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Hard Truths Part II

As we discussed in part I, our exploration of pivotal life lessons continues below. These lessons often involve the more difficult truths that reveal themselves organically in the classroom—the teachings that might not necessarily be prescribed in the curriculum, but that can be just as influential and beneficial for adolescents.

 

You’ll attract more bees with honey than you will with vinegar

This metaphor will take a little bit of explanation for teens to truly grasp its meaning; however, the realization is crucial for middle and high schoolers as they begin to navigate their way into early adulthood. Essentially, the proverb encourages students to use kindness, camaraderie, and an agreeable demeanor to assuage an otherwise worthy opponent or adversary. In social situations, especially when power structures or supremacy is imbalanced, it is to one’s benefit to appease, mollify, and react calmly when confronted. Educators can help students to understand this by modeling communicative, persuasive, and argumentative techniques. In showing students how to “work” an adversary more easily by leading with an affable manner, teachers can subtly teach students how to manipulate situations where an imbalance of power might otherwise nullify the student’s position. This hard truth also reminds students of the intense effect that benevolence can have in easing a situation or decision. Adolescents begin to learn that, while we cannot necessarily control another’s decision or behavior, we can have a meaningful impact on how that person reacts to our position or behavior.

 

Adults, including parents and teachers, have made and will continue to make mistakes

It always amazes me to see a student’s reaction when I apologize, admit fault or wrongdoing, or disclose flaws or previous mistakes. Teachers are occasionally held up on an undeserving pedestal, where students unconsciously align that adult with an expectation of faultlessness. Students tend to forget that, just like their peers, we adults are human, too. Parents, teachers, and presumably all authority figures have experienced failures, made mistakes, admitted culpability, and faced blame or defeat. This hard truth is two-fold, really. Adolescents need to know that everyone, including adults and authority figures, have flaws and commit missteps—no one is perfect. They also need to expect that, although they will age, mature, and learn, they will never be immune to errors—we are all a constant work in progress. To help shatter the impossible ideology that anyone in authority should maintain a level of perfect, teachers should be prepared to readily admit their mistakes to students. If we lose our tempers, err in our instruction, or provide misinformation, we must humbly admit these mistakes and use it as a teachable moment. When students witness adults owning a mistake, they begin to realize that to err is to be human. We all have something to gain from admitting our shortcomings or mistakes.

 

Your talents and passions may not coincide—and that’s okay—but don’t abandon either one

Wouldn’t it be nice if the area in which we were gifted or talented was also one of our personal passions? If we could simply master whatever skill, talent, or subject piqued our interests? Well, yes, of course, but the world does not work that way. Middle schoolers and high schoolers are just beginning to uncover their tendencies as learners. They have just begun to understand their strengths and weaknesses, hobbies and interests. That said, it is an important lesson to learn that, while we should always follow our passions and strive to grow our interests, we should also keep a keen eye on our natural talents and areas of strength. What we love to do might not be our greatest strength, and that is okay. It is important for adolescents to foster a growth mindset, meaning that they continue to strategize and work towards their goals, no matter the obstacles or challenges. Similarly, high schoolers should especially try to capitalize on their natural talents, as these could impact college and career options shortly down the road.

Hard Truths Pt. 1

The middle and high school years are transformative for students, marked by varied sets of challenges and mishaps. In a sense, educators have a front row seat to watch as students learn, grow, mature, and navigate their way through adolescence. Among the daily academic lessons, unit goals, and semester objectives, teachers are also given the opportunity to impart various life lessons. These hard truths are sometimes relayed covertly, often through scenarios that subtly allow students to seemingly come to these conclusions on their own. Other times, teachers impart these life lessons using a direct and straightforward delivery. Whichever the case, I’ve found that some of my most pivotal moments in the classroom, those moments in which relationships are formed and a culture of care is crafted, happen when students are gaining life lessons, rather than focusing solely on academic content.

 

Friendships will change—this is to be expected as people discover who they really are

This concept is especially challenging for middle schoolers, where peer acceptance is paramount. It is important for children and teens to understand that friendships are fluid, and while some friendships can truly last a lifetime, most are fleeting and circumstantial. Remind adolescents that as they grow older, begin to understand themselves better, and branch out socially, they will be more likely to make genuine connections with peers on a deeper level. With these sincere friendships comes the realization that perhaps other acquaintances were more surface level or temporary.

