George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Setting Up a Middle School Skills Week

Dedicating a week early in the year to developing essential skills can help students thrive during the transition to middle school.

August 17, 2023
Fly View Productions / iStock

The beginning of middle school can be a big deal. Like any change—a big move, a new job, even a vacation to a new country—transitions need time. There are unfamiliar procedures to learn, new relationships to build, and uncharted territories to explore. 

When I first started as a middle school teacher in Spain over 15 years ago, my head of school was adamant about not assigning homework or distributing any syllabi or textbooks at the beginning of the academic year. His viewpoint was straightforward: Build relationships first, before anything else. One way to do this is through a skills week, or dedicated time at the beginning of the year when teachers can get to know the students, their interests, and their concerns about middle school and beyond.

skills week Logistics 

At the beginning of the year, middle school teachers can emphasize the development of key skills, relationship building, classroom routines, and learning expectations. With administration feedback and approval, teachers can come together to plan activities and lessons around skills development instead of regular lesson planning.

In my experience with skills week, the hours it “takes” from the academic schedule are probably the most important and effective time spent all year. After this focus on skills and managing the transition, the students were clear on the journey ahead and were excited for the learning to follow. In time, student-teacher relationships strengthened, student self-confidence and collaboration improved, and those important soft skills were placed center stage from day one.

Key Components of Skills Week

Whether it’s in a dedicated skills week or a theme that teachers emphasize at the beginning of the year, here are five key areas where middle school students need to thrive. 

1. Fostering relationships. Creating a strong sense of community and fostering positive relationships help students navigate the transition to middle school. During skills week or early on in your classroom, facilitate icebreakers and team-building exercises that can help students get to know each other and their teachers. Encouraging students to share their interests, goals, and worries about middle school can also help them feel understood and supported. Teachers can emphasize positive relationship-building behaviors, such as active listening, empathy, and respectful communication. 

We also incorporated an annual learner survey with standard questions on academics as well as relationship-building questions regarding their backgrounds, interests, hobbies, and biggest fears at that moment. Teachers can reference these surveys throughout the academic year to spark further connections and conversations. 

2. Promoting organizational skills. Organizational skills are essential for middle school students. Students often have to juggle assignments from multiple teachers, each with distinct expectations. During skills week and throughout the academic year, introduce techniques like using an academic planner to track assignments and due dates, creating a study schedule, and organizing digital and physical spaces. Since students often have a busy and varied schedule in middle school, time management also becomes a focus.

Teachers can demonstrate how to break down large tasks into smaller, manageable parts, how to prioritize tasks based on an assignment’s urgency and importance, and how to balance academic responsibilities with extracurricular activities and downtime. To model these concepts, teachers can use a planner of their own in front of students to promote organizational skills.

3. Learning effective study habits. Effective study habits can significantly improve students’ academic performance. During skills week and throughout the year, introduce students to evidence-based study techniques such as spaced repetition, active recall, and interleaving. This is a great time to emphasize the importance of regular, focused study sessions instead of last-minute cramming and help students develop strategies for maintaining focus during study sessions. Online timers can help create short, focused moments of study within each classroom, modeling to students how to use this technique in their study habits. 

4. Cultivating consistency. According to educators and authors Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong in their essential book The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, consistency is key to successful classroom management and learning. Skills week or early on in the classroom is an ideal time to establish consistent routines and expectations that will guide students throughout the academic year. Demonstrate consistency with familiar opening routines for each class period or in modeling clear behavioral expectations, such as procedures for asking for help, including who and where to ask for assistance.

To help with consistent communication, students can participate in mock dialogues of common middle school conversations, which can  improve their confidence even before encountering a given scenario.

5. Facilitating transitions. Transitioning to a new school environment can be daunting. Teachers can help students navigate this change by providing clear and consistent information about what to expect. This could involve tours of the school, explanations of the daily schedule, and discussions about changes in academic expectations. Role-playing also helps students prepare for common situations that they might encounter, like using a locker for the first time or navigating the cafeteria. 

The Long-Lasting Impact of a Skills Week

A focus on skills development, whether in individual classes or as part of a skills week, can have a profound impact on students’ learning experiences. It can reduce anxiety associated with any transition, foster a positive school climate, and equip students with the skills needed to navigate the challenges of middle school. The skills and relationships fostered during the beginning moments of school set the tone for the rest of the year, fostering a supportive learning environment that is conducive to academic and personal growth.

As you consider implementing a skills focus at your school, keep in mind the words of Harry and Rosemary Wong: “The most important day of a person’s education is the first day of school, not Graduation Day.” With careful planning and implementation, a skills week can ensure that every student’s first day—and every day that follows—is a step toward success.

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