Simple tips to ease this complex academic transition
It may be tempting to give your child more space while they are perfecting the fine art of eye rolling and refusing to be seen with you in public.
We often see parents become less involved in their kids’ day-to-day lives during middle school.
But in reality, your middle school student needs you as a parent. Middle school is one of the most unsettling transition periods for kids.
You are in the best position to provide the direction, love and sacrifice needed to guide your child into the teenage years and adulthood.
Here’s how you can help your child transition to middle school academics with greater ease, focusing on 3 critical success areas:
- Developing organizational skills
- Reading and writing fluently
- Becoming proficient in math skills
Organizational skills: A challenge for the whole family
Organization and time-management skills become really important in middle school … and most tweens struggle with them.
That nurturing environment of elementary school?
Adjusting to the rigors of middle school will take students some time to get used to. In addition, they will likely go from period to period with different teachers who have their own way of doing things.
“Built-in structures go away in middle school,” explains Emily Levitt, Vice President of Education at Sylvan.
“Each teacher has different rules for organization of and handing in work. Trying to adapt from one system to several can be overwhelming for many students.”
Not to mention, your child may be juggling choir, basketball and other activities.
Soon, you may find yourself permanently attached to the driver’s seat of your car, shuttling your child to more activities than ever before.
(Middle school life affects the whole family!)
Most kids are not born with organization and time-management skills. They need to learn these skills from an adult. And there’s an art to it.
“You can’t just say, ‘You need to be organized,’” Levitt says. “You have to show kids what you mean.”
Keep in mind, your child’s brain—specifically, the frontal lobe—is still forming during adolescence. This under-developed part of the brain is what’s in charge of planning, working memory and making decisions. With that in mind, Levitt recommends putting things in perspective.
“Don’t get too frustrated with your disorganized middle schooler. Your child is normal.”
How to help your middle schooler with organization:
- Sit down with your child to set expectations and prep them for what’s coming: “School is going to get more challenging this year. Let’s talk about what to expect and how you’re going to handle it.”
- Tour the campus before school begins—if your school district is open this fall and the middle school offers an open house—to make the transition less overwhelming.
- Make a map of the school with your child and mark your child’s schedule on the map.
- Take a “show and tell” approach to getting your child organized, meaning you first show your kids how to do a task. Then, you gradually take the training wheels off and have them do tasks themselves. For example, lay everything out on the table that needs to go in your child’s backpack: notebooks, lunch, field trip money, water, etc. Have your child put everything in their backpack. Do this for several weeks. Then, have your child take on these tasks independently. (Yes, this approach takes longer, but the long-term results are worth it!)
- Use the same approach to ensure homework assignments are done if your child is struggling with this responsibility. Check that assignments are done every few nights. Then, after a few months, give your child more independence and stop checking on homework completion.
- Know what’s going on in school and due dates for homework, projects and other learning tasks. That way, when you ask your child, “What big projects do you have coming up next week?” you’ll be able to check whether your child is on top of their workload.
- Show your child how to organize binders, set up assignment calendars and use an academic planner. (Need a little help? Scroll down for our free guide: “Eliminate the Sunday Night Homework Panic.”)
- Let your child advocate for themselves, such as if they disagree with a grade or they need to chat with a school advisor about any social issues.
- Model the behaviors you want from your child and make sure you aren’t sending mixed messages. Are you setting a good example? For example, do you arrive on time? Keep appointments? Strive for excellence in your work? Try to improve? Show respect to those in positions of importance?
Eliminate the Sunday Night Homework Panic
For 5, easy-to-use time management and organization tools, get our popular “Eliminate the Sunday Night Homework Panic” guide here. You’ll discover how to help your teen take control of assignments & become a master of their own schedule.
Reading and writing: They’re about to get tougher
In middle school, the expectations for reading and writing become much more sophisticated.
Ronda Arking, Director of Language Arts at Sylvan, shares, “Kids are expected to read novels and keep up. They have to be able to express themselves in writing and think critically about what they read. They’re going to be writing longer pieces than they’re used to writing.”