 

You will not always like everyone; not everyone will always like you

Similarly to finding their more authentic social groups, the teenage years are when students begin to discover that, while kindness is essential, there will be plenty of people that simply rub them the wrong way. It is okay and even expected that adolescents will encounter people that they simply do not care to be around. The hard truth, however, is that these “undesirable” peers are in fact going to be around. The key is to learn how to not only coexist, but to cooperate civilly. Does this mean you must befriend everyone you encounter? No, that is not realistic. But just because you are not someone’s biggest fan, does not give you the right to treat them any differently. Common courtesy is not conditional—your rudeness says more about you than it does the person you might dislike.

 

If the smartest, most educated person in the applicant pool cannot work well with others, they are likely to lose that position to a more collaborative/agreeable person with the more modest resume

For high achieving students, this hard truth is, well, hard to hear. Students are used to striving to be the best, know the most, and score the highest. However, that “every man for himself” strategy is becoming less and less desirable in the workplace. Admissions officers, project managers, and even chiefs of surgery will be seeking qualified applicants who are able to work well in collaborative settings. The person who always has to be right, or first, or fastest, or the best is also probably pretty tough to work alongside. This is where social skills truly set people apart. Remind teens that listening, cooperative learning, perspective-taking, and compromise are all exceptionally valuable skills.

Teaching Tolerance in Secondary Classrooms

Much of what goes on in our world makes its way into our classrooms in some form or another. In this sense, many view classrooms or schools in general as microcosms—mini representations of society. Ask any teacher, and tolerance is likely not part of their curriculum. However, much like with a productive and stable society, tolerance plays an essential role in creating a welcoming and productive classroom environment. Fostering a positive environment is no easy task, especially when our world is in the midst of such grave negativity. Tolerance in the classroom takes time, patience, practice, and reflection.

 

Remind students that everyone they meet knows something they don’t. Whether rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, foreign, or not—every single person has lived a different life, experiencing their own realities and garnering life lessons along the way. Instead of viewing someone’s vastly different experiences as weird or wrong, students should be reminded of the value that varying experiences, perspectives, and lifestyles offer.

 

Change the language of the classroom when it comes to discussing differences. To avoid “othering” certain groups, encourage neutral or positive ways to address differences. Instead of allowing students to use weird, odd, strange, unusual, etc. to describe people, groups, or customs, a positive classroom environment should be one where words like unique, unfamiliar, uncommon, fascinating, diverse, various, or distinctive are used.

 

Approach confrontation with logical questions. Since students bring differing experiences and opinions into the classroom, occasional clashes are to be expected. When this occurs, teachers can use these opportunities as teachable moments by addressing the issue with open, honest, logical conversations. Guided or rhetorical questions also allow students to reflect on their own perspectives and how they react to others. For instance, a teacher might ask, “In what way does his/her different opinion or belief threaten yours?” “Is there a reason that their differences affect you?” “How can we focus more specifically on ourselves and less on how others behave, speak, learn, etc.?” “What do you think you know about certain people? What if you took a moment to consider where these beliefs/opinions come from?” “Saying that someone’s choices are wrong do not necessarily make yours right.” “This argument could simply be de-escalated by considering it a difference of opinions.” All of these talking points prompt students to reflect on their own belief systems while maintaining an open mind towards others.

 

Learn how to recognize your own implicit bias. This is often a difficult practice for teachers—we aim to be impartial, objective, open-minded educators that provide equal opportunities to all of our students. Therefore, recognizing, questioning, and shedding light on our own innate judgments goes against what we are working towards in the classroom. It also summons feelings of discomfort by forcing us to identify our own stereotypes and belief systems. As difficult and uncomfortable as this may be, we must address our own biases before we can ask students to do the same. To foster tolerance, there must first be a foundation of understanding—what better way than to begin with our own reflections?

Create opportunities for students to learn about one another on deeper, more meaningful levels. Free writes, warm up topics, discussion starters, and icebreakers are all optimal opportunities to help build a solid, positive rapport in the classroom. Ask students to respond to questions such as:

 

  • What is one way that your family likes to celebrate an important accomplishment?
  • What types of traditions are unique to your family/community?
  • Do you have any rituals, superstitions, good luck charms, etc.?
  • Where do most family gatherings happen?
  • What important memory from your childhood makes you smile?
  • What does your typical Saturday look like?
  • What do you like to do on a snow day?

