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6 Study Tips for Struggling Middle Schoolers (and Parents)

You didn't come here to read an intro. If you clicked through, you want those tips! Let's get right into it. Here are 6 tips to help middle schoolers that struggle with school.

1. Get Organized

When kids enter middle school, they are getting to an age where their classes are becoming more complex and more knowledge dense. Developing a good organization system for note taking, returned homework and tests, and online assignments is essential.

One simple way to stay organized is to note the date, the chapter and lesson number, and the lesson title at the top of the notebook page for every new lesson.

I've had countless students fumbling through their notes desperately trying to find something they learned in class, only to come up empty because there was nothing to distinguish one page from another. With the chapter number and title on the page, it is very easy to identify which notes go with which chapter.

Where are those notes I took?!?!

With online portals, assignments are typically marked with an "assigned date". So if a student wants to know which notes go with which assignment, they can just match the "assigned date" with the date in their notebook. No more futilely fumbling through endless notes only to come up empty.

2. Create a Homework Ritual

Building good habits early on is critical for improving study skills. If a student has not developed good study habits by the end of middle school, then they will struggle even more in high school. One way to build good study habits is to create a homework ritual.

Humans love rituals. We do them every day without realizing it. Every time you wake up, shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, and then set out for the day, that's a ritual. Most rituals get created without any direct planning. They just happen. But, we can also create rituals purposefully and use them to help create an advantageous atmosphere.

ancient cave carvings
Humans have had rituals since before we could speak or write

When creating a homework ritual, the environment is very important. Make sure to have a space specifically designated to do homework such as a particular room in the house or a homework desk. Just like your brain associates the kitchen with eating or the bed with sleeping, so too will your brain start to associate the desk with doing homework.

Avoid doing homework in bed or on the couch because those places already have associations with sleep and relaxation, and you do not want to mix associations of sleep and relaxation with attentiveness and focus.

And most importantly, ensure that the designated homework space is neat, organized, and free of distractions (no smartphones allowed!)

Turn off Discord notifications too while you're at it

When creating a homework ritual, you will also want to build in some trigger points that tell the brain it is time to focus on homework. Listening to Lofi music, lighting a scented candle, having a squish ball to play with are all ways to build trigger points into the ritual. The more senses that are included (like sight, sound, smell, and touch) the better.

And finally, if possible, make it so the homework ritual happens at the same time everyday. This will train the brain to expect the transition to homework mode. By implementing a homework ritual, you will be creating an ideal time and space where homework can be completed most efficiently.

3. Five Minute Review before Bed

I use this technique effectively with my students that are studying for standardized tests like the ISEE or SAT, but it can be used for regular school work as well. This is a simple trick that does not take much time, but can significantly improve knowledge retention.

Just before bedtime, take 5 minutes to review the lessons and notes from the PREVIOUS week. This is effective for a couple of reasons. Firstly, studies have shown that when you learn something, take a break for a little while, and then come back and learn it again, you will remember it better. It is called the Spacing Effect, and it has been shown to be effective at improving long-term memory retention.

Secondly, reviewing right before bed primes the brain to process the information while asleep. More studies have shown that studying right before going to sleep improves recall the next day (we're getting scientific today!)

To get the most benefits out of this technique, make sure that the review happens within an hour of going to sleep. Also, make sure you are reviewing material from the week prior or earlier. It is best to work with knowledge that has been partially "forgotten" rather than something that was learned that same day.

4. Get Good Sleep

Because sleep is so common, it often gets overlooked. I have had so many students come into my lessons yawning and claiming they are tired because they were up late. And many times when I ask them why they were up so late, they respond with something like, "I wasn't doing anything. Just watching Tik Tok videos." Ughhhh...go to bed, kid!

Honestly...some kids just stay up too late

Poor sleep causes all sorts of problems from lack of focus, to inhibited brain function, to poor memory retention, and more. To have academic success, the brain needs to be in peak condition, so high quality sleep is essential.

One awesome app that can help set the mood for some good old-fashioned high quality sleep is Loóna. It creates interactive "sleepscapes" that you can color in while restful background music and a narrator with a soothing voice help lull you to sleep. I find it to be an amazing way to help wind myself down, especially if my mind is particularly busy on a given day.

5. Parents, Ask Questions

One way for parents to help out their middle schoolers is to ask them questions about what they learned in school.

You may think, "I already do that! My kid never gives me much of a response."

I hear you. It can be tough to get kids to open up sometimes. I have found with my students that a great way to get them to open up is to get specific.

Avoid asking generic questions that trigger what I call a "reflexive" response. A reflexive response is a response to a question that someone says automatically without even thinking about it. When someone gets asked, "Hey, how's it going?" and then they reply, "Good." That is a reflexive response. We want to avoid those.

So instead of asking, "What did you learn at school today?" (which will inevitably lead to the response of "nothing" or "I don't know"), try getting specific. Instead ask, "What is one thing you learned in math class today?" or "What's one interesting fact that your history teacher said today?"

Mom helping son with homework
Asking your kids questions is critical to improve their understanding

It's even better if you know exactly what they are studying. For example, if you know they are reading The Scarlett Letter in English class, you could ask, "How do you feel about Hester Prynne? Do you think she deserved the treatment she got?" Now that's an interesting question! Getting specific leads to REAL conversations, which often lead to kids sharing about other things they are interested in too.

Having these types of conversations with your kids forces them to actually recall the material that they learned in school and play with the ideas in their head. They engage with the schoolwork actively rather than passively, and when they start to engage actively, they will understand the material better, or be able to identify any holes in their understanding.

6. Make Education Fun for Your Kids

It is my firm belief that when kids are having fun, they learn better. That is why I try to make all of my lessons as fun as possible. Parents can help make learning more fun by engaging with their kids and creating a more enjoyable experience. One perfect example of this happened just yesterday.

I was helping one of my students study changing percentages into decimals and vice versa. We were using a site called Blooket, which takes school material and turns it into trivia questions with different kinds of games. The games are always something like trying to collect the most gold or trying to knock each other out in a head-to-head match. There are music, points, prizes, and game pieces to collect. The whole thing is an experience...a fun experience!

We were having so much fun that she decided to invite her little brother over to join us. He didn't know anything about converting percentages to decimals, but he was excited to play and join the fun. By the end of the game, he knew how to convert percentages to decimals too...hmmmm interesting.

happy student studying a textbook
When kids are having fun and enjoying themselves, they learn better.

Blooket is a great resource parents can use to engage their kids and create a fun learning experience. But, you don't have to use an app or a website to bring the fun.

Have a race to see who can solve math problems the fastest on the homework. Congratulate your kids when they beat you.

Have them create flash cards to study for a test, and when you ask them the questions pretend like you are on a game show with your best announcer voice and sound effects.

Make jokes, lighten the mood, make it so completing homework or studying for a test doesn't have to be such a daunting experience. Do that, and your kids will learn much better.

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