Online Learning

How to Help Middle School Students Develop Crucial Skills This Year

Most middle schoolers have not mastered the self-regulation skills they need for distance learning, but these simple strategies can help.

September 3, 2020
Jeff Chiu / APImages

For tweens and young teens, navigating distance learning this school year will require an array of skills they might not yet have developed, writes middle school director and author Jody Passanisi for MiddleWeb. Without the rules and routines of a physical classroom—the external “regulatory systems” that allow kids this age to learn from watching peers and teachers—middle school students will need extra help to build up the self-regulatory skills needed to “set themselves up for success physically, materially, and emotionally.”

Even adults struggle to focus, avoid distractions, and keep track of schedules and time when working from home. Yet, Passanisi notes, “we’re asking adolescents to perform in similar ways without the life skills—the self-knowledge that comes with time and age—and without a fully developed frontal lobe which helps us adults do these things on our own.”

Based on observations and feedback gleaned by educators at her school during the months of distance learning last spring, Passanisi addresses skills middle school students might struggle with during distance learning and offers suggestions for how teachers can help.

Fostering Valuable Skills in Middle School

Teach time awareness: Becoming aware of the passage of time—especially without the external assists of bell schedules or seeing peers hustle to class—is tough for kids when they’re learning from home. Passanisi recommends helping them build an awareness of time by having them use digital calendars and printed schedules and set alerts for class start times. For these strategies to stick, however, she notes that it’s important that students “be the driver of the process.” Teachers can also help students internalize a sense of time by giving them clear indicators: “When you say ‘in five minutes we will do…,’ give the students five minutes (no more, no less).”

Guide students to avoid distractions: During the isolation of the pandemic, technology that helps kids stay in touch and socialize is great—but it can also become a distraction during class. Kids this age don’t have the self-regulation skills to “monitor their focus and avoid distractions,” and they often display an “inflated sense of their own abilities to multitask (as many adults do),” Passanisi writes. Teachers should develop content that’s “engaging, requires active participation, and pulls students into what they are meant to be doing,” but she acknowledges that for some students, that’s not enough. To help kids see how multitasking impacts their learning, teachers can share research that explores the impact of scattered focus on learning. Try setting up a STEM lesson where kids “measure their own reaction times or retention rates when multitasking and not multitasking,” Passanisi suggests. “When students figure this stuff out themselves, they are more likely to respond favorably to requests to pay attention.”

Lead students to build connections: For some kids, distance learning “caused a retreat into themselves” with factors such as isolation, difficulties at home, or pandemic-related anxiety making it difficult to stay connected or reach out for help. “For those students who seemed to slip through the cracks anyway, we began [during distance learning in the spring] keeping very close tabs on them through one-to-one contacts,” Passanisi writes. Her school implemented a “data-driven monitoring system,” keeping a list of students who need one-on-one meetings with trusted adults or other regular check-ins. There are several other steps that schools or individual teachers can take to encourage students to connect with their teachers and peers, which can lead to improved academic engagement: Planning work for pairs and small groups, for example, can help students get used to engaging online in low-pressure settings.

Help kids get organized: Keeping track of school supplies can be particularly hard for some kids at this age—and without a teacher’s personal oversight, even kids who don’t normally struggle with organization can have a hard time. Ask students to create their own learning space at home, if that’s possible, so that “within the confines and capacities of their own unique living circumstances,” kids have a spot “that feels like school,” Passanisi writes. It’s also important to teach kids tech organization: Some might need help learning how to create folders in Google Drive, or how to color-code. Help students brainstorm organizational systems that work for their learning needs and then check in to see how their systems are working for them.

Boost students' self-motivation: The structure of in-person school and the joy of socializing with peers provide external motivations to learn, and without them, staying motivated can be tough. Teachers can help by “connecting what [students] learn to what matters now... what is going on in the world, what they are experiencing at home, and how they can make a difference,” Passanisi suggests. Equally important, she notes, is creating “reasons for them to rely on others in learning, as school does” by providing lessons that require collaboration and thus build connections.

Build in opportunities for self-advocacy: Advocating for themselves is hard for many students—and it’s even harder during online learning. Passanisi suggests setting up conditions for self-advocacy by, for instance, allowing time and space for kids to ask questions and making sure there’s “equity and parity in the voices that are heard.” Tell students about instances when you struggled and asked for help. And consider surveying students to ensure that you’re getting the feedback you need: “We can discover a lot more about improving distance learning by listening to our kids in every possible way,” Passanisi concludes.

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  • Online Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Student Engagement
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School

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