Students often exhibit a sharp drop-off in both engagement and performance during the transition to middle school. Sixth graders can feel as though they’re in over their heads, and teachers often exacerbate this anxiety by emphasizing all the big changes that students need to make to be successful in school.
Instead, teachers can demonstrate the strategy of habit stacking, when smaller actions build upon one another. By adding small actions in the area of study skills, behavior, and academic achievement, teachers can better position students to make the leap to middle school.
Used to the safety of elementary school, Katy is not excited to be in sixth grade. Not only does she have so many more teachers, but also she has to move around a strange building all day long without getting lost. Once she gets to her classes, there is a lot more to do, and she can’t possibly keep track of the mountains of homework that she needs to accomplish each day. Katy keeps forgetting things, and papers are falling out of new, huge binders right and left. She feels like a mess.
Being overwhelmed is pervasive for new middle school students. Help students build toward the expected standard of both classwork and homework rather than starting the year at a more intimidating pace. Smaller habits that are applied with gradual intention make a world of difference and prevent the kind of frustration that leads to disengagement.
1. Select a place. Students can designate one space for learning with specific parameters that ease distraction. Teachers can specify one area in the classroom (such as a “quiet nook” in the corner), while students select one home space where possible, perhaps a comforting spot that is a little removed from hustle and bustle.
2. Write down one assignment. Rather than filling a planner or homework sheet with everything, start with one assignment per day. Teachers may wish to guide students in prioritizing their most essential assignments. During these first few weeks of habit stacking, focusing efforts on classroom instruction with homework as a support is a better way to acclimate students to the idea that they will need to learn to work more independently.
3. Just five minutes. When students are in their designated study spaces, ask them to take five minutes each day to do one assignment they recorded. This can grow to 10 minutes and then be increased to suggested blocks of time both in school and at home.
It’s easy for Denise to get distracted, and things have gotten worse since she started middle school. Yesterday, she forgot her notebook and had to go back to her locker to get it, and then she was late to class. Her English teacher called it an “excuse” and yelled at her in front of everyone. All she wants to do is cry, but she’s getting through the day by not talking to anyone and putting her head down.
Just like adults, most students want to do their best work. However, when barriers come up that don’t seem to make any sense, kids can react by becoming withdrawn or even acting out. To prevent them from feeling ungrounded and powerless, a few smaller practices can boost student confidence and result in a more productive mindset.
1. One routine. Even though elementary students are familiar with classroom structures, routines can come across very differently in a fresh space. Rather than rushing to introduce every single expectation in the early days when students are adjusting to a new school, slow down to help everyone process the rules and procedures at a more realistic pace. In the first few days of school, introduce one routine.
2. Select an attention strategy. Pick a single way to signal that it’s time to be quiet and pay attention. After consistent application of this strategy over a week, try another one to introduce variety and prevent students from becoming numb to a single method. Once a few attention strategies are established, students can also help by selecting or creating a strategy they want to try.
3. Add movement. Working short movement breaks into classes can refresh students and increase their capacity to stay focused. Start with just one movement break, encouraging kids to stretch or take a slow stroll around the room after about 30 minutes of instruction. Once this becomes familiar, work in more short movement breaks as needed whenever kids have been sitting for a while.
Freddy stares at the math problem in front of him. Over the past week, he has become increasingly confused about what to do, and the class is moving so quickly. He does his homework every night, but it’s only graded for completion. He hasn’t known this teacher for long, and he’s afraid to ask for help, and other students around him don’t seem to be struggling. He’s not sure what to do.
Without ways to check on students frequently, appearances are deceiving. To create more opportunities that make student thinking visible and contribute to their overall success, stack strategies that make it possible to focus on student achievement of learning outcomes with more precision.
1. One question. After introducing a new concept, ask each student to submit one open-ended question on an index card. For the teacher, this is a useful formative check of what students understand. For kids, it gets them into the gradual habit of higher-order inquiry. Over time, layer this process by collecting questions more often, asking students to share them with one another, or setting up discourse opportunities around the questions.
2. Skills focus. Concentrate on one skill at a time through good first instruction rather than trying to teach several skills at once. When students have demonstrated proficiency with one area of focus, move on to the next. Along the way, be transparent about what skills are being selected and how they connect to needed outcomes.
3. Prioritize choice. Each class period, students should have the opportunity to make one choice, even if it’s small, such as letting kids select which of three agenda items to do first. When they exhibit responsible behavior with that level of autonomy, increase learner-centered methods by having students do more, like selecting an activator to start daily learning or creating a learning menu for an upcoming project.
Too many sudden changes from fifth to sixth grade can result in an abrupt drop in engagement. When a more measured approach is adopted that incorporates habit stacking rather than larger, more traumatic change, students will be empowered to make a successful transition to middle school as they move from childhood to adolescence.