Parents tend to make one serious error when their child enters middle school or junior high. Dad will say something along the lines of, “Well, son, you’re twelve years old now, and it’s time for you to grow up. You’re on your own. You are responsible for keeping up in class and doing your own homework. Let me know if you need anything.”
It’s a recipe for failure. These parents mean well, but they don’t understand that this transition from one to multiple teachers and from a fixed desk to a backpack is one of the worst possible times to withdraw support. To combat this, my colleagues and I put on a brief, narrated play to dramatize how four different personality types may respond to this new environment and how quickly a backpack can turn into a garbage pail. We followed with a more in-depth presentation on what parents might expect from each type of child. We weren’t saying that we used this system to classify children, in fact we rarely referred to it again after that night. We were acknowledging that different children have different challenges when they step through our doors and need different kinds of help from their parents.
We used recognizable characters from children’s literature – Angelina Ballerina by Katharine Holabird, Arthur by Marc Brown, Olivia by Ian Falconer, and David by David Shannon. And as we acted out the beginnings and endings of each period in a seven-period day, each character responded differently.
Angelina was anxiously attentive in every class, took notes about the homework. She clipped every assigned paper proudly and carefully into her 3-ring binder and asked for the 3-hole punch when the teacher forgot to punch it herself. When handed an important paper that had to be signed that night, she put in into the special pocket of her notebook and wrote herself a note. Students who didn’t have the right class supplies clearly irritated her, and she happily told on the boy who was sneaking sips of Gatorade. If a teacher ended class late, she didn’t leave until her notebook and backpack were sorted properly.
Arthur was relaxed, but attentive, in every class and wrote down all of the homework. He snaps everything into the right place in his 3-ring binder unless the teacher forgot to put holes in it or ends class late. In either case, he settles for close enough. When handed an important paper, he puts it in the front of his notebook. He’s happy to share his class supplies, and he would never tell on anyone unless they did something harmful.
Olivia chats with her friends frequently. She writes down the homework if she’s not busy or if it seems interesting. She lays (not snaps) stuff into her binder while talking to friends so it might, or might not, be in the right place. If a teacher ends class late, she stuffs last-minute papers into her backpack. When handed an important note, she puts it in the front pocket of her backpack. She has really cool class supplies, but they may not be the right ones, and is so busy talking she doesn’t notice anyone else’s behavior.
David attends to anything interesting, but not usually class work. He can’t write down the homework because he either lost or broke his pencil. He stuffs every paper into his backpack unless the teacher specifies, “Snap it into your 3 rings and hold up your notebook to show me.” At one point, when someone catches him with Gatorade, he doesn’t screw the lid on right. It spills it in his backpack soaking all those papers. When handed an important note, he rolls it up and puts it into his pants pocket.
After the brief play, we explained further with our presentation.
Angelina held up her backpack and binder, both in pristine, ultra-organized condition. She clearly didn’t need help with organization. Checking her backpack and binder once a month would probably be plenty. What she would need help with was her anxiety. Angelina may be already running her home, screaming or crying when she is late to lessons, having difficulty sleeping before a big game, or insisting on obsessively cleaning or sorting. As she enters the middle school world of projects and reports, she will need an adult to step in and tell her when to stop, when she has done enough work, or when she is well enough prepared. There will be times when it all seems too much for her, and she will need an adult to see the big picture, cut the problem down to size, and show her a way through. She will also need an adult to remind her that she is having fun.
Arthur’s backpack and binder are also well-organized. Checking on them once every couple of weeks will probably be sufficient. Arthur will probably spend longer than the other children on homework because he is so conscientious, but not all of the work comes easily. He will need help with homework and enjoys doing homework with his friends. Besides that, his parents need to help him with time management, making a plan to get everything done. Also, as school gets more difficult, Arthur is going to realize he’s not a straight-A student, and it’s super important for Arthur’s parents to help him develop skills that aren’t measured on a report card like karate, gardening, hunting, or piano.
Olivia comes to school mostly to see her friends. Her notebook is in pretty good shape as long as she doesn’t drop it, and she can always shake a few papers out of the bottom of her backpack. And where is the important note? She knows she put it somewhere. When Olivia’s parents ask her if she has homework, she frequently says no, not because she’s avoiding homework, but because she’s operating from memory and nothing was important enough to remember. Olivia’s parents will need to clean out her backpack and binder at least once a week. They will also need to set up a system to check Olivia’s agenda, teacher websites, and school grade sites to hunt for missing work. Getting angry at her will only generate resistance, but rewarding her for writing in her agenda or completing work on time could work, especially if those rewards involve seeing friends.
David can’t figure out school. He shows up, but not much goes right. He throws out all of the sopping wet papers so he doesn’t get into trouble, not making the connection that all of that work will be missing. He has a sense that his backpack is unsafe so he puts important stuff in his pockets, but forgets the note until someone does laundry. He never does homework because it actually, physically hurts. He’s pretty sure that the harder he thinks, the emptier his brain gets. When faced with an entire page of work, he is overwhelmed by frustration and even anger. David needs his parents to manage his work for him. They need to check his backpack and binder every night celebrating any small step forward. They also need to break up his homework into small chunks with short basketball, skateboarding, or trampoline breaks in between to help him refocus. They need to do their best to stay positive because David is frustrated enough. And they need to constantly check David’s agenda, teacher websites, and school grade sites to find the inevitable missing work.
Having said all of this, we open the floor up for discussion, but parents usually wait for private talks afterward. I have asked, “How many parents suspect they need the Angelina advice? Look around the room. You are not alone.” I repeat that for the other three characters. I raise my own hand for Angelina and David. My two children self-identify strongly with those two characters and in fact insisted that I write this appendix even though I thought this book was done.