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Seven steps to succeeding in middle school

Help your child feel confident and perform well in middle school.

By Marian Wilde

Hormones and changing bodies, locker combinations and big campuses, bullies and crushes: Is it any wonder that some middle school students let their grades slip? But even the most flustered kids can succeed when they receive a little extra help at home and school.

A worried parent wrote to GreatSchools: "My son received good grades all through elementary school. When he went into seventh grade, the first year of middle school for him, there was a huge downward shift. I spoke with the principal, teachers and counselor. They said that they have seen a lot of seventh-graders slip at this age. Why should seventh grade make such a difference?"

Bye-bye, cozy elementary school

The transition away from the coziness of elementary school can be hard for some kids. "Children have usually been at their elementary school for a number of years and it starts to feel like home," says Kathy Glass, a former middle school teacher and an author whose focus is curriculum and instruction. "Typically, two or more elementary schools feed into a middle school and this can be a social distraction for a new middle-school student, where old friendships might come undone and new ones develop."

Middle school means "time to get organized"

Middle school requires students to be more independent and better organized. "Students move from one classroom to another as opposed to being in a single, self-contained class with one teacher. Maybe a student is not comfortable with the variety of teachers and their varied expectations. This could be challenging for a child," says Glass.

A parent can listen, sympathize and guide a child through the social and physical maze of adolescence, but it's also important to clearly communicate expectations that he will focus on his work and succeed in school.

Even the most focused child needs parental support when the homework load increases, becomes more difficult and requires analytical skills he may not have developed yet. What can a parent do to help? Here are some suggestions:

Seven steps to getting your child on track

1. Offer hands-on guidance.

If necessary, go to bat for your child with teachers, counselors and other staff at the school. Give generous guidance, including monitoring her homework, while remembering that it's her homework, not yours. You can help by asking questions that lead her to her own solutions. For example:

  • What information do you need to do this assignment?
  • Where are you going to look for it?
  • Where do you think you should begin?
  • What do you need to do next?
  • Can you describe how you're going to solve this problem?
  • What did you try that didn't work?
  • What did you try that did work?

2. Help him get organized.

Organization is the key to middle-school success. Help your child develop a system to keep track of important papers. If he tends to forget to turn in homework or can't quite keep track of how he's doing in a class, it might help to get him a binder with a folder in the front for completed work ready to be turned in and a folder in the back for papers returned by the teacher.

Make sure your child has - and uses - a planner to keep track of assignments. Some schools provide these to students, and if not, you might want to work with your PTA or parent organization to provide planners at your school. Help your child get in the habit of writing down each daily assignment in each subject and checking it off when it's complete.

Communicate with your child's teachers. If your child is struggling with organizational skills, talk to the school counselor or teachers about what might be causing the problems and brainstorm approaches to solve them.

3. Teach time-management skills.

Time management becomes vitally important in middle school. Educators often start teaching time-management skills to students in fifth grade, but your child will most likely need reinforcement to make the process a habit.

First, make sure your child refers to her day planner/calendar on a regular basis. Teach her to divide up her work over the number of days allotted for the assignment. This will create smaller, manageable subtasks out of the larger, more daunting tasks. Large projects can create anxiety for students who are new to the process, and you will be helping your child by walking her through it the first few times and by enforcing the schedule you have devised together. A big research project will seem less overwhelming and will be less likely to be left until the last minute if it's done in chunks, each with its own deadline.

Encourage her to estimate how long each assignment will take. She can then plan a realistic schedule, building in study breaks after subjects that are most challenging. Helping your child keep track of time spent studying - rather than staring at a blank page - will help her think about how she's using her time. If she's spending too much time on a subject that might be a signal she needs extra help or tutoring.

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!"