While middle schoolers’ brains are developing faster than ever, they are still far behind on executive functioning, or the set of skills necessary to manage complex tasks. This means that they will most likely need your help managing their lives. Although it is tempting to help your child by scheduling their time for them, in the end, this creates more work for you and leaves them lacking the organizational skills they will need in high school, college, and beyond.
Therefore, the end goal here is not necessarily for your child to receive straight A’s, but to become more independent. At times, this requires you to foster attitudes and behaviors conducive to future success. At other times, this requires you to let your children fail.
Following are some more ideas for helping your middle schooler develop robust, effective study skills. For more on these, see Middle School Matters by Phyllis L. Fagell, whose ideas inspired this list.
1. Emphasize the value of learning
First and foremost, talk to your child about how the purpose of schooling is not to get good grades but to explore the world. Instill in your child a love of learning and an appreciation of the process of figuring out a concept or an idea. Talk about how there are multiple kinds of intelligences, and that people are “smart” not only at math, science, reading, and writing, but also at art, athletics, music, and socialization. Removing the emphasis on short-term achievements like test scores sets your child up for a lifetime of self-directed learning that will serve them well in higher education and careers.
2. Set routines
Help your child create a time and place to do their homework every day. This could be at the kitchen table, or it could be in their room. This could be as soon as they get home from school, or after they have time to relax for an hour. This is also a great time to set routines around devices. For example, you may take away your child’s cell phone while they are studying, and then again when they go to bed at night. Help your child stick to this schedule by setting clear expectations. These routines will help them foster healthy habits and boundaries later on.
3. Foster self-advocacy
Help your child ask for what they need, and take responsibility for their actions. If they need an extension on an assignment, for example, you may help them write an email to their teacher. Fagell suggests that in sixth grade, this may involve you sitting and writing the email together, while in eighth grade, it might involve you checking the final draft if – and only if – your child asks you to do so. The idea here is to build scaffolding that you slowly remove as kids get older and closer to high school.
Foster organizational skills by encouraging your child to make checklists whenever possible. Perhaps they make a checklist of everything they need to take to school with them, every day. Perhaps they make a checklist of assignments at the beginning of the week and start a new one the next week. Or perhaps they have a checklist of everything they need to do as part of their morning routine before they walk to school or catch the bus. Asking children to list out tasks not only promotes their organizational skills, it also provides a concrete way to ensure that everything that needs to get done does, in fact, get done.
5. Let kids fail
There will be tests that your child fails, assignments they forget to turn in, and gym clothes they forget to bring home. Try not to rescue your child from the consequences of these actions. Let them figure out how to bounce back themselves, and support them in doing detention or making up the assignment or doing whatever else they need to do to make amends at school. Be firm about your expectations, but also supportive, helping your children understand that though their behavior was unacceptable this time, you know that it was just a mistake and that they can learn from the experience.
Note that this may require you to take a breather before speaking to them, or apologizing after a knee-jerk, negative reaction. Remember, it’s always okay to say sorry and start over – even parents aren’t perfect!