Top 10 skills middle school students need to thrive, and how parents can help

In elementary school, I was too shy to address my teachers by name. I would hover nearby, hoping they would realize I had a question. I also was the new girl, and the existing cliques seemed impenetrable. To make matters worse, I was a late reader and had difficulty articulating half the alphabet. Family members would euphemistically say I was just “slow out of the gate.” I had my work cut out for me.

By middle school, I was ready to throw myself into the mix. It wasn’t always pretty. I got tossed out of classes for giggling uncontrollably. I navigated earning my first “D” and getting demoted in math. I had a knack for choosing overly dramatic and bossy friends, and I accidentally dyed my hair brassy orange. I agreed to go to a school dance with a boy, only to panic when I realized this involved actually going to a dance with a boy. I got busted for passing notes in class and for finishing overdue homework in the girls’ bathroom.

On the plus side, I figured out how to connect with teachers, and I learned I could solve math problems when I made an effort. I discovered that books kindled my imagination and provided a mental escape. Sports played a useful role too, allowing me to burn off excess energy and improve my focus. I shifted social groups more than a few times. Overall, it was the typical junior high experience, one I relive frequently as a middle school counselor and as the parent of kids in the seventh and eighth grade. Long before social emotional learning became a buzzword in education circles, I was stumbling along, acquiring self-awareness and problem-solving skills.

There is no manual to develop “soft” skills like perseverance and resilience. Just as I did, most kids learn through trial and error. As parents, our quest to protect our children can be at odds with their personal growth. It can feel counter-intuitive, but we mainly need to take a step back. I have come to believe that certain social-emotional skills are particularly useful as kids navigate middle school and beyond. Here are my top 10 skills, and ways parents can help without getting in the way.

Top 10 Social Emotional Skills For Middle School Students

1. Make good friend choices. This typically comes on the heels of making some questionable choices. Kids figure out quickly which friends instill a sense of belonging and which ones make them feel uncomfortable. It can be helpful to ask your children these questions: Do you have fun and laugh with this person? Can you be yourself? Is there trust and empathy? Common interests are a bonus.

2. Work in teams and negotiate conflict. I don’t think many students get through middle school without feeling like they had to carry the load on at least one group project. Maybe they didn’t delegate and divide the work effectively at the onset. Perhaps they chose to take ownership to avoid a poor grade. Help them understand what happened and consider what they might have done differently.

3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch. Unless there is abuse or discrimination, don’t bail them out by asking for a teacher change. Tell them they still can learn from a teacher they don’t like. Let them know it’s a chance to practice working with someone they find difficult. Remind them that if they can manage the situation, they won’t feel powerless or helpless the next time. Focus on concrete barriers to success in the class, not the interpersonal conflict. Is it miscommunication? Study skills?

4. Create organization and homework systems. Make sure they are the architects of this process. Encourage them to come up with solution-oriented plans and tweak them as needed. Do they need to use their planner? Create a checklist? Their motivation will come from ownership. If they say they don’t care, remind them that they don’t have to be invested in a particular outcome in order to change their behavior. People who hate exercise can still choose to lift weights.

5. Monitor and take responsibility for grades. If you care more than they do about their grades, why should they worry? Let them monitor their own grades, and if they don’t do well, don’t step in to advocate for assignment extensions or grade changes. Let them carry the burden and experience the connection between preparation, organization and grades.  Conversely, if they are perfectionists, they will learn they can survive and manage the disappointment of a low grade.

6. Learn to self-advocate. By middle school, they should be learning how to ask teachers for help or clarification. This may be in person or through email. When students bond with teachers, they connect more intimately with the material too. Unless there is no other option, try not to reach out on their behalf.

7. Self-regulate emotions. Children often need assistance labeling strong emotions before they can regulate them. Help your kids identify any physical symptoms that accompany their stressors. This may help them know when to take a breath or hit the “pause” button before reacting. In real time, point out when they handle an emotional situation well. Discuss the strategy they implemented—maybe they took a break or listened to music. Also, help them make connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Are they stuck in all-or-nothing thinking? Are they consistently self-critical?

