IvyWise Resources

Essential Skills for Middle Schoolers to Prepare for High School and College

By an IvyWise WiseStart™ Counselor

Middle school may seem like a long way off from college, but it will be time to send your student off on their own before you know it. While the middle school years may be too early to start diving into the deep end of college prep, they are still a formative time to establish foundational skills such as executive functioning and self-advocacy, which can help your student succeed in high school, college, and the professional world.

Executive Functioning Skills

The transition from middle school to high school shocks and surprises some students as academic demands increase and courses become more challenging. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see grades dip in early high school as students navigate individual schedules and more demanding courses. A typical high school student takes about five to six classes each semester, meaning there are at least five teachers each with different teaching styles, expectations, and deadlines for students to keep track of. Working adults usually have only one boss, so it’s easy to see why some students can quickly become overwhelmed without a plan. This is why early college prep is so important.

To help students stay on track from the start of high school, it’s crucial that they develop skills such as executive functioning early in their academic careers – we recommend beginning to practice these skills as early as middle school. Executive functioning is “the management system of the brain.” It is the group of skills that allow students to establish structure, set goals, and stay on task. Appropriately developed executive functioning skills permit students to pay attention, organize, plan and set priorities, start tasks and see them through, regulate their emotions, self-monitor, and even understand different points of view.

Students can start to build upon these skills as early as middle school in order to prepare for high school and the college admissions process later down the road. Establishing strong executive functioning skills early will ultimately lead to independence – a key component in your child’s academic and personal journey.

Early Independence

While parents may find it easier to act as their student’s executive function voice, dictating instructions 24/7, they should refrain from doing so and instead empower their student to become more independent. As a parent, ask your student questions that will help them figure out a plan on their own. For example, how can you approach this task? What do you need to do first to accomplish your goal? What resources are available to help you complete your task or goal? Instructing your student what to do, rather than asking them questions, prevents them from developing their own skills. You also risk sending the wrong message that they are incapable of figuring things out independently.

Additionally, encourage your student to ask self-reflective questions. How did that plan work out? What worked or didn’t work well? What do I need to do differently next time? How can I get back on track? These self-reflective questions allow students to stop, slow down, and check in with themselves. Students with well-developed executive functioning skills often feel calmer and less stressed in high school and college, allowing them to work to their fullest potential. They also report an increased level of self-awareness that can help them develop another important foundational skill: self-advocacy.

Self-Advocacy in Middle School

When I reflect on my middle school years, I remember feeling self-conscious, shy, and unsure about asking for any kind of help. I was afraid of looking unintelligent or embarrassed in front of my peers and teachers. These feelings are not uncommon in middle school, and it is common for students in this age group to avoid asking for help when they need it. Students need to ask for help when a problem arises to avoid falling behind as class material builds.

Self-advocacy in students starts with self-awareness and understanding their strengths and weaknesses. It’s knowing when they don’t understand something, when and how to ask for help, and what resources they have available for assistance. It also involves understanding their own needs, which is why asking self-reflective questions is crucial.

Good Teacher-Student Relationships

Teachers are often the first individuals students should turn to for help, whether that be before, during, or after class or school. While approaching teachers in-person can build student confidence and independence, students should also feel comfortable sending an email. For some, this is a less nerve-wracking way to ease into a conversation with a teacher and develop confidence. As aforementioned, some students feel anxious or awkward when approaching a teacher and avoid doing so out of stress or fear, but encouraging students to view teachers as their allies often helps alleviate those concerns. Teachers don’t aim to fail their students; instead, they want all their students to succeed.

Students often think they should only approach a teacher when they have a bad grade or don’t understand a concept taught in class. While these situations are certainly reasons to ask for help, students should contact their teacher anytime something isn’t working out in class. Are they experiencing technological issues? Are there challenging dynamics in group work? Are they struggling to juggle multiple deadlines for different classes? For students with learning differences, does the teacher need a reminder of their accommodations and learning strategies that work best for them? If classroom performance is being negatively impacted by someone or something, encourage your student to bring it to the teacher’s attention. As a parent, you can even role play with your student so they are comfortable going into those conversations with their teachers. The student-teacher relationship is a partnership, but a teacher can’t lend assistance if students don’t play their role and voice their needs and concerns.

Executive functioning and self-advocacy skills can serve to support students throughout their academic and professional careers and in their personal lives, but it is crucial to start early. Building these skills in the middle school years allows students to have positive academic experiences in high school and college. At IvyWise, our team of counselors and executive functioning coaches can help students develop these skills at the right time. For more information on how we can help you with skills coaching through tutoring, contact us today.

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