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Seven steps to succeeding in middle school

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By Marian Wilde

4. Develop note-taking skills.

Teachers will frequently start teaching the basics of note taking in elementary school but some students will need further guidance from parents or tutors. Taking good notes requires students to evaluate, organize and summarize information. It's a key survival skill your child will need through high school and beyond. Taking notes in class: Writing at the speed of speech can be daunting even for an adult. These tips may help your student as he develops his own system:

  • Start a new page for each new class each day. Date it. Leave space between topics or ideas so you can scan the page more easily later.
  • Take down key words and concepts, not sentences. Develop your own system of abbreviations or symbols (such as w/ for with or math symbols such as > or =) to take down key points. Here are some abbreviations to get you started from the English-Zone Web site.
  • Listen for word clues from the teacher. Teachers often signal what's important to note, using phrases such as "The three incidents that led to the War of 1812 were..." Here are some examples of word clues.
  • Review notes after class to make sure they're accurate and complete. Doing this just before starting homework in a particular subject can help a student focus on the topic at hand.

Taking notes from reading: As a student moves through middle school, he'll need to develop the ability to take good notes - from class lectures, reading assignments and research materials. That's where parents can help, says author and California high school teacher Jim Burke.

"Sometimes you have to sit down and say, here's this whole chapter. How do you decide what's important? What are you going to use these notes for? To take a test? To write a paper?" said Burke, whose The Reader's Handbook explains reading strategies and tools for high school students. "Students who don't take notes well, don't use them," he says. "They lose faith in the process."

Many experts advise students to pre-read a textbook chapter to get an idea about what it is about, rather than simply wading in. Students can grasp the main themes by first reading the introduction text, subheads, graphics, photo captions, summary paragraphs and study questions at the end.

Getting an overview will help your child focus on what's important as she starts to take notes, rather than getting mired in the details.

Burke prefers to use the term "note-making" - making meaning from information - to the more passive "note-taking." Note-making, he says, is "manipulating information to make it sticky." Some students can make information "stick" by making outlines. For other more visual learners, colors might work better. Burke gives the example of one student who went back over her science notes using red highlighter to indicate blood and blue for oxygen.

Finally, if your child is struggling, she may be having trouble reading. Ask her to explain a chapter she's read. If you can see that her comprehension is a problem, make an appointment to talk to the teacher or her counselor so you can get her the help she may need.

5. Help hone your student's budding study skills.

Studying for tests is a skill. For struggling students, it's a mystery. "Unsuccessful test takers don't know where the questions come from," says Burke. "The kids who don't succeed tend to think the others are lucky." Some tips to remember in helping your child:

  • Your student can practice active learning when studying - highlighting his notes, using Post-its to mark key textbook passages, making study cards, and mapping and diagramming concepts.
  • Some students focus better in the morning, others at night. Help your child find the times that his efforts will be most effective.
  • Sometimes we just have to memorize. You may have used a mnemonic like Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Inventing your own silly mnemonic together works just as well and can lighten up a study session.

6. Meet with the teacher or teachers.

Is there one teacher in particular that your child finds difficult? If so, work on ways to smooth over the problem areas. Maybe it's understanding how the teacher gives homework or what his expectations are. Usually, an email exchange, a phone call or a visit after school will clear up misunderstandings between teacher, student and parent. A middle-school teacher can have as many as 90 to 150 students to interact with each day, and students need proactive parents to help them understand each teacher's methods.

7. If all else fails, it might be time to hire a tutor.

For articles and tips on hiring a tutor, visit our Tutoring and Homework Help section.

Laura Hendrick, a literacy coach in Santa Rosa, California, advises: "Kids may try to push you away in middle school but they still need you. Be firm; establish accountability measures. I haven't seen a case where a student didn't need parental support in middle school both academically and emotionally."

GreatSchools staff writers Lisa Rosenthal and Linda Strean contributed to this article.

Comments from readers

"It is a good article, but to save money get a notebook and a folder for each class and on one side of the folder write working and on the other write complete."
"This information helps alot, but do you think you could make one about how to keep you'r friends? My child is having a hard time keeping his old friends when they are with other kids and at different schools Thanks-cj"
"Thanks so much for this article. It is timely and dead-on. I plan to share it with my husband. My daughter is in her second year (7th grade) of a middle school which emphasizes project-based learning. As the expectations of the students increase, the researching, planning and organizational skills you describe become more and more important. Balancing all of that with the hormonal and relationship stuff is overwhelming, for both the children and the parents! My daughter resents the parental interference; when we try to help, she feels that her abilities are being criticized, and her self-confidence plummets. I can't wait to try some of your suggestions."
"Thank you Great Schools staff, your article on 'Seven Steps to succeeding in Middle School' was an excellent help to me, I have a daughter who is going thru that transition. I feel confident in knowing that as a parent I'm not alone when it comes to having a child who was once an A student in lower school but is having some problems in middle school. The seven steps you have outlined in your article is a very welcome tool for me to use along with my daughter, thanks so much for your insight. A Very Pleased Parent!"