How to Break the Negative “Can’t Do” Mindset: High School

The “I can’t” mindset can be detrimental to high school learners. The problem with this negative tunnel vision is that it can easily begin to spill over onto other aspects of a teen’s life. For instance, a high schooler that feels negatively about her ability to do math might transfer that fixed mindset to her ability to learn chemistry, physics, architecture, etc. The negativity creates a destructive snowball effect. High school is a time when students should recognize that the sky’s the limitthey have adulthood and independence right around the corner. A negative mindset can cause teenagers to subconsciously impose restrictions on what they believe they are capable of achieving. To combat this cycle of negative self-perceptions, teachers and parents can implement different exercises, practices, and conversations to encourage a positive outlook for high schoolers looking ahead toward their future.

Show teens that intelligence and ability are not limited to certain tasks, subject areas, or capabilities. Very often, students place much of their self-worth on grades and GPA. And while these are important indicators, they do not accurately measure the whole person’s capabilities. Adults can help by shedding light on “lesser known” examples of intelligent, successful people and instilling a sense of value in different areas of academia, the arts, athletics, etc. Remind high schoolers that school is just one realm for learning and that each person has his or her own strengths. A poetic genius may not be well-versed in math; while a musical prodigy might find history or the sciences more challenging.

When possible, provide high schoolers with options and choices, not only for engaging in the content, but with methods of demonstrating mastery. In providing options, high schoolers become more absorbed with the content they had a hand in choosing. Similarly, when students are given choices in what type of product, project, or demonstration to compose, they are naturally more invested in the outcome. Choices also provide students with a sense of agencya chance to connect their own ideas and decisions to the impact that these decisions will have.

Explicitly discuss the psychological and neurological findings behind growth mindset. There is a reason why growth mindset has been touted as one of the recent educational buzzwordsthere is plenty of research and data to support its claims. High schoolers are at the age to truly grasp their learning tendencies and recognize the plasticity of the brain. Simply put, neural pathways develop and strengthen with repetition and practice. When students understand that they can have a certain amount of control over how much they learn and how well they learn it, school work no longer feels like a task to be undertaken, but more like an opportunity to strengthen their skills and hone new strategies.

Encourage the challenge; discourage busy work or the easy way out. For many students, not just high schoolers, the path of least resistance can often be the most appealing. And that’s understandablewhy cause ourselves more trouble or torment in an effort to reach a goal? The answer lies in the methodology behind growth mindset. The more we challenge ourselves, the greater the opportunity to strengthen the neural pathways. When tasks are mundane, simple, or elementary, our brains do not experience the same level of activity as if they do when a process is complex, unfamiliar, or mentally demanding. Explain to high schoolers that, if your goal is to build muscle, you wouldn’t go to the gym to lift 1.5 lb. weights every day. You would increase the weight, reps, and add variations as your workouts progress. It is the same concept when working out our brains. The easy way out may give high schoolers the correct answer, but it does nothing to stretch their limits or develop higherlevel thinking skills.  

 

How to Plan for Summer Learning Opportunities—Middle School

Here we arewe find ourselves in the middle of spring, with summer just around the corner! As the school year begins to wind down, summer learning opportunities are likely to be the last thing on a middle school student’s mind. As much as preteens and teens would prefer to set aside the school work for a while, the truth is, summer learning opportunities enrich students’ academics and prevent the typical learning gaps that summer can bring. That said, now is the perfect time to begin to look at options for educational summer plans. Whether debating between formal summer school options, camps, or groups, or if you are looking at less structured options for learning, there are a plethora of options for engaging your middle schooler in some summer learning opportunities!

For students entering middle school, the summer after 5th grade can be the perfect opportunity for students to begin accruing their SSL (Student Service Learning) hours toward their 75hour graduation requirement. Volunteer work, even outside of fulfilling the SSL graduation requirement, allows families to investigate certain needs in their community and reach out to those organizations by volunteering their time. The first step when helping your middle schooler decide how to proceed with their SSL hours is to discuss and identify specific community needs and the service options available to meet those needs. For instance, if your teen is particularly interested in “going green” projects, help him or her explore the local organizations devoted to preservation, recycling, or other green initiatives. Beyond working toward a graduation requirement, through service, middle schoolers begin to develop a sense of independence, responsibility, advocacy, self-worth, cooperation, strategizing, and goal-setting. The service opportunities, especially in our area so close to D.C., are truly limitless.

