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How to talk to your junior high school age child

Parents can help children connect information

Posted: February 26, 2009 11:52 p.m.
Updated: February 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 

The turbulent adolescent years are an especially trying time for students, yet we parents often fall into the trap of expecting children to respond to reason and logic as though the kids are younger versions of ourselves. Have you ever caught yourself saying to them, "What were you thinking?" after a particularly illogical action? We forget that they are undergoing tremendous changes physically, mentally, socially and emotionally.

According to the California Department of Education Web site, the human brain does not fully mature until age 25.

Throughout early adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, making it difficult for children to organize, perform abstract thinking, prioritize, anticipate consequences, and control impulses. And even if they could perform all those processes, even if they know what they needed to do, they still wouldn't be able to adjust their behavior, because that skill is controlled by the same area.

Instead, children rely on another area of the brain that results in more impulsive behavior.

This explains some of the trouble many junior high school students have in adjusting to the new demands for self-reliance and higher-level thinking placed on them as they enter junior high or middle school.

During each year of elementary school, the student had just one teacher, who worked to create a safe and familiar environment.

Stepping into junior high school, the student, whose brain chemistry is now shifting, is expected to maneuver deftly through a rotating schedule, meeting the requirements set by seven different instructors, and to adjust easily to new demands for higher-level thinking.

Researchers have discovered that brain cells are "pruned" during adolescence, leading to the theory that cells and cell connections must be used or lost at this age. This is a critical period when children are building the brain cells needed to solve complex problems in school and in life. Our challenge as parents is to provide the understanding and support our kids need during this difficult phase even as we hold them to high standards.

A key factor in learning is the student's belief in his ability to learn. Confidence must be nurtured over time as children are given opportunities to explore and develop skills through trial and error without judgment on our part. Rather than criticizing our son for making a mess of the kitchen, say, while he's working on a cooking project, we can acknowledge that cooking can be messy and ask him for his ideas on how to keep the pot from boiling over next time. If we can resist the desire to launch into a critique of his project and instead give him an opportunity to honestly assess his own work, then we encourage critical thinking and demonstrate confidence in him.

Finding relevance and personal meaning in their studies also is crucial. Children retain information better when that information has an emotional connection rather than when it is just a dry assemblage of facts.

Beginning in elementary school we can help our kids with this, by discussing with them what they're learning in the classroom and showing them how those concepts apply to their lives, whether it's the use of measurements in preparing a meal or the repercussions of choices made throughout history.

Of course, most teachers aim to impart these connections, but there are times when students are not excited by the material. In that case, parents can step in and look for ways to help kids connect the information to something they know. There are also times when the teacher-student relationship simply isn't productive. With parental assistance and, perhaps, the help of a tutor, a child's self-respect and self-confidence can allow her to survive a less than ideal classroom environment. Dealing with such adversity is also important for self-awareness and personal growth.

The broader goal of education is to train our brains to learn. So while algebraic equations, for instance, may not seem vital to your child's future, the process of learning complex material is. Galileo said, "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself." Helping kids develop that capacity is the job of parents who want to help their children become educated, confident, compassionate adults.

For more information about tutoring, contact StudyPros In-Home Tutoring at (661) 296-9206 or visit www.studypros.com.

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