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Campus in Honolulu, Hawai’i, builds this trust by starting every year with a “talk story” gathering for parents. “I always tell them I need them to really love and care for their kid during this time,” says Kula, “I need that partnership with them. We try to create a community hub for our parents.”

Parent involvement is even more important as kids navigate an increasingly turbulent world. Phyllis Fagell, school counselor and author of Middle School Superpowers puts it, “For kids, it’s easier to make big mistakes with social media and their combined offline and online lives. It’s no wonder parents are more fearful and kids are more anxious. The stakes in a lot of ways seem higher than in past generations. But all the things that we tend to do in a situation like that (back off, not get as involved, throw up our hands, dread the phase, etc.) are the opposite of what we should be doing. They need us so much right now.”

Paul Destino, Principal of Mayfield Middle School in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, advises parents to pay attention to the surroundings that kids live in today. “Kids are doing and seeing stuff that probably isn’t the best for them at this age,” says Paul, “It’s really important for parents to monitor kids.” Of course, parents must delicately balance monitoring their kids while still providing space for them to grow and mature as they seek increased independence. Steven Hauk, Principal of West Hollow Middle School in Melville, New York, tells parents that if they’re not going to manage what their kid is doing online, at least pay attention to how much time they’re spending on it. “I have a 13-year-old student who goes to bed at 4:00 am every night because TikTok told him it’s a myth that humans need more sleep than that,” he recalls, “Kids are on their phones so much it’s limiting actual social interaction and their development of real-life social coping skills.”

Despite the natural push against adults and their parents, tweens want the safety of rules and routine, advises Robert Caplinger, Principal of Laveen Elementary School in Laveen, Arizona. “They want an adult in their life that guides them, without ever acknowledging that they want that,” he says. To help families, Cedrick Gray, author of The Successful Middle School Leader, recommends providing a concise checklist to make monitoring their child’s education feel more manageable. He calls it the ABC’s. “I want you to check your child’s attendance, behavior, and course performance,” says Cedrick, “Those are your indicators. If something isn’t right, give us a call. Let’s sit down and talk.”

TWO: Grades may not “count” for college or career choice quite yet, but middle school is a critical time in your child’s education.

Despite the fact that 10–15-year-olds are experiencing the most rapid and significant changes of their lives other than infancy, middle school often remains typecast as a time to simply endure or to “get through.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Research tells us that the quality of students’ middle school experience greatly affects their sense of well-being and their later chances for high school completion and post-secondary success.

Unfortunately, there is a documented, significant decline in youth engagement in school during the middle grades. Higher levels of academic engagement in fifth grade are followed by precipitous drops in sixth through ninth grades, and finally level off in tenth through twelfth grade grades. For this reason, Stephanie Patton, an Area Superintendent in Columbus City Schools in Ohio, continues to prioritize the middle grades even as a district leader. “Sixth grade specifically is when students decide they may drop out, even if they don’t actually drop out until high school,” says Stephanie, “It’s important to have a strong foundation in middle school so students successfully transition to high school and then onto post-secondary or career readiness.”

It can be a challenge to adequately impress the importance of the middle grades on parents, cautions Todd Brist, Principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota and author of The Successful Middle School Advisory. “I don’t think people really recognize the lynchpin that middle school is for our kids,” Todd explains, “We know early literacy is so important in elementary school. And we know being college and career ready is so important in high school. But giving kids a firm social-emotional bedrock at the middle level can really be a make-or-break point for our kids.

A key role parents can play is in supporting the development of these social-emotional and executive functioning skills – and knowing there are going to be ups and downs along the way. “At orientation, we talk a great deal about resilience and grit,” says Steven Hauk, “I invite parents to understand that their kid is going to hit some kind of stumbling block, whether it be academic or social. That’s natural and they should support their kid – but don’t solve it for them.”

THREE: I care about your kid. But I also care about the (sometimes hundreds) of other kids in my building.

A commonly cited challenge among middle school leaders is setting expectations among parents who, naturally, view the school environment entirely through the lens of their child. This can make it difficult to create the structures and routines that are essential for the developing adolescent. Todd Brist explains, “Parents raise one, two, or maybe even three teenagers at a time. But in a school, I literally have every young adolescent in the community in this building. It’s not going to be smooth sailing every day. I’ll get complaints from parents as to why we have a particular rule, or why are we strict about a particular thing. I tell them that our school is designed to be developmentally appropriate and to create structure for all kids.”

For Mikaela O’Bryan, Principal of Bennett County Middle School in Martin, South Dakota, this means wishing her broader community understood what her staff encounters on a day-to-day basis. “My school is next to a reservation that has among the highest poverty in the nation,” Mikaela explains, “There are kids that are dealing with some truly unthinkable challenges outside of this building. I wish people knew what we’re dealing with, and how we’re trying to create a community for these kids.”

While school policies should be unbiased and fairly implemented, they should also be created with the input of families. AMLE’s The Successful Middle School: This We Believe advises school leaders to consider factors such as family norms, composition, cultural background, language, and socio-economic status, and their impact on how families are involved in their child’s education. In fact, research indicates that most caregivers are involved in their child’s education, including those often labeled by educators as disengaged.

This makes cultivating a positive school culture “ridiculously important,” according to John Donecker, Head of Middle School at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, “We have to uphold our traditions and values for all individuals. I want them to hear and see that from me.” For both families and school staff, that means prioritizing communication – and not just via email. “Sometimes email is just not the best way to communicate,” John cautions, “In fact, most of the time it is not.”

FOUR: We’re in it for the right reasons.

Sadly, increasingly charged and public disputes between parents and schools have eroded family-school partnerships even in districts far from where the political turmoil is occurring. Mike Hammond, Principal of Oliver W. Winch Middle School in South Glens Falls, New York, wishes more families trusted that most educators are doing this for the right reasons. “I know that seems like an easy one, but as an administrator we take the fall for a lot,” says Mike, “I’ve dedicated my life to this. I’m going to treat every student and family with the upmost respect. We’re not brushing things under the rug. We all want the same things.”

Kenneth Nance, Principal of Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, says this makes the role of middle school principal one of the hardest jobs in education. Kenneth believes, “Parents often come in with fear, holding onto an elementary school mindset and illusion of control they think they have over their child during this time.” Unfortunately, one news story from a different district about something that happened in isolation can compound that fear for parents. Katie Johnson, Principal of Belmont Ridge Middle School in Leesburg, Virginia, hopes families tune out the noise and focus on being a part of their kid’s education. “Sometimes we are painted with a brush that we’re teaching kids the wrong things,” Katie says, “We want to create well-rounded kids that are critical thinkers and collaborative.”

For some middle school leaders, this parental anxiety didn’t hit home until they themselves parented young adolescents. “Sometimes you have to live it to understand it,” explains Mark Orszula, Principal of Lakeview Junior High School in Downers Grove, Illinois, who changes how he’s interacting with families as their children progress through the school. “As kids are maturing through this time, the parents are as well.”

While every day is different and full of unique challenges, the middle school leaders we spoke to wouldn’t trade it for the world. “I feel like being a middle school principal is a walk in the park,” said Todd Brist, “It’s just whether on any given day if it’s an amusement park or Jurassic Park.”

The month of March is recognized as Middle Level Education Month #MLEM, a time to celebrate the wonderful things that happen each and every day in middle level education. Join us as a champion for young adolescent students.