Middle School: What Really Matters

I strongly believe that our schools are getting middle school all wrong. As homeschoolers, we can do anything we want with those years. The question is: Are you brave enough to let go of what you think you know about middle school? 

Why is my child suddenly a different person?

Middle school generally refers to grades 6-8, or ages 11 to 13, but in some places, it can add a year on either side. This age range is special because the brains and bodies of kids this age are going through the biggest changes of their lives. Puberty is pushing tons of hormones through the bloodstream. Their brains are literally being rewired from a child state to an adult state. All these changes mean that the days when these kids are in an ideal state to learn are few and far between. 

Because of the hormonal and brain changes, much of what is learned during these years can be easily forgotten. The brain just doesn’t choose to keep things it doesn’t view as important during this phase. So, how do we choose educational activities that the brain will keep? That is the key to making good use of this time. 

First, it is important to realize what the brain of a middle schooler thinks is important. What the brain is really seeking at this stage, is a pathway towards adulthood. Knowledge-wise, the brain wants to learn adult life skills. Socially, it wants to know how to fit in. This desire to fit in at all costs leads to a lot of dysfunctional choices by kids in schools, as they all circle each other like sharks trying to figure it out, and attacking at random. The brain is also looking for a higher level of engagement than it has had before, but they don’t know how to get that. 

How to help your middle-schooler get what they are craving.

As an educator, the best thing you can do is take advantage of what your child’s brain wants to be fed.  Instead of fighting upstream, go with the flow a bit. 

Use this age to introduce life skills. Teach your student to cook, clean, woodwork, knit, sew, and other real-life skills. This is a great age to learn to take care of pets or younger siblings. It is perfect for growing a garden and doing community service projects.  All of these things are part of the adult world, and the middle school brain is craving them. They want to see that they will be able to function as an adult. So, give them opportunities to learn the skills of adulthood. These things take time, so consider them part of your school day, instead of in addition to it. 

Seek connection with your kids at this age, and help them have connections with other adults too. Their other parent, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or family friends are an important part of your community and should step up at this stage. In these tween years, they all start to question if their parents know anything, having other adults to talk to and learn from is very important.  If you can, ask one of these other adults to spend time with your tween on a regular schedule. They can teach a skill I listed above or something else they enjoy like fishing, golf, pickleball, or kayaking.  This will help them some with the social issues of this age. 

Making changes to how you homeschool.

As far as their education, at this stage, it is important to do things that make them think. Have conversations about the literature they read. Debate if the characters were making good choices. Read a news article together and discuss whether it was well-written and balanced. Help them question what they are learning about and go further to learn more. 

While this is an important age to work on catching up in areas they may be behind in, like math or spelling, the curriculum for middle school can be anything.  To me, this is a good time to build a foundation for high school, but not to try and get ahead and do high school-level work. While there are topics worth introducing in middle school and revisiting in high school, it is important to only do deep dives on topics your student is interested in. Save actual high school work for high school. 

Let them experiment with learning new things.

Because middle school is a time when most students have learned the basics but aren’t ready for the deeper work of high school, this is the perfect age to do some unschooling. Let your student take the lead and direct their own learning. Give them tools and kits to explore what they want to do.   If they don’t have a lot of direction, let them try out a lot of things in small bites. At this point, they do not need to do enough of something to count as a high school credit, so don’t worry about that. 

For example, have them do one of the challenges from “Hour of Code” at code.org and learn a bit of computer coding. This could spark a real interest, but even if it doesn’t, just a little knowledge is something they can build on in later years. The logic involved in writing these simple codes is also a great activity for middle school brains. Understanding the logic and reasoning of a computer is important, no matter what field they are interested in. 

Have them play with a foreign language. At this age, they don’t have to worry about doing enough to count as a high school credit, they can just get a feel for it. If you explore Latin or Greek, learning root words can help with vocabulary. If they want to try a language and discover it is too hard, this is the perfect time to realize that before they need to do enough to count as a high school credit. 

Consider unit studies and other ways to explore topics in depth. You don’t have to do an entire semester or year with a single theme, like Ancient History, you can just pull out topics you want to learn about and explore them. If they get too intense or boring, move on. 

Keep some structured learning.

Math is the single area I am a fan of for curriculums at this age. This is the right time to work on catching up and learning topics that will prepare them to start high school math. If your student is behind and can’t memorize math facts, I am a fan of calculators. In real life, no one is going to ask you to do long division without one, so don’t hold your child back from success because they struggle with skills like that. 

Writing and reading are both essential skills for high school. If your student has gaps in these skills, spend time on them. I do not think that middle schoolers need to write essays. They need to be able to spell, understand basic grammar, and put together reasonable sentences, working towards paragraphs.  The goal is to write good essays by the end of high school, not on day one. Don’t get too bogged down trying to do too much too soon.  If your student has these skills, encourage them to journal, do creative writing, and explore language in new ways.  

Going with the flow.

Your student may go back to a more standard education in high school. If they are preparing for college, they will probably need to take courses that can be listed as credits. There are tons of ways to do that. Don’t suck the joy of middle school out of it by worrying about high school. Let your students grow through this. Don’t stress yourself out either. Once their brain is through this faze, teaching them is going to get easier. 

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About the Author

nimble_asset_Laura-in-floral-shirt-with-treesLaura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator, and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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