I just realized that I’ve entered my twenty-first year as a teacher. I should have known by the wrinkles around my new reading glasses (I finally had to get them), but I had not stopped to count up the years for a while. It seems like a good time to reflect and offer some suggestions.
These thoughts go out to parents, but students might consider reading these tips too. After such a long time and a history of teaching more than 2,000 students now, I’ve seen many repeated patterns. These opinions are my own, though they may be shared by some parents, teachers, and researchers. I teach mostly eighth graders, but I think these ideas apply to all middle school students (Grade 6 to Grade 8). I respect if your opinion differs, and every parent sets their own plan with their children.
Bedtime: Many students say that they don’t have a set time for sleeping. Many say that they stay up until midnight almost every night. Some of them are pretending to sleep when they are really using their phones or laptops. Doctors suggest NINE HOURS of sleep for a teenager. Therefore, students should be be asleep by 9:30pm if they wake up at 6:30am. (Our school starts at 7:45am).
- Insist that children go to bed at 9:30 (maybe read for a bit) and turn off the lights at 10:00pm. No options.
- Do not allow them any devices in their room at night (keep laptops, tablets, and phones in another room after 9:30pm). They need help since their self-discipline is still developing.
- If they try to say that they still have homework, insist that they stop anyway because sleep (health) is more important. They will need to budget their time better in order to finish by 9:30pm. If the assignment isn’t done by 9:30pm, then it just isn’t done. They can try to submit it late the next day.
Family and Friend Time: Some students say they don’t have any friends or maybe only have a few. Some students say that they have so many classes and activities, that they never have time for friends and family.
- I suggest only ONE extra-curricular class or activity. School is already many hours of time that is structured, and then students often have homework. When they have extra classes (or tutors or music lessons, etc.), they sometimes don’t get enough “fun” time with people their age. They lose critical time to develop social skills (which are more important than academics).
- Children need family time, like at meal times or even just watching television together. They need to learn how to converse socially, and they need to feel loved daily. Every year, I have multiple students tell me that they hardly ever talk to their parents. Many eat meals by themselves in their bedrooms every school night. That sounds very lonely to me.
Life Skills: Some students struggle to relate to the characters in the books we read or the movies we discuss because they have never attempted certain life skills or have never been allowed. Even the topic of deodorant somehow causes some students to feel awkward when it should be a common element in their daily lives.
- Students at the eighth grade level are definitely old enough to do DAILY chores that support the whole family. These chores will help them develop a sense of accountability and accomplishment that is critical to building self-esteem. The chores will also help them feel more connected to their family (as a team) and their friends (because they won’t feel strange if they can’t do certain skills).
- They could do the dishes after dinners, or take out the trash, or dust all the surfaces in the house, or help with the grocery shopping, or wash windows, or do their own laundry, or mow the lawn, or wash the car, or make their own breakfast and lunch, etc. All of these kinds of skills also develop their problem-solving abilities. In my experience, students with daily chores fare much better when it comes to organizing their materials, keeping a calendar, and holding themselves accountable for assignments or studying.
- Students in middle school should wear deodorant every day. They should apply it after they bathe every day (morning or night). They may consider reapplying in the middle of the day. Many, many students are still not wearing deodorant to school, and this can negatively affect their interaction with others.
Unstructured Time (Non-Device Time for Play/Imagination/Exercise): Many students say that they have minimal “down” time. In my survey, some reported NO downtime on school days.
- Children need DAILY unstructured time. This allows them to unwind from their daily difficulties and sort out their feelings or moods.
- This should NOT be device time (time on a phone, tablet, computer, or video game system).
- Children need time to imagine and create. They might draw or paint or simply make up a fun sport or hang around in the front yard with kids from around the neighborhood. Many students meet up with friends at the park after school, or they do a craft that helps them build their self-esteem. Even reading a “fun” fiction book is helpful down time.
- Daily, unstructured exercise (outside), even just walking, riding a bike, or playing a sport with friends, is extremely beneficial both mentally and physically.
Diet: Many students come to school after skipping breakfast, or they say that they just ate “a piece of bread” or a sugary cereal. Some students eat their entire lunch at brunch time, and then they beg other kids for parts of their lunches at lunch time. My suggestions to parents/guardians:
- In order to be ready to learn, students should have some protein in their breakfast and enough calories to manage several hours before snack time. Waking up at least an hour before school starts will help to have enough time for an unrushed breakfast.
- Students should have enough food to eat at brunch and lunch (both).
- Healthful foods help to balance teenage moodiness, to control acne, and to stabilize body odor.
Device Time: Many students are absolutely addicted to their phones. Some students spend every moment of their free time playing some form of video games. Often, from my observations, devices and video games can limit social development; the students who spend the most time on devices are often the most uncomfortable when working in partnerships or groups. At the same time, students definitely enjoy device time and need a little time to keep up with technology skills.
- No devices in bedrooms after 9:30pm. No devices at meals if other people are present. No devices at family gatherings. Minimal video games on school nights (except maybe educational games).
- Students can “earn” device time with chores and a commitment to their studies. Students can lose device time through bad attitudes, complaining, or weak effort toward chores or studies.
- Maybe three or four hours of games over the course of a weekend is typical if all chores and studies are complete.
- Daily time for social connections (not games) on a phone, tablet, or computer is typical, but not more than an hour per day (maybe more on the weekends).
Please note my thoughts have evolved and continue to evolve as each year passes. I teach about 200 middle school students every year and learn about their lives and habits. From all of that time with them, these ideas have developed to help them develop strong learning skills and better skills of collaboration. However, it is more important for someone to be KIND and BRAVE than any kind of academics. Being KIND at all times and BRAVE enough to form friendships and attempt new experiences will open many pathways to happiness, and being happy is the best way to be a good learner.
Kind means patient, generous with your time and energy, friendly, courteous, humble, and thoughtful in your actions and before you speak.
Brave means open to new experiences, socially courageous about making new friendships, committed to goals, and flexible in various situations or after setbacks.
I hope that helps. Many families already have these ideas in mind and practice, and their middle school life is a successful roadmap to a happy, healthy high school and beyond! Thanks for reading.