My top worry when my son started middle school was organization. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. His backpack looked like it had been struck by a tornado, and he couldn’t get his homework done without a ton of nagging from me. How was he going to stay on top of assignments when he was suddenly getting them from six different teachers?
Like many rising middle schoolers, the answer for my son lay in strengthening his executive functioning skills—that is, the skills that make kids more self-reliant and able to complete tasks. On time. Without losing them.
Wondering exactly how to go about this? I caught up with two experts from Beachwood Middle School in Ohio—principal Tony Srithai and school psychologist Kevin Kemelhar—for tips on honing these important skills.
What Is Executive Functioning?
This isn’t something that just crops up during adolescence. Our kids have been working on their executive functioning skills since they were babies! At around a year, children start seeking independence, says Kemelhar. Without even realizing it, parents collaborate on executive functioning skills with their kids throughout childhood, as they go from furniture surfing to walking or holding their own spoon.
“Executive functioning is a set of skills that allow kids to organize and complete tasks in a timely manner,” says Kemelhar. These skills include initiating tasks, maintaining steam while completing them, and reaching goals. A big part of this process involves “inhibition,” where kids learn to mute their impulses to do something else (like Snapchatting their friends) while they complete the task at hand.
Why Do Middle Schoolers Struggle with Executive Functioning?
Middle school is already a time of transition for kids (can anyone say puberty?!). On top of that, the way middle school is structured requires different skillsets.
Unlike in elementary school, they’re not going to be housed in one classroom with one teacher who constantly reviews when assignments are due.
Additionally, this may be the first time they encounter longer-term assignments. “Middle school is when you start to see that transition from daily homework assignments to having a project due three weeks out,” says Srithai. “A student needs to internalize: ‘I can’t work on it three weeks from now; I need to start today.’”
What Parents Can Do to Help Improve Executive Function
Most middle schoolers struggle as they transition to middle school—that’s normal. But there are some concrete things parents can do to help. Srithai and Kemelhar shared these tips:
1. Make A Schedule
Your child’s in-school schedule will be set. But they need a schedule at home, too. Pick a set time each day for homework, ideally before dinner. Make sure to factor in extracurricular activities.
2. Get Them Organized
Once you get your child’s school schedule, sit down together and make a plan. Label folders for each class. Maybe use a color-coded system for folders and binders, if they are using both for certain classes. Introduce a planner so they can keep track of when assignments are due.
3. Give Them Options
Be hands-on, but give your child options. This teaches autonomy and creates buy-in. For example, some kids do best with old-fashioned paper planners, and others find a digital planner more palatable.
4. Don’t Worry About Hovering…Yet
Sixth grade, especially the first quarter, is a time to sit down with your child every night to make sure they are on top of things. As middle school progresses, and you see improvement in handling deadlines and organization, you can begin to step back. Ideally, by seventh or eighth grade, check-ins should be weekly, rather than daily.
When to Seek Outside Help
Learning executive functioning skills is a normal part of the middle school journey, albeit a bumpy one. For most kids, a little parental handholding is sufficient. But some kids will need a little more than that.
How do you know if your child is one of those kids? “The red flag is when you and your spouse start to argue over your kid’s homework,” Kemelhar says. All jokes aside, once you’ve reached a breaking point with your child, it’s definitely time to reach out for extra help.
The first person to contact is your child’s teacher, says Srithai. If they think the issue with your child goes beyond something they can solve, they will collaborate with other school staff to come up with a plan for your child to succeed.
Srithai and Kemelhar both stress this point: Middle school personnel are aware of the developmental struggles middle schoolers face, and they expect to step in. “Parents should cherish their role as parents,” Srithai says. “Let us do the dirty work of navigating this stage.
As for me, I have another son who will be starting middle school in a few short years. This time, my plan is to worry a little bit less. Instead, I’ll take a more proactive approach, keeping in mind that all middle schoolers struggle with this stuff, disaster-struck backpacks and all. Wish me luck.