SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 7, 2012

Son says everything's fine, but progress report tells different story

Dr. Kate Roberts
The Salem News

---- — Editor’s note: Our North Shore Gardener, Barbara Barger, is on medical leave. We expect her column to return in the spring, just in time to answer your gardening questions.

Q: I just got a school progress report for my 12-year-old son, who is in sixth grade, his first year of middle school. Typically a good student, it looks like he is getting all D’s and F’s. I had no idea he was having any trouble. My son has told me everything is fine, but the teacher comments indicate that he is not completing homework and not fully engaged in class, and this is why he’s failing. What can I do now?

A: First, take a deep breath and remember that progress reports are just that — communications to let you know how your child is doing in school. The progress report indicates that your son is having trouble, but he hasn’t failed yet. Before you confront your child, you need to get more information from the school in order to best decide what you want to say. If you confront him before you have the facts about where he is struggling, you risk creating conflict unnecessarily. Your goal is to resolve this problem without creating a second one — a power struggle. Remind yourself that your son may be overwhelmed, not used to the independence of middle school and, like most children, living in the moment, not realizing that his actions have real consequences like troubling progress reports and failing grades.

Second, to get the information you need, schedule a meeting with all of his teachers together. Don’t settle for meeting with just one teacher and the guidance counselor; you want to hear feedback from all your son’s teachers so you can look for themes and behavior patterns. Set your agenda ahead of time, with the goal of determining where he is struggling specifically and how he can improve now. Have your child participate in a portion of the conference so that he can hear firsthand what is expected of him. You also want your son to see that his parents and teachers are communicating. Moving forward, I suggest that you access all the online avenues available to parents to check on homework assignments and school expectations. You could do the checking together and then as you see he is following homework expectations, continue to check privately to keep on top of it.

Parental tip: Adjustment to middle school is a big change. Do not assume that your child is a reliable reporter regarding homework. Parents need to check homework assignments online or in the homework planner. Do assume that 99 percent of the time, your child will have homework assigned.

Q: My 8-year-old daughter comes home from school every day and complains about one or two other girls who call her names and exclude her from playing with them and a few others at recess. What should I tell her? She gets so upset, and I feel helpless.

A: Your daughter needs to feel empowered to take action, and she needs to know that she has choices. She can tell a teacher who may take action during recess times. However, your daughter will generally be better off if she develops skills to manage her difficulties with peers. If there are friends who do want to play with her, invite them over for one-to-one playtimes and see how they interact. Is your daughter kind and fun for the other child to be with? If she does well in one-to-one encounters, invite one or two more friends and observe her social behavior in larger peer groups. It’s possible that in group situations, she loses her ability to speak up for herself or she becomes overly bossy. Compromise is everything in larger peer groups, and some children do not have natural skills in this area.

Please do not be critical of your child. If she does not know how to be social in a group, she can learn with support and guidance. If everything appears fine when she socializes during these scheduled play times, then maybe she is seeking out girls at school who are inappropriate friends for her. If this is the case, explain what makes a good friend and ask if those girls are acting like good friends. If those girls are not able to act like good friends, then your daughter should probably avoid playing with them. It is an important but difficult lesson to learn, that not everyone will like her, and she must accept this and seek out girls who do enjoy her company and friendship.

Parental tip: Empower your child by teaching them social skills, including avoiding peers who do not want to play with them or who make them feel bad when they interact.

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Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist with offices in Salem and Hamilton. Her private practice helps parents, children and families develop strategies to work through and solve their problems. Send your questions to kate@kateroberts

andassociates.com.