“This means your child has to be 100% fluent in reading and writing.”
If kids are distracted, lack confidence, or are struggling with reading or writing, they’re going to fall behind faster and faster. By the end of middle school in the United States:
- Two-thirds of 8th graders read below grade level.
- Three-quarters of 8th graders are not proficient in writing. (Source: NAEP)
Imagine how much more challenging high school/secondary school, college/university and careers will be for them!
Often times, kids are embarrassed and will try to hide their skill deficiencies. This means you need to be a detective and look for clues.
To find these clues, it’s important to read with your child—whether for homework or just for pleasure—and take advantage of the following tips.
How to help your middle schooler with reading and writing:
1. Ask your child to summarize chapters in their own words.
2. Talk about key vocabulary words used in the reading material.
3. Show your child how to use a dictionary.
4. Encourage your child to read every day.
5. Support your child in keeping a journal. Daily writing fosters more confidence.
6. Set a good example and model the behaviors you want from your child. For example, turn off your electronic devices during dinner or family time, or whenever you’re trying to connect. Read a book or write a note or journal entry.
7. Ensure there’s a dedicated place for studying. Have your child find a quiet, uncluttered space in your home where it’s more comfortable to do homework and it’s a good environment for focusing.
8. Let the teacher know if your child is crying or struggling every night over reading or writing assignments. Write a note and let the teacher know, “My child didn’t understand x, y, z. What are our options?” (Don’t do the homework for your child. The teacher will never know there’s an issue, and you’ll unintentionally create even bigger struggles later in the year.)
9. Attend parent/teacher conferences. Ask: “Do you see any red flags or areas where my child is struggling?” Gather as much info as you can, and discuss your options.
Math: One skill builds on the next, so there isn’t room for gaps
New math concepts will be introduced throughout the middle school years, including algebraic concepts. But in order to be able to master those concepts, kids need to have a strong foundation and understanding of multiplication, division, fractions and decimals.
Math is hierarchical. One concept builds on the next.
In the United States, there’s a big drop-off in math achievement late in middle school. This is when many students are really digging into algebra.
It’s critical that you’re monitoring whether your child is mastering core math skills during the middle school years and becoming “fluent” with skills.
This means your child has developed automatic recall of math facts and has essential skills down, like being able to multiply and divide both fractions and decimals with confidence.
For some kids, this takes extra practice.
Middle school is also the time when your child will get on a math “track” that affects whether they can take calculus in high school.
Get familiar with the math tracks in your school system:
- How are students placed in math classes?
- Is there an advanced track?
- If so, what are the requirements to get into it?
Ask your child’s math teacher, guidance counselor or even other parents.
Many schools offer pre-algebra to students in grade 7. A few schools may even begin teaching pre-algebra in grade 6. Kids who have started Algebra 1 by 8th grade will have more opportunities for trigonometry and calculus in high school/secondary school—courses that can count for college/university credits.
“Make sure you are in tune with what is best for your child,” cautions Cortnee Berrill, Manager of Mathematics at Sylvan. “There’s a lot more to consider than just math skills. Does your child have the commitment and organization skills to handle these advanced classes?”
It’s important that students aren’t put into more difficult math classes prematurely, Berrill explains. Some students may struggle and give up on math. “Students who take algebra in high school can still have a successful math career.”
How to help your middle schooler with math:
1. Show an interest in math homework if your child is struggling. Ask your child to show you their math homework and explain their thinking. Encourage your child to check their work and answer the question, “Does this answer seem reasonable?”
2. Avoid saying, “Here’s how you should be doing it,” and jumping in to try to teach math. This is a fast track to tears, frustration and “That’s not how my teacher is teaching it!” Instead, position it as, “I want to learn how you’re learning math. This looks interesting. Can you show this to me?” When your child gets stuck on a problem, don’t solve it for them. Instead, ask: “What is the problem asking? Have you seen similar problems before? Are there some things you could try?” The best role you can play is to listen and learn from your child.
