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updated: 8/12/2013 12:07 PM

Teachers give advice about starting off right

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  • Having a positive relationship with your teacher is key to staying on track.

    Having a positive relationship with your teacher is key to staying on track.

By Sean Hammond

Having taught at Edison Middle School in Wheaton for 16 years, Heather Gordon has seen the same story play out many times at the beginning of the school year.

"The first few weeks, students are excited to be back," she said. "And then it starts to wear off."

The transition back into the school year is especially difficult for middle school students, educators say. A desk can seem like a prison cell after three months running around outside and playing video games at home. Students often tend to have a hard time finding motivation to read and do math again.

But it's important for kids to get off on the right foot when the school year begins, both with their class material and with their new teachers.

Having a positive teacher-student relationship is one of the keys to staying on track at the start of a new school year. That's why Kristine Servais, an associate professor of education at Naperville's North Central College, says North Central's education program puts an emphasis on connecting with kids.

"Middle school kids are growing and changing," said Servais, who also spent time as a middle school teacher and principal in Wisconsin. "They're emotionally charged to the point they don't understand themselves. That's why good middle school teachers recognize students need emotional support before they can learn.

"You've got to reach them before you can teach them."

Especially for students just entering middle school, the changes can be jarring. Teachers have different expectations of students once they start changing classes throughout the day.

That has both positives and negatives. There's more pressure on students to stay organized, but it also gives them a larger support group.

"One of the great things about middle school is that we have a team that shares these students," said Gordon, who teaches sixth-grade language arts and reading. "That's why conversation and communication are so important. As soon as we have a problem, we deal with it and don't let it go on until December."

But students have to take some of the responsibilities themselves. Jennifer Schmidt is a professor in leadership, educational psychology and foundations at Northern Illinois University. She encourages middle school students to ask for help from parents and teachers with staying organized. She also emphasizes students should not get discouraged when tasks become difficult in their classes.

"Doing work that's challenging is the only way to learn," Schmidt said. "If you're in school and things come easy, your brain isn't growing, you're not learning things. A lot of kids are used to things coming easily."

So what can parents do to help their children start the school year off right?

Making sure they are getting enough sleep, eating breakfast and attending classes every day is a good place to start. Servais and Schmidt both stressed how important it is to have a healthy diet.

It's also important for parents to have a relationship with teachers. When a student is struggling, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is for a teacher to contact the family. And Servais said involved parents should want that interaction with teachers in order to help their child.

"What parents need to do is know that they have an important role to play in promoting their child's school engagement," Schmidt said. "Parents sometimes think they should be less involved. It's important for them to stay engaged but to maintain a balance."

Schmidt suggests parents talk to children about what's happening at school and suggest strategies for attacking a problem. She also says to make sure to give them some room to figure things out on their own.

"The best tip for middle school students is to recognize that middle school is a different ballgame from elementary," Schmidt said. "It might take a while to get to know the ropes. If they go in knowing expectations are going to be different, that might put them ahead of the game."

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