George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Helping Middle and High School Students Cultivate Habits That Support Learning

Through explicit instruction, teachers can help students develop the skills necessary to do well in school.

May 10, 2024
Martine Severin / iStock

To learn and be successful in school overall, middle and high school students need the building blocks of academic achievement, active engagement and motivation, and consistent attendance. Young people often need a little help from their teachers to get there. Taking some time to enhance foundational skills doesn’t mean we lower expectations or rigor for students. Instead, think of it as putting first things first—like placing the horse before the cart, so that it can pull it effectively and eventually effortlessly.

In coaching teachers, I’ve observed a need for more consensus and collaboration between them and students about cultivating the essentials for success. Unfortunately, youth aren’t always aware of how they can positively impact their learning outcomes. Rather than becoming informed stakeholders in their own learning, they unintentionally become impediments.

Using the following two steps, teachers and students can come to an understanding about the essentials for positive school outcomes through what’s called level-setting in the business world. These strategies also provide young people with some good goal-attainment skills.

2 Steps to Guide Students to School Success

Step 1: Explain the fundamentals and set clear expectations. It can be extremely difficult for youth to set goals to develop habits they don’t fully comprehend or see value in. Help define for them the areas in which they need to improve, while modeling and setting clear expectations of what success entails. Remember to use kid-friendly language and remain patient. What we consider common sense isn’t always common practice. Here are some examples of how to define the fundamentals for students.

Academic achievement is the ability to demonstrate growth in each school subject through grades and performance. To excel academically, students should create a personal system of strategies for effective problem-solving, studying, time management, and collaborating with peers for each class. Achieving small academic victories will nurture their self-efficacy levels and overall confidence.

Active engagement in class means students listen attentively when teachers talk, ask thoughtful questions when they’re unsure, complete tasks and assignments with their best effort, and participate in learning activities and class discussions. It also means students take responsibility for their own learning by remaining focused and present even when their classmates are not.

Motivation for their education refers to students inspiring themselves to complete their academic duties even when they don’t feel like it. We all face challenges, setbacks, and moments when we feel like doing anything other than studying or participating in an academic activity. Finding purpose and meaning in their education can be a powerful motivator for students, along with these proven self-motivation techniques. Teachers can encourage students to empower themselves by focusing on the benefits of positive learning outcomes (e.g., learning to apply a formula, scoring high scores on benchmarks, or developing elevated levels of self-agency).

Consistent attendance means students attend class to remain engaged with their teachers, the material, and peers. You can’t learn if you’re not there is an excellent slogan to summarize why students must attend classes regularly. Good attendance enables teens to network and build the rapport and relationships required for academic and life success. Additionally, it keeps them on track with coursework and assignments and makes them less likely to fall behind socially and academically. Some students actually miss class due to concerns about their academic performance, but there are ways that teachers can lure them back.

Step 2: Encourage goal setting and goal attainment. There is more than one way to set goals and achieve them. For instance, SMART goals offer a good framework for helping individuals qualify goals, and Scholar Within, an online education company, provides this free downloadable and adaptable goal-planning template that teachers can use to help students. When the road to achieving a goal appears too complex, many students may give up without realizing that learning what to do along the way is part of the process. Teachers can help by making the distinction between goal setting and goal attainment for them. Goal setting is determining something you want. Goal attainment is the system or process one takes to get there.

After identifying an essential skill they want to improve in, assist students with developing a goal-setting sentence and then with practical and incremental attainment steps they would need to take to get there. Also, be prepared to assist with providing access to the tools, apps, resources, and manipulatives recommended in the goal-attainment steps.

Note: This example is for a middle school student looking to improve their academic achievement in math class. Feel free to use the goal-setting template provided, ensuring assistance with helping them craft a goal statement and mapping practical goal-attainment steps like those modeled here.

Student goal statement: “I will strive for academic excellence in my seventh-grade math class by learning and applying strategies that will help me to boost my confidence over time and to do well on assignments, quizzes, and end-of-year testing.”

Goal attainment steps and considerations for boosting math skills

  • Practice arithmetic operations daily using real-life examples and apps that provide interactive practice exercises.
  • Practice pre-algebra concepts using step-by-step problem-solving to decompose algebraic problems into smaller steps and follow a systematic problem-solving method. Understand algebraic concepts by using visual representations such as graphs and diagrams.
  • Learn geometry fundamentals by building models of geometric shapes and using apps to manipulate geometric shapes and visualize properties, transformations, and calculations.
  • Create a daily study schedule at home free of distractions and divide the time into practice and review.
  • Stay motivated and consistent when the chips are down by cultivating a positive mindset and seeking positive words from my teacher, family, and friends. Keep everyone informed about my progress, and remember that setting goals takes time, failing forward, and persistence.

Transformation is complex because it requires stretching oneself to improve in areas one possibly hasn’t considered or previously attempted to work on—especially for young people. Engaging students in an activity to help them see a practical pathway is the scaffold that some need to get themselves on track.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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