Grades and Testing / Health and Wellness / Life Skills / Ages 11-13

What If My Middle Schooler Is Struggling?

Middle school is notoriously tough. Read on for warning signs that your tween needs support—and how to get them what they need.

Eek, middle school. It’s hard. Setting aside for a minute the hormones and the social pressures and the lure of phones and social media, your child’s academic work is probably getting more challenging. And they might be missing the cozy nature of elementary school, where their teachers knew them really well. How can you tell if your middle schooler is struggling, academically or otherwise? And what can you do to help?

Here are some signs your middle schooler might be having a hard time:

  • Their report cards, test scores, and homework show a consistent picture. These are all data points to consider as you try to figure out how your child is doing in school. A single low grade or poor test score doesn’t necessarily mean they’re having a hard time in school: They could just be having a hard day. But if all these signals point in the same direction, it’s important to pay attention. If your child’s school uses an online system to report grades and track assignments, be sure to set up your parent account and make a habit of checking it on a regular basis.
  • They aren’t learning what they’re supposed to be learning. It can be hard, as a parent or caregiver, to know what your kid is supposed to be learning in school—and it only gets harder as they get older. The National Parent-Teacher Association publishes this handy grade-by-grade guide to the learning standards, which will give you a sense of what kinds of things your child should be working on in each grade. By familiarizing yourself with these academic goals, you’ll be in a better position to look at homework or talk to your child’s teacher and get a sense of how they’re doing.
  • They’re miserable in school. There are many reasons middle schoolers might feel unhappy. Some of them are hormonal. They could be having a fight with a friend. There could be peer pressure or bullying at play. It’s normal for kids to complain about school occasionally, but if they seem unhappy more often than not or resist going to school, it’s time to figure out what the root cause is so you can help them tackle it. If they’re struggling and it’s affecting not just their grades but also their mental health, seek out support.
  • They’re getting in trouble. If their behavior in school is repeatedly landing them in hot water, or you’re seeing signs that they’re skipping classes, it’s definitely a cause for concern. There are a lot of factors that could cause a child to “act out.” They might be coping with painful social situations, or distracted by something going on at home. They might be struggling academically, or they might be bored. Again, understanding why they’re behaving the way they are is the first step toward problem solving. (Here are some tips for getting more helpful info out of conversations with your kid.)
“It’s normal for kids to complain about school occasionally, but if they seem unhappy more often than not or resist going to school, it’s time to figure out what the root cause is so you can help them tackle it.”

Try these four strategies to help your middle schooler:

1

Talk to them first.

Try to have a frank conversation with your tween. (We know, this is easier said than done.) Ask how they’re feeling in school, what they’re enjoying most, and where they’re having a tough time. Focus on how you want to support them and help them thrive. If you can, sneak this conversation in while you’re doing something you and your kid enjoy together—whether that’s shooting hoops, going for a bike ride, cooking together or sharing a tasty treat, or even taking a drive.

2

Seek out an influential adult at school.

There are a lot of adults in school buildings, and it isn’t always easy to know who does what. If you can, figure out who your child has a particularly good relationship with: This might be a teacher, a counselor, the school nurse, an athletic coach, or another extracurricular or club leader. Connect with those adults and share your concerns about your child. They can weigh in with any observations of their own and help you figure out next steps for getting your child the support they need.

3

Encourage your child to take advantage of in-school support.

For example, many middle schools organize students into homerooms or advisory classes where they can get help managing their work or completing assignments. If there’s time in the school day for your child to ask questions, study, or get organized, urge them to make the most of those opportunities.

4

Consider requesting an evaluation.

If your child’s struggles aren’t letting up with support, it might be worth investigating whether a learning and thinking difference could be the root cause. Learn more about evaluations and how to request one for your child.