8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations. When your children are fired up about something, run with it and encourage exploration. Seize the opportunity to help them go deep. Get books, go to museums and be supportive even if the subject does not excite you. In the process, you will help them figure out what drives them. On the other hand, it is okay if they struggle in a specific area. That too is useful information. No one needs to be good at everything.

9. Make responsible, safe and ethical choices. Teach them to respect their bodies, and to make safe and healthy decisions. It is equally important to talk about how to avoid putting others at risk. Have open conversations and discuss plans for different scenarios they may encounter. Try not to be overly reactive if they ask shocking or distressing questions. Keep the lines of communication open.

 10. Create and innovate. Our changing world needs imaginative creators and divergent thinkers. It also can build confidence to think independently and outside the box. As your kids do their homework, read required texts and take standardized tests, remind them that these benchmarks are not the only ways to measure success. Encourage them to make connections across material from different classes, and to build, write, invent and experiment.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.

10 lazy ways to intellectually stimulate your kids

Everyone says kids are like sponges. Because they’re germy and start to smell really bad unless you wash them well with hot water and soap. Also, because their little minds are growing and expanding at approximately twice the rate of the average American waistline, and that’s saying something. But before you get out the flashcards, and by “get out,” I mean “purchase for the first time,” why not see if one of these more lackadaisical approaches can serve equally well to stimulate your little one’s synaptic growth?

  1. Learn a new language. One good one is “slang from the 90’s.” Girl, that picture you drew is fly! Don’t hate on your sister, Madison. Learning that words have double meanings and that grammar is fluid can really enhance your child’s cognitive flexibility.
  2. Play tic tac toe. Yes, you can always win, but that’s the point. Always losing teaches your child humility, grace, and good sportsmanship — what?  How did you do that? Oh my God, now my four-year-old can beat me at tic tac toe. Before I had kids I was an intellectual powerhouse, I swear.
  3. Learn sign language together. Don’t worry, I’m sure you know some already. Like “Whatever” and “bye bye.” And “birdie.” Yes, I’m sure that’s “birdie.” What do you mean you Googled it and it’s “washing machine?” How depressing.
  4. Use math in real life. Yes, kids, math is super important. Like now, when I have to figure out how much money we can afford to spend on Mommy getting her hair done. It’s our monthly income minus our mortgage, minus our electric bills, minus the car repair bill, minus… you know what, let’s do science instead. Which brings us to…
  5. Baking soda and vinegar volcanos. No, I don’t know why. But I know they work because they can unclog your shower drain. There must be something you can talk about, with pressure, or gravity, or acid, I don’t know. Work with me.
  6. Create modern art. The key word is “modern.” There are no rules here, friend. Just do what you feel. Yes, two scribbles on a piece of paper is art, and it is stimulating your child’s brain like nobody’s business.
  7. Sculpt. Create a three-dimensional figure using only clay? What a wunderkind. No, dear, this thing here isn’t called “a cylinder made out of Play-Doh,” it’s called “pottery that allows your creativity to flourish without us even leaving the house, for the second day in a row.”
  8. Practice self-defense. Physical activity creates new connections in the brain and so does hand to hand combat. So stop telling on your brother for kicking the back of your seat, and go all Krav Maga on his butt. Here’s a YouTube tutorial you can watch on the iPad while I look at Pinterest on my computer.
  9. Guessing games. I’m thinking of an animal that starts with G and has a long neck. What do you mean, “turtle?” What are they teaching you in that Montessori school anyway?
  10. Geography. A cynic may just call this “Where did Mommy leave the car again?” but really it teaches map skills, geography, resilience, and grit. Especially when you’re walking around the parking lot for 25 minutes in the drizzle with a mother who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and you don’t even have a snack bag of Goldfish. Navy SEALS, here you come, son. Thank me later.

