Occasionally, I find myself distracted by lists that pop up in my news or Facebook feed. There’s always a catchy title like “Twenty Places to Visit Before You Die” or “Top Ten Foods That Everyone Loves” and so on. They grab my attention because I find myself wanting to agree or disagree.
Recently, another title caught my attention: “Ex-Dean of Stanford names skills that every 18-year-old needs.” When I read through her list, I felt myself agreeing with everything she said, and what worried me was the fact that my students are only five years from the age of eighteen. Many of them are still building these skills, and it was worth posting her thoughts here in an effort to continue my ongoing attempt to promote more life skills and give less focus on academics. Please take a moment to read her post here.
Then, I wondered if there was a similar list equivalent in length and description for the middle-school level. Here, on the cusp of the first day of school, I thought I would give it a try. With the exception of Number 7, the titles seem to line up:
1. A middle school student must be able to talk to strangers: other students, teachers, the custodian, the school secretary, the crossing guard, etc. Skills like ordering in a restaurant helps to gain practice talking to a stranger. When I was nine, I would go the grocery store on my own and learn how to pick up an item that my mother needed as well as managing the courtesy of talking with the clerk at the register. I enjoyed practicing these skills at young ages. Some of my current students are quite shy that they don’t know how to ask for help, so practice like this might lead to confidence when speaking to strangers.
2. A middle school student needs to be able to find his/her way around campus. I am always so surprised by the number of parents who come onto campus the first day of school. Technically, they are not allowed to do this. Various laws govern who can come onto campus, but the administration tends to be flexible the first few days. However, I feel it may have a negative impact toward the student’s independence if a parent wanders around with them the first few days looking for classrooms and facilities. All of this will be managed by teachers, and every student should be independent enough to walk onto campus and find their way around, even sixth graders. There are plenty of helpful people around, and every child should brave the ability to say, “Excuse me, can you tell me where to find Room Number Three?”
3. A middle school student must be able to manage her/his workload, materials, and deadlines. To put it plainly, we have plenty of students who manage their belongings, their workload, and their deadlines without any help from anyone. They are independent and confident. I would say this amounts to maybe 50% of my students (eighth graders). The rest represent a spectrum of abilities, from students who flounder a little all the way down to students who struggle to take care of their school life. At the lower end of that spectrum, students have backpacks full of old junk, their papers are constantly wrinkled or missing, they are always missing deadlines because they don’t care enough to write down assignments, and they might be generally distracted. Overwhelmingly, from my observations, these students who struggle the most often have parents who do too much. Some students will mention that their parents still clean out their binders and backpacks for them, and that their parents still visit teacher websites to write down all the assignments and prepare an “after school lesson” for their children. This works directly against the development of the child. The students who are most successful have parents who say, “You can do it,” and they stay back. I can understand that it is difficult to watch the student make mistakes and struggle, but without that process, she/he might never learn manage themselves.
4. A middle school student should be able to contribute to the running of a household. Every child, at every age could be part of the administration of household duties on a daily basis. Even a five-year-old could learn how to take his plate up to the sink after dinner. About 50% of my eighth grade students have never used a broom. That number is surprised me greatly. Sometimes, I hand out paper towels and spray to clean the desks, and even watching the way that some of them wipe the desks looks like they have never cleaned in that way. A large percentage of my students has never cooked anything except toast. It seems critical that they have chores so they can learn basic skills and also contribute to the household “team.” This gives them confidence to try new tasks at school, like filling up the stapler with staples instead of just turning around and saying, “Teacher, this is empty.” When a thirteen-year-old says that to me, I tend to look at them with a shocked look and say something like, “Well, fill it up.” Even if they have never filled a stapler, students who have chores at home will be far more inclined to attempt new tasks like these.
