Middle School: Top 10 Skills Middle School Students Need to Thrive, and How Parents Can Help

Please enjoy this article published by the Washington Post:

Top 10 Skills Middle School Students Need to Thrive, and How Parents Can Help

By Phyllis L. Fagell

February 29, 2016

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 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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?


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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?


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


Mrs. Hood’s class: Matching, Blocks and Yummy Beets!


“The child that has had plenty of experience with matching work will be ready for the added cognitive step of sorting and categorization. Sorting, categorization and classification are all skills that we use when thinking and reasoning about the things we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. They help up to heighten our awareness, focus our attention and verbalize the patterns that we notice. The ability to sort and classify exercises the brain pathways that will later be used in mathematics, science and language.” – At Home with Montessori

Matching works in the toddler environment are essential. There are many reasons why. They bring about deep concentration which is calming and deeply satisfying for the child. It provides an opportunity to master a skill and through repetition they can demonstrate a mastery of that skill. When matching cards, children demonstrates they are capable of making the connection between the real item, the model item, and the pictorial representation. It provides the child the opportunity to think and reason, which may later transfer to other activities and behaviors. The child is given the opportunity to problem solve. Questioning and asking themselves with the satisfaction of finding the result – the answer.

This week we added a new matching work the children already love, which also provides movement and language. We placed big pictures of polar bears and penguins around the environment and in a bowl we gathered the same amount of pictures but in a small scale. The purpose is for the child to choose a small picture and try to find its matching one while he or she walks around the classroom. This work was prepared for our older students but we were amazed that some of our younger ones were also successful at it! It’s incredible! When matching the pictures we talk about what we see in it. New language has been introduced through it: polar bear, cub, and fur, emperor, humboldt and chinstrap penguins.

In the movement area we also introduced oversized blocks for building and imagination. Children exercise their need for maximum effort through this work. These blocks brought a lot of giggles and fun to our group playtime!

In Practical life we introduced water transferring and we have worked a lot on how to respect our water works. Children love water and these type of works bring calmness and satisfaction while strengthening their concentration skills.

For food tasting we tried beets this week and all your children loved it so much! For language we focused on: root, stem, and leaves. Feel free to pack some beets for lunch or classroom snacks. You children devoured beets! Woo hoo!

Remember that next Wednesday, February 13th, we will celebrating friendship in our class! We can’t wait to take some fun pictures and share them with you!

Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zone

This week we felt very fortunate to have extra hands in the classroom to help prepare for our Research Morning. For community service, the middle school students assisted our students with the construction of their poster boards.

As we mentioned the past two weeks, we have been incorporating research into our Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop lessons. Another change in research this year was that the children chose their own topics from any area of personal interest instead of being given a theme from within to choose a topic. As a result of these changes, we observed true authentic Montessori research at its finest.

The process the children followed after choosing their topic was tailored specifically to each child’s readiness. We guided students in their selection of informational texts and provided questions for them to answer to guide their research. Depending on readiness, each child elaborated to different levels on his or her answers to the questions. This led to the children naturally writing their research papers. In addition, each child designed his or her own display.

After this morning, the children were left feeling so empowered and confident. Even though the third years told us they were very nervous about their first oral presentation, they leaned into the discomfort and experienced a new level of poise and confidence. They should be so proud of themselves.

Upper Elementary: Ancient Civilizations


All of the hard work of the Upper Elementary students over the past month resulted in a fantastic research morning event! This work included gathering notes, transferring those notes to a slideshow format, making a miniature model of the civilization, and bringing a food from their culture to share with their guests. The collaborative slideshow was the most impressive piece I noticed among all of their responsibilities. This was because it was a first time for our level and it demonstrated collaboration, creativity and teamwork to put it all together. Congratulations, on a job well done!

Three Cheers for our Community Service Volunteers!

It is always a treat when our middle school friends come and spend time with us! Our toddlers love playing, working, and connecting with their older buddies. Our kind and patient middle schoolers love being big brothers and sisters to our toddlers.

The relationships built through this amazing program are joys to watch evolve. Outside of our scheduled times together, the middle school students often find us on the playground or in the gym and ask if they can join us. How amazing are these children? When walking in the halls, they stop and kneel down to say hello and offer to help walk us to our destination.

We love our middle school friends, and are thrilled to have yet another experience of working and learning within a multi-aged group.

Physical Education: Lower Elementary Gymnastics!

The Lower Elementary students participated in a gymnastics unit in which they experienced transfer of body weight through floor skills.  Students experienced the following apparatus: gymnastic mats for an obstacle course, a balance beam, and vaulted springboard.  They also participated in pyramid building and single balances.  A human pyramid is a formation of three or more people in which two or more support a tier of higher people.   For practical reasons, lighter people are often positioned higher while stronger/heavier people are located closer to the base.

Students also practiced jumping off a vaulted springboard.  Vaulting in gymnastics requires coordination combining running, jumping and squatting.  Students practiced jumping and landing with two feet onto the mats.  The jumps practiced were:  straight, straddle, and tuck.  Students learned that strength, flexibility, and balance they gained from gymnastics will transfer easily to every other sport they may want to pursue.  The skills learned will help them achieve success in other areas.

Ms. Kayser’s Class: Passion for Creativity

“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.” 

– Maria Montessori

In the classroom every week, our children push themselves to new and exciting heights. They have no fear in trying things they have not yet done, and are gaining a beautiful confidence that continues to grow with each passing day. One of the most amazing aspects of the Montessori classroom is the freedom for the children to choose what their heart is telling them they wish to pursue. Each day there seems to be something different calling the students into action. As their teachers, we must sit back and allow them to follow these passions and provide just enough support to be sure they are successful in their exploration.

This week the children’s creativity was beyond what we could have imagined. From the moment they walked in the door, each student was driven to something that involved a high level of concentration and artistic ability. Our continent maps are what drew the most attention from the class. Each student chose which continent they wished to recreate and spent time looking at the names of the countries and even exploring our globes to see where they were on Earth in comparison to North America. Then the children set off to trace the map on another sheet of paper; even some of our youngest students wished to trace it on their own without our assistance! Once the tracing was done, the children were able to use colored pencils or paint to color in their maps. Overall, the process was an arduous task for a three or four year old child, but their ability to sit and concentrate for that long was something that told us this was truly what was calling them that day.

As a teacher, it is a heart-warming experience to sit back and watch as the creativity and curiosity of the children flow  throughout the classroom without restriction. The children learn so much more when they are able to choose and experience their passions in the moment!

Ms. Kayser and Ms. Alli

Mrs. Hood’s Class: Little Explorers!

“Before elaborating any system of education, we must therefore create a favorable environment that will encourage the flowering of a child’s natural gifts. All that is needed is to remove the obstacles. And this should be the basis of, and point of departure for, all future education. The first thing to be done, therefore, is to discover the true nature of a child and then assist him in his normal development.”
[Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood)

It’s an honor to watch your children blooming right before our eyes! Thank you for trusting them to us!

Children continue exploring the environment and working as little busy bees throughout the morning! During this short week, we introduced asparagus for food tasting! They were quite excited to taste it. Let’s say that mostly the children politely demonstrated that their taste buds don’t agree much with asparagus. However, as they get more exposure to this food, children might start accepting it better. Let’s not give up!

Parent-Teacher Conferences are coming up soon! We look forward to seeing you all and sharing your child’s progress. Please take a moment to click on the link sent through email and sign up as soon is possible!