By Paige McGee, Head of Middle School, Episcopal School of Jacksonville

The middle school years provide an opportunity for self-discovery as children learn to navigate their world with more independence and less reliance on you. These years, when your student is in fifth/sixth through eighth grades, can be difficult, yet the lessons learned can positively influence students to become more empathetic, caring, and upstanders among their peers. Guiding your student through these changes is important. Here are five things to understand about your middle school-age student and how you can help them navigate this time of change in their lives.

Paige McGee, Episcopal Head of Middle School

1. Let Them Make Their Own Decisions

Independence and empowerment to make decisions that are relevant to daily life are craved by middle school children. Your encouragement and support for them to make their own decisions demonstrates your belief that your child is responsible and respected as a decision maker. Often your input won\'t be solicited, but the importance of your approval still exists. In the times you do not approve or agree with their choices, discuss with them possible outcomes and consequences -- this can offer your child options they might not have considered.

2. Socialization is Different than Back in Your Day

Socialization in middle school today is very different than your experience due to the impact of technology and social media. Student perception of social interaction often equates relationships of a digital nature to relationships with in-person interaction. The reduction of face-to-face communication diminishes one\'s ability to read non-verbals and social cues. Exposure to others provides opportunity to engage in, experience, and respond in socially appropriate ways for the age group. Encourage them to interact in person. Set limits on technology use.

3. All the Feels

They\'re feeling them all. Emotions run high in middle school students. These emotional reactions often spike when a student experiences a disagreement with a peer, feels academic stress, navigates the feelings of a crush, or perceives the loss of control of a situation. Make sure to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismissing their responses as overly dramatic. Validating their feelings enables you to encourage them to articulate how they feel and then discuss coping skills. Development of self-regulation skills is the ultimate goal. Initiating dialogue daily on the most mundane topics -- in the car, at the dinner table -- helps set the stage, so that when the more difficult and important topics surface you already have figured out how to talk to your middle schooler and they are more willing to open up to you.

4. \"What\'s the best teacher? Experience.\"

Failure happens and is necessary for all children, but especially middle school-aged students. Parents naturally strive to protect their children from harm, disappointment and consequences of any type of failure. However, this can be more harmful than helpful in the long term. If children are prevented from having experiences that include failure they are not provided the opportunity to learn or develop resilience. Developing the ability to cope when all goes wrong is vital. Instead of preventing their failures, be there to help them recover. Discuss what better choices could have been made or how they can go about bouncing back from their mistakes. What are the next steps forward? Are there any lessons learned for next time they are in a similar situation?

5. Get Them Moving

Exercise is important for a middle school student\'s physical health as well as mental health. Movement or exercise in any form stimulates the brain, helps reduce stress, and has a positive impact on learning. Exercise does not require your child to be a student-athlete or to participate on multiple teams, it is simply a matter of being physically active in some way. The benefits of exercise to the students' well-being far outweighs time invested in devices. Find a type of exercise or sport they enjoy and if you can, do it with them. Sign up as a family for a 5k or play tennis together. Encourage them to help you plan dinners on the weekends and make healthy snacks together. Developing a healthy lifestyle inclusive of exercise and nutritious foods during adolescence can put students on a healthful life path.

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