PEP Blog


Middle School Matters: 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond

By Paige Trevor

Middle School is full of angst, for our kids and for us! As parents, we are suddenly filled with self-doubt. Should I stay involved and continue to volunteer at school? Do I chaperone field trips — my kid LOVED that in 3rd grade? Alternatively, do I totally back-off and give them lots of space? Are sleepovers okay if I haven’t met the parents? What about devices and social media? How much homework help do I give them? Are they lazy? What is normal, and what is a red flag?

Fortunately, help is on the way! Phyllis Fagell, a middle school counselor at the Sheridan School and frequent contributor to The Washington Post, is the author of a new book, Middle School Matters, The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond–and How Parents Can Help. Next Tuesday, November 19th, I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming Phyllis to PEP’s online Noted Parenting Author Series. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Phyllis and ask a few questions, and I hope you’ll join me on November 19th to ask some of your own!

Paige: How do we maintain the delicate balance of being involved and letting go when our kids hit middle school?

Phyllis: Parents get mixed messages from teachers and parenting experts, and our kids send mixed signals. When they were two and would declare, “I do it myself,” we stayed nearby and were directive. When it comes to a science fair project, for example, a middle schooler might say, “I need you” while at the same time sending the message, “I’ve got this, I don’t need you, back off” When our kids are in middle school, we still have to be available, but we can’t be as directive. Middle schoolers have a developmental need to feel capable while at the same time having autonomy.

Paige: How do we handle phones/devices/screens? 

Phyllis: Don’t be afraid of being the bad guy. I restricted my now 18-year-old from a popular social media platform when he was in middle school. At the time, he was not grateful, though he has since come back and thanked me, “It would have been a giant time suck and saved me from a lot of drama.”

Parents can ask the question, “What need is the device meeting?” Does it give access to a certain peer group? Is there another way to be connected with the peer group, such as meeting in person?

When it comes to things like posting on social media and texting, parents should be very clear with middle-schoolers that we will be spot-checking, and making sure they are using platforms respectfully. Here’s some language, “We will check, not because we want to shame you or punish you, but because we expect you to make mistakes and we want to be there with you to figure out a way to use this tool responsibly, safely and kindly.”

Paige: You suggest 10 essential skills that kids need to thrive in middle school. What if I don’t have all of the 10 skills? 

Phyllis: Self-awareness is key, and there is no shame in getting support or taking a class. Middle school parents can suddenly feel isolated, so do what you can to find a community. Grow alongside your child and be authentic with them; notice what they are good at and where you struggle, “I love how you take risks and try out for the school shows. I get so nervous when I’m doing a presentation at work.” In any healthy relationship, we learn from each other’s mistakes and growth edges.

Paige: How can we expect kids to have executive function skills if their brain isn’t fully developed until their mid-20’s?

Phyllis: It’s true, a 6th grader doesn’t have executive function skills. Parents will often say to me, “My kids are lazy; they won’t do their homework.” I reply, “No, they aren’t lazy, they just don’t have the ability to plan.” We need to provide kids in this age group with a tremendous amount of scaffolding. For example, when a child isn’t doing well in a class, they may have no idea how to rectify the problem. A parent might intuitively suggest, “go in and talk to your teacher,” but that requires planning and asking for help, which can be overwhelming to a middle school child. To help, we might decide together to email the teacher; the progression might look something like this:

  • The first time: The parent writes the email with the child’s help, the child specifies what exactly they are confused about or where they need help.
  • The second time: The child writes the email with the help of the parent. In their supporting role, the parent might ensure proper salutations and correct grammar.
  • The third time: The student independently writes and sends the email.

After this, we can hope that the child will begin to self-advocate, but it’s wise to stay available and check-in!

Paige: Why did you write this book about this particular age group?

Phyllis: There are several reasons. First, I found a lack of resources for parents in this age group; the topic has been overlooked. Second, I wanted to explore best practices and the research that does exist. Finally, I wanted to give parents and schools a common language while framing this age group more positively. I want middle schoolers to be seen for who they are, a distinct age group of neither small children nor teenagers.

Join me next Tuesday, November 19th, to learn how we can successfully navigate this new, exciting, and possibly confusing parenting terrain. For details about PEP’s Noted Parenting Author Series and to register for our talk with Phyllis Fagell, visit PEPparent.org.

Paige Trevor is a Certified Parent Educator with PEP. This article is excerpted with permission from Paige’s blog at Balancing Act LLC


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