I am grateful each January for the 365-page story that lies ahead, yet to be written. Each one of us has the opportunity to refocus our vision for tomorrow and update our daily pursuits with that vision in mind. As adults, we have learned that all established goals require actionable steps and consistent (often daily or weekly) behaviors which eventually produce the end results we desire. For all of us, setting goals seems to be the easy part; it is the calculated, consistent follow-through where we struggle.
In working with middle schoolers, educators often encourage students to articulate goals in several areas of their lives: academic, extracurricular, personal, etc. Though we know it is even more difficult for adolescents to see their goals through based on their burgeoning executive functioning skills, common wisdom assumes that their emotional investment in a desired end will produce greater motivation in their disparate endeavors.
Frankly, their emotional investment in their own goals is a given. In fact, Thomas Armstrong, discussing the adolescent brain, explains:
. . . the limbic system or emotional brain (which serves in a sense as a switchboard for [these and other] brain chemicals) matures several years before the prefrontal cortex, which governs such functions as inhibition, decision-making, planning, reflecting, organizing, and strategizing (American Institute for Learning and Human Development, 2017).
Accordingly, though adolescents may be emotionally invested in and energized by the goals they have set, they will need extra support from adults to organize and strategize a sustainable daily plan, leading to their desired end. As students journey from 6th to 8th grade, we expect a certain level of independence to emerge, but the most effective and sustainable growth in adolescent autonomy flourishes within a firm framework of daily rituals and automation.
At first, working closely with your middle schooler to develop an ideal daily/weekly/monthly schedule is time-consuming, but once established, a firm plan removes several daily variables for your student. Consistent rituals, particularly focused on daily preparedness, homework, and even a weekly preview, help preserve students' much-needed cognitive energy which, instead, can be directly applied to their academic tasks.
For many middle schoolers without established rituals for homework completion, for instance, a great deal of their energy and focus is exhausted each day simply triaging assignments to determine the order in which they should be completed for that evening. Patterns like these are not uncommon, producing frustration, discouragement and a waning faith in one's own self-efficacy in school and even in other areas of life.
Experts agree that middle school is an ideal time to form lifelong habits of mind, scholarship, and productivity. Armstrong elaborates: "We know that the adolescent brain is highly 'neuroplastic', meaning that its structure and function can be changed through environmental influences" (2017).
Consequently, the habits formed in middle school are not only powerful, but also enduring - regardless of whether or not they are positive, regardless of whether or not they are intentional.
One might ask, "So where do I begin? How can I help my middle schooler establish the structure recommended, habits and rituals that can develop into a lasting framework for goal pursuit well into the future?" Here are 7 steps parents can take today to help their middle schoolers make progress toward their goals:
- Have your middle schooler write down 3 personal goals to be accomplished over the next 4-6 months: He or she has already done this at school, but the New Year is a worthy time to review and update goals as needed.
- Post your middle schooler's goals in several daily visible locations: The frequent reminders provide ongoing motivation and accountability. Consider places like the bathroom mirror, front cover of binder/planner, refrigerator, computer screen saver, bedroom door, etc.
- With these goals in mind, work together to create a schedule which represents his or her "ideal week": No week will go exactly as planned, but a calculated schedule functions like a GPS, bringing your middle schooler back on course quickly.
- AUTOMATE as much as possible: Create a "When I Get Home from School" ritual which might include cleaning out and organizing backpack and gym bag each day; do homework in the same order each day (ex. "I always do Math and Foreign Language during study hall, I do Language Arts before dinner, then after dinner I do Social Studies then Science")
- Adopt household rituals which support your middleschooler's "ideal week": Establish common "tech free" time in the house, build in common time for journaling, reading or reflection.
- Weekly Review/Preview Meetings: Sit down with your middleschooler on Sunday afternoons/evenings for 20 minutes to discuss progress toward goals over the past week and to look at the week ahead.
- Celebrate progress made, even if the initial goal isn't met yet: Students need to be reminded that habits take considerable time to cement and that, as always, faithfulness in the process is much more important than the product.
Above all else, your middle schooler needs your patience and encouragement. The acquisition of new skills will inevitably include some initial inconsistency. However, before Chapter 1 of this year's story unfolds, take some time to help your middle schooler devise and implement habits that will operationalize 2018 goals, and create a firm foundation of daily rituals and automation for years to come.