5. A middle school student should be able to handle interpersonal problems. Middle school can be a social minefield. Some students invest minimal effort into making friends, and they end up lonely without telling anyone. Parents sometimes learn after months and months that their daughter has been eating lunch alone every day because she is too scared to sit down with students who may be slightly unfamiliar. Other students invest far too much into making friends. They see popularity at all costs, which sometimes advertises their insecurity, and other students prey on it. At some point, a small argument turns into the “worst thing ever!” They lose all ability to focus on their learning and instead focus solely on their personal misery. They talk constantly about who they hate and why, and sometimes they turn to horrible tactics like online bullying or making up lies. Teachers can really help in these situations because we know students and understand the environment well, but most of all, we tell the students some advice and then leave them to manage the problem themselves. With some small seeds of advice, the skills grow only when the student attempts to make friends or resolve disputes on her own.
6. A middle school student should be able to cope with ups and downs. High pressure parents may cause sensitive students. There is a great deal of literature on this topic. If a parent has high expectations all the time, the child may learn to have high expectations of himself/herself. Of course, there is a benefit to that approach because it sometimes leads to high achievement. However, what happens when the student makes a mistake? With all that pressure toward perfection, the student sometimes sees that mistake as absolute failure, and they fall apart. They cry, sink into depression, lash out angrily, refuse to try again, and have such low self-esteem that they ruin friendships. I see this happen every single year. If a student is struggling, he/she should know how to manage the downward movement. Independently, he/she should be able to approach the teacher and get some advice, or work with a study partner, or use online resources, or make a plan to success. Sometimes parents say, “I didn’t know he was doing poorly because you didn’t post his grade online.” This removes the student from the equation. The student attends my class every day, so he/she is well aware of his/her grade and should be able to make adjustments regardless of parent motivation. This isn’t to say that parents should ignore their child’s progress, but as much as possible, a child needs to navigate success and failure as independently as possible at this age. It’s my hope that a child can bomb a test and say to himself, “Well, that stinks, but I have a plan to fix it,” instead of feeling miserable. Being miserable sometimes is part of life, but perseverance is far more important than perfection.
7. A middle school student must be able to manage his/her physical needs. Every middle school child should wear deodorant—every day. Every middle school child should bathe daily. Every middle school child should be able to make his own lunch, monitor his own bathroom needs, wear clean clothes every day, and go to bed by 10:00 P.M. Unfortunately, we have many exhausted students who arrive to school without combing their hair or brushing their teeth (which should happen every morning), and this sometimes earns them negative attention from a very social environment. When I ask, “Why are you so tired?” they sometimes tell me that they stayed up until 2:00 A.M. watching videos on Youtube. They are definitely old enough to know that this negatively affects their ability to learn as much as their body odor affects their ability to work in groups. By the end of fifth grade, parents should not have to remind a child that brushing his teeth in the morning is a requirement. It should hopefully be a learned habit before that time, along with wearing clean clothing, eating a healthy lunch, and getting exercise on a daily basis. We have many, many parents who try to hand deliver a lunch to their children at lunch. They seem to think that their child can not bring a lunch to school or manage the lunch line. It might help to give your child the ability to take care of his/her own lunch needs by sixth grade. It will give you a break, but more importantly, it will give him/her a lifelong skill.
8. A middle school student must be able to take risks. This relates to all the skills above. For a young person, saying “Hello” to a unfamiliar teacher feels like a risk. Wandering around Target alone to find the bathroom feels like a risk. Attempting a big project in science class feels like a risk because it takes a lot of time and may not live up to expectations. And yet, all middle school students need this skill most of all. This confidence will be the most important determiner of happiness and achievement than any other trait. Taking a risk and succeeding leads to more courage, both socially and academically. Taking a risk and falling short leads to healthy coping skills. Of course, adults will always try to protect children from risk. We tell them not to climb the tree because they might fall. We tell them not to talk to strangers because there are bad people in the world. We tell them not to use the stove because they might burn themselves. There are developmental levels for all risks, and as adults, we have to be flexible and keep learning so we know the right time to let go. Middle school is a great time to hand off the controls and allow children to navigate. If they don’t have any control, they won’t care about where they are going.
[Note: The list of eight skills needed by eighteen-year-olds by Julie Lythcott-Haims originally appeared in her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success (Henry Holt & Co., 2015)]