For some outofthebox learning opportunities for your middle schooler, check out Montgomery County Recreation and Parks Summer Guide for 2018. There you will find summer camps for all ages and interests. For children on the younger side of middle school with a culinary interest, options such as Baking Boot Camp, Cook Offs, and Food & Fitness are great programs to get them learning all about their culinary talents. For older middle schoolers with a tech savvy spark, MoCo offers camps for robotics, game development, filmmaking, lego engineering, Youtubing, and a long list of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) camps. For your active middle schooler always on the go, check out the many sports and outdoor camps, which offer everything from kayaking, lacrosse, karate, and flag football, to horseback riding, archaeology, and ultimate frisbee.    

If you are in need of activities that are even more subtle in terms of instruction, below are a few options and ideas that are less structured than camps or courses, but still allow for some learning in disguise.

When planning a vacation or long weekend over the summer, allow your middle schooler to complete a little research of the location. Depending on what they are able to find, perhaps have them plan an activity or select a “hot spot” for the family to check out during the trip. This subtle activity allows middle schoolers to put their research skills to the test for a real-world purpose.

Provide tokens or incentives for middle schoolers to try out new chores or ways of helping around the house. For instance, teach your teen how to mow the lawn and monitor his lawn mowing skills until he’s mastered the routine. Challenge your child to a laundry competition, in which you race to sort or fold laundry. Plan a sibling versus sibling cook-off, with each parent acting as the sous chef or supervisor of the cooking battle. Subtle challenges such as these allow preteens and teens to attempt new skills or tasks without the pressure of outright school work.

Select a series of movies versus books to read and binge watch together during the rainy summer days/nights. Read and watch together as a family, then discuss which version was better and why. Talk about how the characters either did or did not represent what each person had imagined in their head. Were there any glaring differences between the book and the movie?

How to Manage Testing Time: For Middle School Students

This time of year can be met with mixed emotions from students. Yes, spring break is on the here, which gives students, parents, and teachers a brief, but much-needed reprieve from the stressful school day.

Yet spring is also the time in which schools are gearing up for testing season. For middle schoolers, these tests may include benchmark assessments to gauge math and reading growth, like Map-M and Map-R. Middle schoolers will also be taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment. Because of the “high-stakes” mentality associated with these sorts of exams, the weeks leading up to and during testing can be rather stressful for students, parents, and teachers. However, there are strategies that parents and teachers can use to help middle school learners prepare for and thrive during these tests without becoming overwhelmed by stress or pressure.

  • Remind middle schoolers of strategies and routines that are within their control. Test-taking can be stressful due to the uncertainty and lack of control. To boost confidence and instill beneficial practices, talk to students about how they can put their best foot forward before even sitting down to take the exam.
    • Jumpstart their day with a healthy, filling breakfast that will keep middle schoolers fueled through the morning. Parents and teachers may want to consider providing students with a small snack during testing to keep the hunger edge off. Check with the school about their protocol for snacks while testing and consider packing a water bottle with your child as well. Hunger and thirst can be major distractions when it comes to learning, so a little pick-me-up might go a long way with keeping middle schoolers motivated and attentive during a morning of testing.
    • For any number of reasons, likely technology-related stimuli, middle schoolers are getting less and less sleep these days. Breaking poor sleeping habits can take a while before the body truly adjusts to a new schedule. Take action early by encouraging middle schoolers to adhere to a 7-8 hour sleep schedule leading up to assessment week. A regular sleep and wake time helps the body adjust to a healthy circadian rhythm, which will stave off any fatigue and keep students alert and focused during testing.
    • Think positive thoughts. Remind students that a test is simply one indicator of learning. And while we would like middle schoolers to take their testing seriously, we do not want them to be consumed with anxiety and stress. The mantra “do your best, forget the rest” helps learners to focus more on genuine effort and less on perfection or final scores.

  • Annotating is a practice that middle schoolers have probably been honing throughout the school year. Obviously, close reading and analytical thinking skills are beneficial across content areas—annotating is a practice that students are completing in science, history, English, and even math. Additionally, close reading and annotating can greatly help students during assessments as well.
  • A helpful strategy is to provide students with practices in which they annotate test questions, text excerpts, and written response prompts. The key is to help students identify what a question, answer option, or prompt is truly asking. By highlighting key words, breaking down questions, or rephrasing questions, students are better able to focus their thinking.

