Marilyn Heins

Portrait of Marilyn Heins

Tammie Graves / Arizona Daily Star/

Our young tweens and teens have a rite of passage called middle school. The passage takes them from childhood to high school from whence adulthood looms.

There are challenges and pitfalls along the way. These young people must cope with bodily changes and sexual awakenings, identity issues, academic rigors, struggles to acquire social maturity, and the early tasks of emancipation from the parents.

This road is harder for some than others but every teen will look back and remember at least a few pitfalls.

Recent studies have shown new ways that teachers can help students along this journey. For example sixth-graders struggling in math improved their math scores when they were taught 1) intelligence is malleable not fixed and 2) the brain gets stronger with effort just like a muscle gets stronger with exercise. A control group of students taught only good study habits did not improve and even got worse.

In another study when an English teacher added to her criticism that she had high expectations of the students to do better, 80 percent rewrote the paper and put more effort into their work. Only a third of the control students who just received criticism bothered to rewrite the paper.

Similarly there are new ways to help teens with the social stress of school. At the beginning of the year students were given a reading and writing exercise that was designed to convey a simple message to manage social tension. The message? People can change. You are not stuck in Teen Hell forever.

The exercise had freshman students read an article on how personality can evolve. Then they were given narratives seniors had written about their own life that dealt with “When I was a freshman…” and “Now that I am a senior…” experiences. Next freshmen were asked to write about a time in their life they felt rejected and what they would advise younger kids. Stress levels measured in these students were lower than in a control group.

Yes, the studies were preliminary and need to be repeated with larger numbers of students. And the interventions were so simplistic they might be questioned, but I think there is a message here for parents as well as educators.

A New York Times article by David L. Kirp points out these studies give us three examples of “innovative social-psychological thinking.” 1) Teach students that their intelligence grows with hard work. 2) Include high expectations that the student can improve with constructive criticism. 3) Help students focus on their own self worth.

The message for parents? Tell your children that hard work is good for their brain. Tell them that you have high expectations for them. Help promote their high self-worth. Parents are a child’s first teachers. Such lessons should start at home long before the child goes to school. And should be reinforced at home during school years especially when the child is adapting to a new school year or challenge.

Let me point out that high expectations are different from praise. The self-esteem cult led us to an epidemic of overpraising. We have all heard “Good job!” when it was apparent the job was not good. Kids are smart, they know when they do something dumb. But kids are also eager to figure out how to do things right, how to get good grades, how to find the best way to succeed.

I tell parents to praise specifically, not globally. “You cleaned up your room without being asked, that’s being responsible!” Praise honestly. “You answered the homework questions right but there are spelling mistakes that need to be corrected.” Praise sparingly enough that it means something. If you praise continuously kids tune it out just like they tune out nagging.

To convey high expectations to your children find ways to focus on improvement. If your preschooler is not yet great at printing his or her name try, “You worked really hard at that.“ instead of “You are so smart!” If you are told it is your effort that counts you want to work as hard as you can. If you are told you are smart you don’t see the need of making an effort. Which kid would you like yours to be? I sure would want the one who works hard and feels in control of his or her success.

Help your child understand how self-worth works. Focus on helping your child talk about failures whether they are academic or social. No lectures. Instead personalize the issue by sharing how you felt when you got a bad grade or weren’t invited to a birthday party. Encourage the child to talk about feelings. Ask children to think about what advice they would give to a younger child because this helps them realize that things get better.

And when things get better praise the child’s accomplishment, specifically. And praise yourself…you worked hard to parent right!

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your parenting questions. Email for a professional, personal, private, and free answer to your questions.