Your kids actually may not be to blame. Middle school coincides with the onset of puberty. So just as adolescents are dealing with changing bodies, mood swings, and hormones, they're moving into another strange new world. Classes are larger, more anonymous; kids go from having one teacher to several; peer pressure ratchets up. It's a no-brainer, really: Middle schoolers, especially vulnerable 11- and 12-year-olds, are so stressed, overloaded, and overwhelmed, they just shut down.
"All these changes would be hard for an adult, let alone a kid," says Alyce Barr, principal of the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York City. "Basically, we're throwing them in the deep end and yelling, 'Swim!'"
Educators are trying all sorts of strategies to nurture development instead of forcing it on our kids. At the progressive Brooklyn School, the day starts relatively late-8:45 a.m. -- since Barr believes tweens and teens aren't by nature morning people. In Columbia, South Carolina, several middle schools now offer girls- and boys-only classrooms in order to reduce distractions and boost self-esteem. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, are shutting down middle schools altogether and folding their students into friendlier, warmer K-8 schools.
There's also plenty that parents can do. To start with, chill -- for your kids' sake and yours. "Avoid the temptation to throw your hands up in the air when you see those first C's or D's," says Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of the 2004 Rand study. "Let them slide once or twice, and remind your children -- and yourself -- that a couple of bad grades will not doom them." Stay connected, and tell them that learning takes time and effort. But if they're really foundering, get them help.
That's just what Kimberley did. She signed up JoAnna in October 2006 for four hours a week of math tutoring at a private center. "She felt overwhelmed at school because the classes were so large, but at the center she could ask questions without worrying about what people would think," says Kimberley. By spring JoAnna's grades had bounced back to B's. "I'm happy again," says JoAnna, now finishing up her last year at Liberty. "I'm even looking forward to high school."