  • Parents should also remind middle schoolers about any 504 or IEP accommodations that they should be granted for testing. Some assessments, like PARCC, do not allow for certain accommodations; however, accommodations apply during other tests. Parents, children, and teachers must be on the same page when it comes to testing accommodations for major exams or standardized tests. When in doubt, ask—this way children know what to expect on exam day and are not thrown off by a possible lack of accommodations.

How to Solve Problems with Peers: Middle Schoolers

Conflict resolution is a skill that students of all ages require on a regular basis. Because of the emotional fragility that we often see in the middle school age group, conflicts can arise even more frequently among peers. While this is cause for some concern, the upside is that teachers and parents can employ many different strategies to help prevent, mediate, and solve conflicts among preteens.

Teachers can help to prevent or assuage conflicts by working to create a positive classroom environment. This type of classroom not only lends itself to academic success and productivity, but also helps to promote a climate in which all voices are heard, respected, and appreciated. Teachers should promote this positive environment from the very beginning of the school year by setting clear expectations for all students. The classroom needs to be a place where students feel supported by each other. In terms of conversation tips, middle schoolers should practice positive conversation habits as part of their regular routine in the classroom. This includes active listening by making eye contact, tracking the speaker, allowing one person to speak at a time, and remaining on topic when talking.

To avoid explosive conversations, teachers and parents can prompt students to handle peer conflicts assertively, instead of aggressively. This means that students can openly voice their side of the issue, while maintaining a firm but neutral tone. Being assertive does not mean that students are allowed to be accusatory—they should voice their opinions while remaining calm, and then be open to hearing the other side of the conflict. To initiate these types of productive mediations, students can benefit from using sentence frames that express honest feelings and qualms without allowing emotions to lead the way. Try incorporating dialogue that follows the prompts below:

“What I’m hearing you say is _____________________________, but I also feel __________________.”

“When I said ____________________________, what I really meant was ______________________.”

“I reacted to what you said because it made me feel _______________________________.”

Students can also benefit from perspective-taking practices in which adults prompt preteens to look at the argument or conflict from a different angle. Parents should ask questions like, “How do you think your classmate felt when this incident happened?” Or, “What do you think made him/her react like that?” “Could you see why he/she became upset?” By looking beyond themselves, middle schoolers can begin to see how their words or actions may have had an impact on someone else. Perspective-taking practices allow young people to empathize with peers and show compassion, even when students are in the midst of experiencing a difference of opinion.   

An additional tip for helping middle schoolers during a conflict is to remind them to avoid placing blame on their peers. Often times, even if the other peer was responsible for starting the conflict, blaming or pointing fingers is like adding fuel to the fire. Blaming puts the other student on the defensive, which creates more of an issue than a solution. Remind middle schoolers that it is okay, even expected, that disagreements will occur, but that the important thing is to keep these conversations solution-based. This means that the focus of the conversation should remain solely on resolving the issue.  

 

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the Middle School Level

While vocabulary instruction has drastically changed in the past decade, some of the basic principles of language acquisition still pertain to building students’ vocabulary. For instance, a voracious appetite for reading has long been linked to a stronger vocabulary—and this belief still stands, as it is widely supported by research. Additionally, repeated exposure over time also helps to solidify words to memory. Both of these basic methods, reading and repetition, are still utilized in classrooms today.

However, best practices focus on more than mere memorization. Vocabulary acquisition can and should be taken to the next step to ensure that terms are not only committed to memory, but are essentially committed to a student’s academic and everyday language.

Teach connotation: Too often, direct vocabulary instruction relies on a student’s memorization or understanding of a word’s definition—which makes sense since students must know what a word means before adding it to their lexicon. However, if focusing solely on a word’s definition, students are missing a key aspect of the importance of vocabulary, which involves context and connotation. Vocabulary instruction is more than knowing the meaning of a word—it’s the ability to choose the most appropriate form of a word or term for a specific context or purpose. Take the words smell, scent, odor, fragrance, and aroma. The definition of each of these terms is rather similar; at a glance, students may declare these terms to be synonymous. However, teaching these words in their appropriate contexts and with an understood connotation allows students to see how each of these so-called synonyms would serve a strikingly different purpose.

