Tricky Balance

Lately I have had balance on my mind.  I am thinking of the difficult balance between a parent’s desire to protect a child and the child’s normal desire to be more independent.  This balance is more tricky when with an atypical child — whether due to ADD, learning disability, or Asperger Syndrome. Now add the child’s normal desire to be more independent in middle school and the significant increase in the complexity of work in middle school, and you have a situation that can become a crisis.

The challenges of sixth grade are quite significant for these children.   There is always a long and complicated research project that involves learning many new skills.  For children who have difficulty organizing time, materials and ideas, such projects can be overwhelming. Even the “typical” children are quite challenged.

For many children this situation triggers anxiety and poor coping strategies, such as denial, not asking for help, procrastination and “fibbing” about the work to be done.  Parents may find out rather late in the game that work is missing and be shocked by poor quiz grades.  Yet at this age children often bristle at the suggestion that their parents become more involved in their homework.

What is to be done?  When parents and teachers can work together respectfully and get input from the students, they can often devise systems that allow enough independence to for the students’ comfort and yet don’t leave them with so little supervision that they get way behind before they know it.  Some people refer to this as scaffolding.  You set up an arrangement in which the student has some choices but not too many.

A good learning center teacher can go over assignments with a student before she leaves school for the day so she can be sure to have the materials she needs.  Little by little she can take more responsibility for this.  For instance, she might begin to write down her own assignments and pack up her own bag, but check with the teacher before leaving school.

At home some children need their parents to go over the assignments and help them to plan their time in order to get everything done.  In time the student will be able to take responsibility for this.  This monitoring needs to be done with patience and respect.  It is important for parents to give students the benefit of the doubt when they overlook details.  Children want to succeed.  A blaming or “gotcha” attitude will lead to secrecy and deceit.  No one likes to be made to feel ashamed.

In some families the parent child relationship becomes so frayed that parents cannot be helpful in this regard.  In these situations I recommend that families who can afford it hire an organizational tutor to help teach a child the tools she needs to manage this new workload.  This protects the child from the potential shame about having her parents see her mess up and allows her to grow into independence her parents will be proud of.

Giving students more responsibility little by little means that there will be times that they miss homework assignments or get low grades on quizzes.  Unless this is a regular problem, these occurrences are learning opportunities for your child.  It could be useful to be curious about these problems and wonder how they could be avoided, but it is not useful to blame — either the student or the teachers.  Sometimes the best of students forget assignments or bomb quizzes.


Click here to sign up for my newsletter, Parents’ Corner, and receive my free report on how to improve morning routine with children who have ADHD, Asperger Syndrome, or other executive function deficits:  Smoothing Out Your Morning.

Photo Credit:  Kiawah Confectionery, Samantha Chapnick on Flickr


10 Responses to “Tricky Balance”
  1. These are great tips! Thank you for breaking down various ways to give kids responsibility while also helping them to succeed.

  2. JoAnn Jordan says:

    Whether you have a typical or atypical child, these are great tips. I totally agree that periodic poor grades on quizzes and missed assignments are wonderful learning opportunities.

  3. dr.cstone says:

    Thanks for your comment, Rachelle. It’s helpful to think of responsibility and independence in steps, not all or nothing.

  4. dr.cstone says:

    Dear JoAnn,
    Thanks for your comment. It is true that all middle school kids are learning to take responsibility, and it can be a rocky road for all. Negotiating independence step by step and minimizing blaming is very helpful.

  5. I love that you are addressing the tension that parents feel when their kids struggle in school and need extra support but also need to feel independent. It is such a hard balance to strike especially when your child struggles with a disability. Excellent topic and good advice.

  6. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Allison,
    Middle school can be a tense time in the best of circumstances. I think parents of middle school kids with learning disabilities really need to talk to each other, to support each other and to share what they know about resources in the community.

  7. Carolyn,

    I think that your reminders to parents about normal developmental tensions and the importance of avoiding blame & shame are so important. You’ve presented some practical coping strategies–and a reminder that it’s perfectly okay to use the resources in the school system.


  8. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Ann,
    Feeling ashamed doesn’t help anyone perform better. And it’s important for parents to remember that they don’t have to manage the homework thing all by themselves. Consulting with teachers is often helpful. They might offer to adjust the amount and type of homework. Parents have enough to deal with without trying to be teachers as well.

  9. Great tips. Love the idea abt hiring organizational coach to help the family

  10. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Kathy,
    Thanks again for your comment. There are times when the support that kids need in order to complete their school work is simply not compatible with a good parent-child relationship. When families can afford it, a coach is very helpful. It’s a shame that such help is dependent on finances.