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Help Your Middle Schooler Go from Survive to Thrive

August 21, 2016
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

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TEASER It may sound obvious, but upon entering middle school, your kids really need to start using their brain.
TITLE Help Your Middle Schooler Go from Survive to Thrive
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During the middle school years, your child’s brain undergoes a growth spurt unlike any other since his first few months of life. The adolescent brain experiences a unique and powerful makeover, pruning away of all the unneeded bits of memory it has collected but not used since infancy. This house cleaning simultaneously makes room for the dynamic growth of fast, efficient memory circuits. These become the most important systems to direct thinking, reasoning, emotional self-management, decision making, problem solving, and creativity.

Adolescence is the start of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during which the brain is most responsive to turning information into learned memory at maximum speed. The enhanced rate at which new memory forms in response to input during these years results in its dynamic reorganization. Help your children make the most of these years of their most efficient learning potential by providing opportunities to increase their motivation.

RELATED: Guiding Our Children Through Scahool Transitions: Middle School

The keys to unlocking their unique adolescent brainpowers lie in motivation and opportunity. Middle school often presents new and more challenging subjects and classes. At the same time, those classes can seem irrelevant, boring, or frustrating, especially when compared to friends, social media, and technology which can seem far more interesting and readily available.

This where you, the parents, come in. You have the power to engage their interest in the topics and subjects they study in school and promote their perseverance through boredom and frustration.

Before the brain learns powerfully, it needs to care

In their early school years children are engaged in learning because the information is personally relevant. School is about the shapes and colors in their world, how to count real things, reading books they choose, the story of their own history, and the secrets held in a seed, a cell, or a cocoon.

Although they might enter middle school with that natural curiosity and desire to learn and explore, the quantity of things now required to memorize and understand can be overwhelming and disconnect them from that love of learning. But parents have the opportunity to enrich their middle schooler’s education and raise their potential. You can make the difference and keep their brains caring, and therefore learning, if you use their own interests and skills, community resources, and your own experiences and associations to connect with the things they are studying at school.

Relate learning to their lives and the world around them from community to global

Get involved in their classes by either requesting upcoming topics from your child’s teachers, following the sequence of their textbooks, checking class assignment webpages, or asking your middle schooler about the current topics in her classes. Try to help her connect with, understand, care about, and ultimately retain what she learns.

The goal is to link school learning with your child’s interests, talents, passions, and experiences in the real world. The brain responds by increasing attentive focus to information taught at school and connecting to learning with more understanding and memory. Here’s why:

1. The brain focuses attention and puts effort into knowledge building that it expects will have a pleasurable outcome. By providing opportunities for your middle schooler to use school learning in enjoyable, relevant ways, the information taught will be “valued” by the brain for the expected positive experiences it will promote.

2. The brain stores information as patterns related to past experiences. Like a computer, your child’s brain has networks and memory storage. By providing opportunities for him to link school learning to activities, experiences, and interests beyond the classroom, you’ll tap into his brain’s higher learning  capabilities and solid long-term memory networks

From the following examples, you’ll find strategies to activate interest, boost related memories, and connect school topics to things personally relevant to your middle schooler. The pay off will be her enhanced motivation and perseverance keeping alive or rekindling the childhood love of learning so evident when starting school.

Activating interest and boosting memory circuits

- What does your child love to do, know, see, hear, or discover? Build on these high motivators, from comic books to video games, by looking for ways they can connect to school subjects. These are what will become motivators for his perseverance when coursework is especially boring, challenging, or frustrating.
- Connecting your child to a topic at school before or soon after it begins will prime his interest and memory. For example, before the unit about the Civil War, watch films together such as Glory, The Red Badge of Courage, Lincoln, or Cold Mountain to mentally animate a potentially “dry” topic about “old stuff” through events and people coming to life in the movies or books. If your child enjoys reading, there are equally wonderful books of historical fiction to connect them to all of the periods of history she will study in middle school. - - Check out: Common Sense Media or Good Reads.
- Personalize connections to school topics by telling your child how you (or your friends or relatives whom they know) use math or science in hobbies and jobs. Or what you or other adults they know lived through the relevant time in history, or lived in the country they are studying. 

By exposing your children to a variety of people and experiences, you will stimulate their curiosity to go beyond the classroom. They will see the value of academic effort and the opportunities available connecting through the doors of learning.

Have friends over who use the knowledge your child is learning in their everyday lives, careers, or hobbies. For example consider their use of math skills for robotics, foreign language skills for travel to other countries or creative artistic talents. Invite these friends to join you and your middle schooler on museum trips or technology expos. Visit them at their places of work.

- Local news can springboard interest in history, finances, ethics, and development of personal values. If you see in the local paper that the city council voted against funding a skateboard park, ask your skateboarding child how he feels about that decision. Use questions that connect his interest in (or frustration about) the decision to school topics and as bridges to related subject matter or to developing social and ethical values.  

- Did the city council follow the system of government set up by the constitution? 

- Who should decide where tax money goes?

- How does this situation resemble taxation without representation in the Colonies before the Revolutionary War?

- Since kids your age pay local taxes when they pay sales tax, should they therefore have a say (or vote) in local spending of that money for things like the skateboard park? If so, how could it be worked out and presented to the city council?

Opportunities to use and enjoy the things taught at school - from home projects to on-the-go math

When you know the topic your middle schooler is studying, ask yourself, “What is something she loves that might connect to the knowledge or skills she is acquiring?” It might be a subtle connection, but if you find a way to link to something she likes physically, musically, socially, or recreationally you are hooking into her brain’s own most powerful motivational “reward” system.

- For example, algebra, geography, and biology can become topics adolescents will want to learn if you work with them to do something they really relate to, like designing a model land-water amphibious vehicle.
- Find appropriate YouTube videos of stand up comedians telling jokes in the foreign language your child is learning. He’ll bump up his motivation to learn the vocabulary (as well as listening to the pronunciation) because the more he learns of the language, the more of the humor he’ll understand. Have a few of these videos that he can return to periodically and experience the brain’s reward system as it is activated by awareness of the progress he is making by understanding more and more of the jokes.
- Math calculations become meaningful, even for adolescents, in trips to the store where items they want to purchase are possible—if they are up to your challenges of mental math. Most large supermarkets list the price per ounce on the shelf below the item price. - ---- When your middle schooler wants that box of cereal, blocking the information on the shelf and asking her to figure how many ounces can be purchased for $1.00. (It becomes not only a math review, but also an eye-opener about the price of boxed cereal.) She can also practice percentages when she calculates the savings on something she wants that is on sale for 25% off.

What you’ll ignite

It is so critical for children in middle school to retain or reboot their sense of wonder and experience learning as something they want for themselves. When you ignite their interests to align with what they are learning and provide opportunities to make that learning relevant, you achieve that end. You will help them develop positive engagement with school and grow to teens and then adults who thrive from their natural enthusiasm, curiosity, wealth of knowledge, and confidence. You will spur them to investigate, interact with, and improve the world around them. And you’ll be helping them not just survive, but thrive during the challenges of middle school. 

 

This piece is part of a week-long series with tips for how parents can help their kids survive middle school. More to come every day this week!


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Help Your Middle Schooler Go from Survive to Thrive

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