Supporting the Development of Executive Functioning Skills of Middle Schoolers

by Marie Reed, Head of the Middle School

The middle school years are full of unique needs and opportunities. We're lucky to be part of a community to navigate these years together. Below is the summary of the October meeting of Meet in the Middle, a gathering for conversation and connection among St. Anne's-Belfield Middle School parents, administration, and select teachers.

Middle School (MS) is a time of transformational growth for executive functioning skills.

The difference between a sixth grader and an eighth grader is significant in terms of their ability to plan work, set priorities, and manage increasingly complex tasks. It’s important to praise good choices, review and refine strategies, and focus on building good habits for the long game.

In the end, each learner needs to find the systems and strategies that work for them.

It takes time — and often a few missteps — for young people to build the self-awareness required to know what does and doesn’t work for them. The low stakes of middle school make it the perfect place for missteps and the meaningful learning that often follows them.

It’s challenging to know when and to what extent a parent should impose structure or for choice and independence.

At school, our youngest middle schoolers are taught explicit systems for tracking assignments and managing materials. By eighth grade, advisors engage with students about their systems and provide feedback when systems seem to be breaking down as evidenced by missed or incomplete work. The families that gathered on our call shared a range of strategies that varied by age, child, and household, including checklists, public family calendars, whiteboards in kids’ rooms, etc.

To support middle schoolers with these skills, consider ways to manage energy and emotion.

In this earlier webinar, Bethany Pitassi, MS academic and learning support specialist, talks about how hard it can be to access these adult skills when a middle schooler is “feeling the feels.” Breaks are important. Play is important. Much of our conversation focused on after-school routines that support accountability for academic work while also allowing for kids to develop interests and have fun. We dug into managing tight schedules and building in healthy transitions, such as a quiet car ride home or time spent with a family pet.

Often the most powerful approach is just a conversation.

Spending a few moments in the afternoon talking through your child’s day, asking what needs to be done that evening, and prompting them to think through a strategy or plan is a great way to help your middle schooler become aware of the guardrails that exist in your family’s schedule.

Asking for help is challenging at this age.

When homework gets challenging, the best response is often for a child to email or talk to their teacher, but this can feel like a big hurdle for any number of reasons: being concerned about being the only student that needs help, struggling to articulate what’s challenging, or not wanting to “bother” a teacher. As School Counselor Lily Gumz emphasized, “Learning to ask for help is part of learning.” As educators and families, we can work together to normalize asking for help through modeling and to scaffold this task for our middle schoolers (going with a friend, sending an email to a teacher, writing down the question to pose in class, etc.).

Interested in thinking about this more? Consider this post: Fear Factor: Overcoming the Awkwardness of Asking for Help (from Character Lab)

Executive functioning skills are not just for homework.

The skills that support academic growth also are also involved in social and emotional growth. MS parents were provided "Ten Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond" (excerpted from Middle School Matters by Phyllis Fagell) for a window into how executive functioning skills inform other aspects of a middle schooler’s growth.


Our next Meet in the Middle is scheduled for on-campus at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2021. Current MS families, should watch the Belfield Bulletin weekly email for topic and registration details. We hope to see you there.


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