Middle School 101: Overtired and Overstressed

A nightmare rears its ugly head all too often from mid August to sometime in early June, aligning very well with the beginning and end of the school year. The scene varies from episode to episode, but one example depicts me in the kitchen preparing dinner. I have chicken on the grill, vegetables on the stove, fries in the oven, and a dining room full of people to serve. However, I can’t get one thing finished without another needing my attention. One thing burns or gets too cold while I focus my attention on the others. The annoyed look on the faces of the diners says it all: I’m working too slow and preparing a sub-par meal. The scene leaves me in a state of panic and stress. I wake up confused, in a sweat, and (worst of all) defeated.

Seems a bit ridiculous, right? Perhaps not. All of these external factors play a major part in our success and sanity. This summer, the teachers in the middle school read a book by Ana Homayoun called The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life. The author pegs three major changes in the environment from when we were students to the world our kids live in now:

  1. Our Changing Academic Landscape: Our students seem to know every little bit about another classmate’s academic successes, and find the a valid source of comparison. They know about national averages or GPAs required to get into University of X and how their grades align to these standards (to three or four decimal places). This knowledge can bear the fruit of stressful and unreachable expectations.
  2. Getting Older Younger: Society expects the 11-13 year old kid to be an adult in social scenes, from how tweens dress to how they interact. But the chemistry of puberty is like a class 5 hurricane with multiple eyes in the storm – just when a calm appears, the storm comes roaring back, toying with emotions, physical appearance, and focus. All the while, our middle schoolers think they must be A students without faltering.
  3. Technology: From ridiculous glamorization of the “shock and awe” presented to our students on YouTube to instant social interactions which sometimes lead to destructive decisions, students are behind the 8-ball when it comes to acting with respect and integrity. Pressing “send” is way too easy, and the implications of actions do not keep up with fast-twitch attacks that students wish they could take back. All too often the sharks are yesterday’s best friend; however, the greatest threat is in the mirror.

Although the social and emotional components of academic success are a disillusioning distraction, these are realities of our children’s lives that they must work around. At this point in their lives, middle schoolers do not have the toolset to see past the distractions. The struggles are viewed as “not fair!” or “completely ridiculous.” Students fall prey to the struggles, making statements like “I’m just not smart,” “no one likes me anyway,” or “it’s just not worth the effort.”

Let’s look at this problem from an adult perspective: In order for you and I to complete tasks at work or at home, we have to think ahead and prioritize to ensure that all of the most important concerns are handled. And so we all must make a choice, and often that choice includes sacrifice. Whether we have to miss the first half of the game on television or give up some other form of personal time, we know that sacrifice is necessary because we can work outside of the distractions life throws at us. Our choices are clear because we have erred in the past and have learned how to avoid problems in the future. Further, we are satisfied with doing what is best, even though that road may not take us to results we had previously hope to reach. These are life-long skills you and I have developed via experience. As your child is now in the middle school, it’s time to help them learn these same lessons.

Below I present two concepts I call “Active Learning Tips.” Taken from a concept developed by Jean Piaget (he called it constructivism), active learning occurs when a mind actively questions, explores, and assesses information as it learns, learns more deeply and more meaningfully.  Active learners take in experiences and information, compare them to previous ideas or experiences, add to or alter beliefs, and construct a personal base of knowledge.

Active Learning Tip #1: The first requirement to helping students beat stress and achieve academically falls on us, the adults in the room. We have to realize one central idea: most students don’t get time management in middle school. They honestly think that since they have two tests tomorrow, afternoon soccer practice, and then a piano lesson they just have to figure out how to do it all. They didn’t think about all these things yesterday (or last week as the case ought to be). They are simply under-experienced and without the toolkit necessary to look up and consistently think ahead. We have to be that guide.

  • Have a conversation with your child about what is coming up this week, and have it again throughout the week. Help them to see the layout of the week with the goal of planning to complete each day with success, not simply to wade through the water. Training is a part of mastery.

Active Learning Tip #2Analyzing homework for gaps in learning (highlighting trouble spots, questions written in the margins, etc.) is the key to having success on a test or quiz. Our young men or women can learn from mistakes and focus on the grades that make the most difference (both for a student’s average and for the teacher to analyze academic development). Our middle school has a goal (note that it is a goal, not a law) of assigning on average about 20 minutes of homework per subject per night. That adds up quick. However, analysis of execution should be a component of that homework effort. This analysis will definitely require guidance.

  • Encourage your child to make a priority list daily before starting homework. Make sure there is time to tackle the big things and that the little things, though deserving of respect, wait for your child’s availability. Even then, sometimes a student simply can’t do it all (and violin…and volleyball…). That has to be ok.

While these are just two examples, there are plenty more just like them. It is my hope that this toolset develops for your child while they are in middle school, and that I can coordinate with you to help them become better learners.


Homayoun, Ana. The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life. Perigree, 2013.

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