3. Never criticize the way a teacher is teaching the math content. Instead, ask the math teacher why they are approaching it that way. Most likely, the approach your child is learning will make algebra easier down the line. Middle school math teachers are setting the groundwork for higher-level math, even if it feels different than the memorization techniques you may have learned as a kid.
4. Focus on whether your child is mastering fundamentals when your child comes to you with questions. Check your child’s work. There are usually multiple methods to get to an answer, so it doesn’t matter if your method is different from your child’s method. But you should both get the same answer. If your answers are different, ask your child to explain what they did, and look for possible calculation errors or an incorrect process. (For example, your child may have been trying to add fractions without finding a common denominator.)
5. Identify skills that your child may be struggling with. When your child brings home a graded math assignment, review any questions that your child missed. Remember, math concepts build on each other, so it’s important to make sure your child fully understands each concept before moving onto the next one. Use all errors as opportunities to review and learn. Reward your child’s willingness to learn from mistakes.
6. Ask your child’s teacher to share their calculator policy (when a calculator should and shouldn’t be used), so you understand expectations. Calculators are an important part of math when they’re used appropriately. But it’s important to make sure your child isn’t using a calculator as a crutch to “short cut” the basic skills needed for higher-level math.
7. Let the teacher know if your child is crying or struggling every night over math assignments. Write a note and let the teacher know, “My child didn’t understand x, y, z. What are our options?” (Don’t do the homework for your child. The teacher will never know there’s an issue, and you’ll unintentionally create even bigger struggles later in the year.)
8. Attend parent/teacher conferences. Ask: “Do you see any red flags or areas where my child is struggling?” Gather as much info as you can, and discuss your options.
9. Ask for help early if you see signs of frustration or struggle. It’s much easier to keep up with class than to have to chase after the class.
Be on the lookout for warning signs of learning difficulties
This is especially important during the middle school years when the pace of school picks up, and subjects become more challenging.
Even kids who seemed to sail through elementary school can struggle in new and tougher classes.
What should you be looking for?
Your son or daughter may:
- Find math problems challenging to the point of frustration
- Avoid reading or writing like it’s green kryptonite
- Have difficulty remembering or understanding what they just read
- Have difficulty understanding and/or generalizing concepts
- Misread directions and information
- Be slow to learn reading strategies, such as summarizing text or going back to reread a section that was difficult
- Spell the same word differently in a single piece of writing
Here’s how to support your child through learning difficulties
1. Think of your child’s learning difficulties as learning differences. Your child is smart. They just learn differently from other students. It’s normal! Explain this to your child.
2. Talk to your child about their learning differences. Ask your child to think of a time when they easily understood a new topic, or really connected to a teacher’s teaching style. “What was it about that topic or teaching style that worked well for you?” You may discover that your child learns better by taking notes, or watching a video. Find ways to incorporate those strategies into other subjects as well.
3. Foster your child’s strengths, talents and interests. Give lots of praise and support your child’s efforts.
4. Monitor your child’s progress. Most schools grant parents access to their child’s account in the district’s learning management system. If you’re concerned about your child’s progress, it’s time to log in and see a record of their work. Are assignments being turned in? And on time? What do classwork grades look like? If you spot missing or late assignments, organization skills may need a boost.
If you see low classwork scores, then it’s time for a conversation with the teacher to determine the nature of the problem. Is your child distracted or unfocused during the lessons, or are they truly struggling with the content? Once you have more details, you can decide what to do next—whether it’s a request to change a seating assignment to a place with fewer distractions, or to find a tutor.
You are not alone in the journey through middle school!
For more tips and tools to make the middle school transition easier, check out Sylvan Nation’s Middle School Tips and Resources! It’s our free parent resource for navigating school.
Need more support? To explore our proven Homework Help, Personalized Tutoring or Study Skills programs, reach out to your local Sylvan center today. We’re here to help!