I spend an unusual amount of time trying to convince middle school boys that I can help them. Ah, middle school. A time when the social complexities can make your head spin, and the students that have a hard time keeping up are left clueless on the side of the crowd. As a speech-language pathologist, I work to build social communication skills for many students. For the child who has difficulty making eye contact and can't think of anything to say, or goes on-and-on about one topic without understanding that you really don't want to hear any more about cars, imagine the path they take through the hallways of your local middle school. It is a frightening image for a parent. Long gone are the cozy walls of the elementary school where your child's one teacher understood his or her nuances, building a rapport with your child to give him structures and guidance. Welcome to middle school, where texting and instant messaging spread jokes, gossip, and the latest news faster than teachers or parents can even keep up.
As parents we can set our children up for as much success socially as possible. We can teach them to say hello politely, to inquire about others ("What could you say to Jimmy when you see him?"), and to make sure to listen when someone else has something to say. However, there comes a time when a child needs more help, more instruction than what a parent can provide. And, frankly, these middle school students with social engagement weaknesses are no more interested in listening to their parents than their more typically-engaged peers.
That's when you seek out some help. Michelle Garcia Winner is a favorite expert in social communication challenges that students may face. You can follow her blog here: http://www.socialthinking.com/what-is-social-thinking/michelles-blog. Besides working individually at school or privately with an SLP, many of these children do best when exposed to social language groups, where they can work on language within the context of a peer group.
Parents can be a support, recognizing their child's strengths and acknowledging their child's weaknesses. Every student needs activities to be involved in outside of school, whether Boy Scouts, martial arts, or a computer club, in order to build peer relationships and encourage growth. The self-confidence that comes from excelling at something can carry a child through some of the toughest middle school times. Martial arts and Boy Scouts are two activities that I recommend to my families. They build social skills and allow opportunities for engagement with peers while maintaining a very strong structure and consistent expectations and guidelines, which these students often need.
The best thing about a middle school student, with the eye rolls and sighs and the "Why are you sooo lame?" exasperation, is that they won't be in middle school forever. And hopefully, with a little guidance and lots of patience, we can help them enter high school with even more tools under their belt.