Scent, fragrance, and aroma all have a generally positive connotation. Scent and fragrance are more frequently used when describing non-food items like flowers, perfume, natural surroundings, etc. Aroma differs slightly in that it often denotes a combination of smells, like a laundry room’s aroma of fresh cotton, rain, and rose petals, for example. Odor, conversely, typically has a negative connotation. You wouldn’t likely want to describe someone’s cooking by saying that it has a “unique odor.” Something with an odor is usually deemed smelly, stinky or unpleasant. So, even the simple practice of matching scenarios to their most appropriate terms helps middle schoolers to begin to see the value in vocabulary. Words are much more than their definitions; they allow speakers and writers to specify more precisely depending on the context or situation.

Teach using synonym/antonym games: Another method to help prompt middle schoolers to step outside of their everyday language boxes involves a modified skit from the game show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Have students sit in a circle. Explain that students will go from person to person saying essentially the same phrase, “I feel happy.” The catch, however, is that students must replace the word happy with a new synonym each time. If a student cannot think of a new synonym for the initial emotion, he or she is eliminate from the circle. After a while, switch from synonyms to antonyms. For instance, students would respond to “I feel happy” with “I feel…sad, forlorn, melancholy, depressed, low, glum, gloomy, blue, unhappy, negative, sullen, etc. The key here is for students to begin to see the vastness of their options for expressing and expanding upon a simple emotion such as “happy.”

Encourage the use of expressive words in student writing: Once vocabulary instruction is solidly underway, begin to track overused, misused, or “elementary-level” terms in student writing. Prompt students to be more specific when saying that they “went” somewhere. Perhaps they moseyed to the store; strolled to the store; travelled to the store; wandered to the store; meandered to the store; rushed to the store. Again, the point is for students to see the plethora of options at their disposal when writing or speaking. The more they practice, the more equipped they’ll be to say precisely what they mean.

 

Mindset Matters: Growth Mindset for the Middle Schooler

Growth mindset, a common buzzword in the education world right now, is a research-based belief system that has the ability to drastically change adolescents’ perceptions of themselves as learners. I would argue that growth mindset is even more important for children to explore during the middle school years. Why? Well, the entire concept of growth mindset involves challenging our notions of ourselves—something that middle schoolers are already grappling with daily on a social-emotional level. Intellectually-speaking, growth mindset centers around a belief system that intellect, ability, achievement, and motivation are not only interconnected, but fluid—that is, we can grow our brains and abilities by using deliberate and beneficial strategies and thought processes.

For middle schoolers, this concept can be extremely life-changing. Consider typical responses from middle schoolers when confronted with a challenge, setback, or failure:

“I’m just no good at this. I never will be.”

“I’d rather just do something easy so that I know I’ll do it right.”

“If something is too difficult, I’d rather give up than exert effort and still fail.”

“My best will never be as good as some other person’s best.”

“If I have to work really hard at something, it must mean that I’m bad at it.”

“I don’t have a math brain. I’m good at English, but math isn’t my thing no matter how hard I try.”

These unfortunately common thoughts and comments are very prevalent in the middle school classroom. Students who have not been exposed to growth mindset truly believe that intelligence is primarily fixed—we are either born smart or not. The danger behind a fixed mindset is that it is essentially like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adolescents’ negative beliefs about themselves as learners inevitably show up in their actions, almost as a self-sabotaging belief system. To combat this, middle schoolers must begin to see the learning process as exactly that—a process.

Encourage middle schoolers to take risks. As opposed to sticking with their known talents or remaining always in their comfort zones, push students to go for the challenge. Whether the challenge is academic, social, or athletic, middle school is the time for children to explore new and unfamiliar tasks or concepts. The key to stepping outside of our comfort zone is that it teaches us about how to improve our weaknesses while capitalizing on our strengths. Trying something new or difficult is not about immediate perfection—adolescents need to embrace the failure and missteps because that is where the learning happens. We grow, not when something comes easy to us, but when we succeed through the difficult aspects of a new skill.

Teach middle schoolers how to use failure as an opportunity to learn something about themselves. This practice involves open dialogue and honest feedback. One essential aspect of growth mindset is that criticism or feedback should not be taken as an insult. When reviewing a teacher’s or peer’s feedback on an essay, help adolescents to understand that the critiques should not be taken defensively. The aim of feedback is to praise areas of strength and assist in areas of need, with the end goal always being student improvement.   