Samantha Rodman is the author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Rodman is a licensed psychologist, founder of DrPsychMom.comand a happily married mother of three.

Valentine’s Day books for kids (and parents)

It’s almost time for kids to choose a box of valentines, address them to each classmate and deliver them to desktop mailboxes. Before the big day, though, grab one of these books and spend some heartfelt time reading together with your littlest loved ones.

Here Comes Valentine Cat, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda

The cat isn’t in the mood for the fun of Valentine’s Day. For one, Cat doesn’t have a friend to make a card for. Making matters worse, a new neighbor has moved in Dog. Soon, bones are flying over the fence and hitting Cat in the head. Can these two be friends? Throughout the story, a narrator converses with Cat and asks questions. Cat’s answers are sometimes revealed in signs he holds up, like a not-so-sweet valentine created by Cat for Dog: “Roses are Red/Violets are Blue/Who’s the Worst Neighbor?/I think it’s You!”

Cat’s facial expressions perfectly mimic those of a toddler’s and are captured within a pleasing soft-palette of ink and color pencil drawings. Wry humor and a twist ending make this book a charmer.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.39.51 PM

I Love You Already! by Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies

Duck really wants to spend the day with his neighbor, Bear. Bear, though, really wants to spend the day alone, lounging around in his robe, with a cup of tea. Can Duck pester his friend enough to get him to play with him? He gives it his best shot, offering all the ways Bear will like him more if he just goes for a walk with him. Bear tells him he likes him “already.” Says Duck: “I’m not taking no for an answer, Bear. We’re having fun, whether you want to or not.” Bear’s response: “Ugh.” Throughout the day, Duck keeps asking for reassurance that Bear likes him.

The fast-paced interplay between the relentless Duck and curmudgeon-like Bear translates to a lively and humorous story complemented by richly drawn illustrations that precisely represent each character’s personality. Kids will want to read this again and again, and will look forward to the pair’s next adventure.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.39.58 PM

Mr. Goat’s Valentine, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kevin Zimmer

Mr. Goat needs to buy a gift for Valentine’s Day — something special for his “first love.” That “something special,” though, turns out to be a little unusual. First stop for his gift: Miss Nanny Goat’s weed stall. He places his order: “Crabgrass, pigweeds, and ragweed in that nice, rusty can. They are for my first love. She’s fond of ragweed salad.”

Mr. Goat continues creating the perfect gift — perfect for a yucky-food-loving goat, that is — until the end when we get to see who his first love is. There’s just the right amount of eww factor in the gift ingredients to make kids laugh, and readers will be surprised to find out who the gift-recipient is. Along the way, bright and bold illustrations provide plenty of reasons to capture the attention of those who enjoy a sillier, less sappy take on Valentine’s Day.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.40.03 PM

Ollie’s Valentine, by Olivier Dunrea

The adorable Ollie, known for his adventures with his fellow gosling friends, is on a search. It seems everyone except him has received a valentine: “Gertie gave it to me!” says Gossie, holding a silver foil heart. “BooBoo gave it to me!” says Gertie, clutching a red heart. And so on. But who will be Ollie’s valentine? A surprise mirror on the last page holds the answer.

The colorful foil hearts incorporated into the watercolor drawings add an enticing texture that kids will want to rub their fingers over. It’s all wrapped up in a sturdy board book format, making it a perfect gift for a little one.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 5.40.09 PM

Love from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

Everyone’s favorite caterpillar is back in this gem of a book. Sized for little hands, this small book speaks directly to tykes, telling them why they are special. The first pages contain the words “You are …” and feature whimsical floating hearts, setting the stage for the rest of the tale. The next pages read “… so sweet” and show the caterpillar making its way through a strawberry. Next is “… the cherry on my cake,” followed by more sentiments. Parents will enjoy taking their time reading the very few but impactful words and soaking up the vibrant collaged artwork that sends a warm message.

Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her atmiageiger.com and @MiaGeiger.