Getting the Challenge Right in Middle School

As I write this, I’m also in the midst of editing my book about homeschooling middle school and helping my middle schoolers finish out their final year before high school. All the wonderful, amazing, infuriating, inspiring things about middle schoolers are swimming around in my mind at the moment.

One of the things that are super clear to me is that middle schoolers are desperate for challenges. All kids, even all people, yearn for challenges. We’re happier when we’re engaged in a puzzle or an engrossing task of some kind. Kids in middle school are experiencing an explosion in brain activity and connectivity. They go from the black and white, concreteness of earlier childhood, to deeper thinking. They’re really yearning for big questions and ideas.

On the other hand, how do you get the challenge right? We also know that when we push kids too hard, they can shut down or become anxious. Schools sometimes ask too much of kids too fast. Most of us got into homeschooling to step away from that sort of childhood rat race!

Here are some tips for finding your way to an appropriate level of challenge:

DON’T give too many rote tasks.

Sometimes parents of middle schoolers realize that they didn’t cover something important in the elementary years and they suddenly freak out and overcompensate with lots of times tables drills or grammar worksheets. Sometimes kids benefit from fill in the blank type tasks, but middle schoolers are mostly outgrowing these basic worksheet style learning tasks. Instead, they need higher order thinking tasks and open-ended questions more often than before.

DON’T increase the volume of work by a lot.

Sometimes parents confuse rigor with volume. You don’t need to do significantly more work in order to make it more challenging.

DON’T make your student miserable.

When challenge is working, it’s invigorating, not tear-inducing. Every kid can have a bad day, and for many students, complaining about schoolwork is just a kneejerk reaction. However, if your student is miserable, then rethink the challenge you’re giving. Sometimes one of my boys whines about math, but when I see him get difficult problems right, there’s a moment where he lights up. Challenging work should have a moment like that, even if it’s not every day.

DO spend longer on a few assignments.

Instead of trying to do more and more assignments, try spending a long time on a single task to get more in depth with it. For example, sometimes you might spend your entire math time on a few problems that are really difficult. Try taking a short story apart in a lengthy discussion instead of a whole novel.

DO ask big questions.

Middle schoolers need to talk about big questions. Including things like current events in your studies can help bring up some issues, as can doing special units on things like philosophy or debate. Tackling literature or movies that are worth discussing can help too. Make discussion and engaging in big questions something special, whether you do it nightly at the dinner table or make a special time to talk about it during school hours.

DO read meaty articles and books.

In order to have opinions and make arguments, kids need to be engaged with materials that are rich and informative. One of the great things about middle schoolers is that they’re often ready to tackle adult level magazines, such as National Geographic, and popular nonfiction, such as books about history and science. They may also be ready for classic literature. However, don’t feel like you need to make the leap away from children’s books too soon. There are plenty of children’s books that explore racism, poverty, philosophy, empathy and other meaty topics.