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons of growth mindset for middle schoolers is the fact that we should not measure our own successes against the successes or failures of others. Why is this so difficult? We’ve all experienced the competitive, and sometimes downright judgmental moments during our adolescence. So, it should come as no surprise that middle schoolers are always comparing themselves to their peers. Stress the fact that one person’s success does not discredit your own. If a friend or peer does better on a quiz or assignment, do not internalize that as your own failure by comparison. Instead, help teens to realize that they can learn something from their peers—and that they, too, will be sought out for help at some point.

 

Pre-Back to School Advice: For Middle Schoolers

Middle school may be referred to as the awkward or “lost years” for the majority of people. I not-so-fondly remember my own middle school years as confusing, intimidating, and all-around stressful. Good, bad, or ugly, these mystifying years are truly transformative for young people, which could be why I’ve ended up working in the middle school classroom as an adult. In addition to the physiological and hormonal changes going on for this age group, middle school itself is a transition socially, academically, and emotionally.

Middle school, for most students, means leaving the elementary school nest and entering an entirely new school day model. Not only are the peers new, but the entire concept of the school day is much different from elementary school—lockers, subject-area teachers, different classrooms for each content, an increase in homework—all of these things make for an exciting and anxious transition. Since the start of a new school year can bring stress in addition to the excitement, middle school parents can put a few practices into place towards the end of the summer to allay the nerves and ensure a smooth start.

  • During the final two weeks of summer, parents should begin to set up a more consistent sleep schedule for their middle schoolers. This schedule should fall closely in line with the school year sleep and wake time. Some families may wait to readjust the sleep schedule until the week before; however, that may not be enough time for children to fully adapt to the new sleep/wake time. 
  • In addition to getting an adequate amount of sleep, middle schoolers need to have restful, uninterrupted sleep. A tough, but very effective way to ensure that your preteen is getting quality sleep is to remove the standard distractions. Your child may be vehemently opposed to this at first, but consider making phones and other screens off limits during sleep time. This is a great way to ensure that late night scrolling, texting, or gaming does not interfere with the rest that is essential for middle schoolers.
  • The agenda book is a little-known life saver when it comes to tracking assignments, due dates, and other obligations. Many schools issue agendas free of charge, but if not, definitely purchase a weekly planner for your child. Nowadays, there are online homework forums like Edline, Google classroom, and Blackboard; however, the agenda book is the surefire way to ensure that homework is accounted for and completed. Teachers are not always capable of posting or attaching digital documents or reminders for homework on a daily basis. For this reason, the agenda is your best option. This practice also promotes self-advocacy and responsibility; students that write down each assignment are engaged and aware of the tasks. The agenda also helps middle schoolers to begin prioritizing based on how their week at school is looking. Talk with your child about the importance of writing down ALL assignments with details about deadlines and any other vital information. It may also help to arrange a homework buddy system with peers in the neighborhood—stress from forgotten assignments or absences can be alleviated by a simple text or visit from a homework buddy.
  • Discuss the importance of eating a healthy breakfast and a substantial lunch during the school day. Because of growth spurts, hormonal changes, busy schedules, etc., preteens and teens need to maintain nutritious eating habits to keep up with their bodies’ needs. Hunger can increase fatigue and irritability while decreasing motivation and concentration—not ideal for student success. Plan easy, nutritious snacks that your middle schooler can store in his locker for between classes. A water bottle can also come in handy to keep children hydrated throughout the long school day.
  • Since most schools are handling lunch funds through online accounts, it doesn’t hurt to plan to put a little money in your middle schooler’s cafeteria account as a backup plan, even if she is a preferred packer. We all know that the mornings can be hectic—kids oversleep, someone is sick, lunches get left in the car/bus/refrigerator—you get the picture. A little back-up lunch money can ease the stress of forgetting to pack lunch for both you and your child. Visit your school’s website to find more information for loading and account or prepaying for the beginning of the school year.
  • Encourage small literacy practices in the evening hours to get a jumpstart on the larger reading assignments that your middle schooler will have. Begin with 30 minutes of silent reading or journaling and build from there. The intent is to acclimate your middle schooler to the idea of downtime so that they aren’t jarred from the three months of summer freedom. Even a small amount of time can prepare students for the structure of nightly homework. Help encourage this practice by doing your own silent reading or journaling while your child is reading. Unless typing or research is involved, limit your middle schooler’s use of technology or screen time to promote good study habits.