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.

Middle School Contradictions You’ll Have to Homeschool Through

Middle School Homeschooling

Every stage of childhood and adolescence can be challenging and every stage of schooling has its own tests. However, I know I’m not alone in saying that I think the tween years, when kids are in middle school, are some of the most difficult years you can face. As they face the beginnings of puberty and adolescent brain development, most kids are filled with so many contradictions that some parents start to feel like they have whiplash.

Many families leave homeschooling during this period, but really, how other than homeschooling can you fully nurture a child who will have as many individual contradictions as most middle school kids? It can be hard to do, but the best thing for this age is to try to embrace the contradictions and love both sides of your kids through these rocky years.

“Uh, I forgot how to multiply.” vs. “Oh my gosh! I just made an equation for it and then boom, I solved it!”

Let’s just say it. The spaciness and forgetfulness of the middle school years is real. They’re experiencing the brain growth of a toddler, and it means they sometimes lose the thread of how some of the basic stuff works. You get them through long division and come out the other side thinking it’s finished only to pick up their paper one day and realize they’ve somehow gone back to spelling errors like “becase” and are in tears about not understanding how fractions work. You despair and feel like a failure, only to see them write a sonnet the next day for fun and solve a math problem that was giving you a headache. When your kids have one of those days when they can’t seem to do anything, don’t worry that you’re going to have to start their whole education over. It’ll come back to them. Don’t force them to do something they’re just not focused enough to do either. Move sideways and try another subject. Give them a healthy snack and let them try it again later. Or just declare the day a bust and play a game or go outside. On the other hand, when they’re on a roll, appreciate them and encourage them to keep going. Be sure to give them challenging, in depth questions. Despite how it looks when they’re struggling through something simple, they actually crave challenges at this age. You just have to be flexible about getting them done.

“Just leave me alone!” vs. “Will you read me a story at bedtime pretty please?”

The struggle between independence and dependence is always an element of growing up, but at no age will it swing quite as wildly as the middle school years. I recall a day when one of my boys, at age eleven, climbed into my lap when he was upset in the morning, screamed at me about schoolwork midday, then wanted to climb in bed with me when he’d had a nightmare. Recognize that both the desire to push you away and hug you closer are totally normal. Try to leave them alone when they ask you to. When they do cling to you, don’t push them away out of some sense that they “should” have grown out of those needs. I’ve found that it’s hard to be in sync with my kids about this. When they want to push me away is often when I want to be involved, perhaps even micromanaging. When they want me to baby them is when I impatiently want them to grow up a little and leave me alone. Try to check your own reactions. While your kids may seesaw, you have to go with the flow and be ready to listen when they want to open up and ready to back off when they need some space. While it’s cliché to say try to cherish these moments because they won’t last forever, it’s really true at this stage that tuck ins and spontaneous hugs are coming to an end and that kids asking you to look at their Minecraft builds and Lego creations with enthusiasm is probably not going to last much longer. Remind yourself of that when you’re busy with other tasks and they miraculously want your attention.

“We’re playing a complicated game where the monkey bars are home base and you can only touch the ground if you’re singing and…” vs. “But everyone else plays M rated games online with their friends!”

Middle School HomeschoolingOne minute they seem like little kids with childish games and the next minute they’re asking to do things you thought you’d never allow in a million years. Kids turn 13 during middle school, the magical year that makes social media and other internet accounts legal to have. The majority of boys will see their first pornographic images or videos online during middle school. Most kids will see their first R rated films at this age. They’ll go back and forth too. The same kids who are still playing with toys and on the playground will also be curious about grown up stuff that you may not be ready for them to see or do. The great thing about homeschooling is that it does often shield kids from growing up too fast, but it’s not a magic bullet. You get to create your child’s curriculum. Keep communication open about sex, drugs, violence, social media, and other tricky topics. You don’t want to spring conversations about those topics onto an unsuspecting, innocent 10 year-old, but don’t assume that your 13 year-old is that innocent just because they haven’t brought any of those issues up. One great way to ensure that tricky topics arise is to do a current events program as part of your homeschool. Another good way is to have a weekly movie afternoon and discussion. Encourage them to be kids for as long as they can, but also encourage them to talk to you about those growing up topics that they’re thinking about, even if you ban the M-rated games (we certainly do!).

“I don’t care. Whatever.” vs. “Hahahahahahahaha!” vs. “I hate everyone here!”

The mood swings are a feature of the age and even the most calm kids can hit a surly stage in the middle school years. One of my children actually snarled at me for nearly month every time I pulled out the math book. On the other hand, they also get the giggles at this age, sometimes working themselves up over almost nothing and unable to stop being silly. Other days, dragging any emotion out of them except apathy can be a challenge. Know where your boundaries are on the grouchiness. You don’t have to let them whine or groan about schoolwork constantly, but also try not to take it personally. It feels so personal, but it’s really more about the stage than anything else. Ignore the grouchy behavior if you can. Join in the silliness for a few minutes if they let you. While they swing the pendulum, try to keep an even keel for yourself.

“This project is babyish!” vs. “Why don’t we do anything fun anymore!?”

Middle school can be especially hard to plan. Not only do kids struggle more with focus and forgetfulness, but many kids don’t even know what they want out of schoolwork anymore. They’re straddling childhood and adolescence. Some days, they’re upset at being asked to color something or to do a crafty history project. Other days, they’re annoyed that schoolwork seems to have become so much more academic, with more reading and writing. You have to listen to your students. Be ready when a student is ready to move to more academic work, but don’t judge if a student needs more time with elementary style games and projects. Have both things at the ready. The best middle school curricula combine pushing kids toward tougher readings, deeper questions, and problem solving skills with a little of that elementary age magic. It doesn’t have to be babyish either. Once kids are solid readers and writers, instead of playing a game where they’re pretending to mine during the California Gold Rush, they can write a narrative or a newspaper article from the perspective of someone who was there. One wonderful thing about this age is that kids who have always gravitated toward projects can take them over and make them more in depth and complex than ever before. That’s why this is such a good age for science fair projects and programs like National History Day that ask students to do big, complex projects. They’re finally ready to do that sort of work with less handholding than before.

Middle school is a challenging time! Even though it’s filled with contradictions, it can also be an exciting, magical time to homeschool. Need more tips about dealing with your middle schoolers? I’ll be speaking about this stage of education at the SEA Conference. I hope to see you there!

Middle School Homeschooling