Tears at homework time. Again. Middle school can be tough—bigger schools, bigger workloads—and maybe even the pressure of keeping up with math classes that can affect high school math placement. Parents tell us that simply asking, “Do you have any homework tonight?” can be enough to trigger a meltdown in their kids.
Middle School = Changes
Is it just that middle school is a fraught time? Let’s not forget the seismic social-emotional transitions also happening. In addition to puberty and friendship changes, adolescent brains are still in development, too. Middle schoolers have trouble with impulse control and focus, said Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover.
This means parents face a one-two punch when it comes to helping their child get their homework and studying done on time and without resistance.
But there’s hope. “It’s a really rich time in terms of their brain being a sponge,” said Tinnie Salzano, the assistant head of middle school at Ravenscroft, a private school in Raleigh, NC. “Middle school is the perfect time to develop these habits that will help them throughout their academic career. Their brains are ripe.”
Practical Ways to Help
Homework may not be at the top of your child’s priority list, particularly when middle school offers new activities, athletics or social opportunities. Sometimes it will be simple and fun, but most times homework is just another task a kid must get done instead of playing video games or hanging with friends. It’s up to mom and dad to help their child set up the structure to get it all done.
Here are six smart study skill tips for middle schoolers:
1. Rate the subjects—and build in breaks. Talk with your child about which subjects are easiest and which are most difficult, says Kimberly Ewing, Ravenscroft’s middle school academic skills instructor. Once they know how they’re going to attack the work ahead of them, make a checklist.
“Start with the hardest. They can set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and take a break, and then they can transition to that not-so-tough academic content area,” Ewing explains.
2. Keep them in their seats—with goodies. As they work, Icard recommends allowing them something fun at their desk or offering an incentive to push them forward on their studies. Maybe it’s a bottle of polish to paint a nail or two as they complete assignments or time on Fortnite once they finish math. When her kids were younger, she used to set up a buffet with bowls of different flavored gum. “They could have fun unwrapping and chomping on the gum,” she says, “but still doing work.”
3. Make (non-boring!) study guides. Using homework questions or textbooks as prompts, parents can help kids make their own study guides on subjects where they need an extra boost, says Ewing. Websites like Quizlet or Kahoot also make it easy for parents and students to customize online games that are both relevant to their own school work—and fun.
“It becomes a game,” Salzano says, “but it’s also a great way to review.”
4. Highlight. Who doesn’t love a new pack of markers? Teach them to highlight and annotate the most important sections of the text they are reading. In an article on brain development, for instance, they don’t need to highlight “brain” each time they read it. Instead, they should be highlighting the key points on the subject. The goal is to home in on and connect the critical details in the text for better learning.
5. Get a planner. Kids may prefer to download an organizational app for their smartphone to keep all their assignments and deadlines in order. But Salzano recommends a physical planner where they write down homework assignments, extracurricular activities, project due dates, and even their sister’s birthday. (Hint: It’s more fun for middle schoolers if they get to shop for a planner that they love the look of.)
“We know, and research says, that the process of using your hand to write something down helps kids remember it,” Salzano says. “It’s like a second exposure to information.”
6. Assess, then look ahead. At the end of each week, take some time to talk to your child about how things went at school and what’s coming up. “Look at your student’s planner, know what’s coming up, and ask how you can help,” says Salzano.
The goal, of course, is to get the best study skills you can with the least amount of drama and nagging. Sometimes that means outside help. Homework battles can wreak havoc on an entire family. While we all want to be there for our kids and help them through difficult situations, taking emotions out of the equation can make all the difference.
Instead of fighting with your child each night about finishing a project or stressing about not understanding the math homework, academic coaches and tutors at organizations like Sylvan Learning can provide outside support. By acting as a neutral third party, parents can support their child in a more effective way while the student learns skills they can use for the rest of their lives.
Bonus: With any luck, that means a return to peaceful evenings at home, too.
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a longtime journalist and freelance writer specializing in parenting, personal finance, health and entrepreneurship topics.