Why is middle school homework hard?
For many seventh graders, homework reflects the new rigor of middle school, which outstrips the comfortable expectations of the elementary school years. Students who are used to breezing through class time and homework may feel academically challenged for the very first time in their lives. For many students, middle school is also the first time they switch teachers and classrooms throughout the day, requiring new organizational and time management skills with their various assignments. Our even/odd day schedule also requires more time management than our new students may be used to.
Eighth graders may feel initially like they’ve got it all covered, but they too are launching into a more sophisticated curriculum – one that will eventually transition them to high school. The skills they developed last year will be purposefully stretched as the year continues and homework assignments play an important role in that progression.
The middle school brain and body
A fact that compounds the challenge of middle school homework is that the parts of the brain that help us organize, prioritize and manage our time are still under development in young adolescents. A process that may seem straightforward to us can be anything but to a 12-year old. The brain continues to develop until our children reach their mid-twenties, allowing for more complex skill building as they age.
Physical development is another aspect of adolescence that makes homework challenging. With their bodies growing and changing like time-lapse photography, adolescents need plenty of rest and fuel. After getting up early (far earlier than their circadian rhythms call for), spending a long day paying attention in class, participating in athletics or other after-school activities and navigating the teenage social scene, it’s no wonder our kids can be unfocused when they get home from school. They’re pooped!
How parents can help
There are a number ways parents can help empower their middle schooler to manage homework effectively:
1) Be aware.
Research tells us that the changes children go through in the middle school years are second only to the changes that take place between birth and age three. Learning about the vast changes of adolescent brain development can help parents who are used to smooth sailing understand that a bit of rough waters are to be expected during these years. Additional resources can be found at the bottom of this post.
2) Don’t overschedule.
While in elementary school, your child may have spent their after-school time in enrichment activities such as music lessons, athletics, and so on. Going to middle school doesn’t mean these need to be dropped, but pay attention to how much time your child actually has after school to rest, eat and attend to homework. Luckily, Pacific Ridge builds plenty of co-curricular activities into school hours, so students can explore their interests and build non-academic skills without carving up those precious evening hours.
3) Create the right environment.
Homework is best done in a quiet, uncluttered space, with all the tools needed to accomplish the job right at hand. A comfortable chair and table in a low-traffic area of the house are recommended over attempting homework lying on a bed or couch, and fresh snacks and a beverage can give tired brains a boost.
4) Give mono-tasking a thumbs up.
In a survey taken by Pacific Ridge middle schoolers in the spring of 2017, one in three students acknowledged watching Netflix or YouTube while doing homework, and four out of five had other applications open while trying to focus on homework. Our middle school subsequently engaged in a month-long experiment called ONEtober, during which students (and teachers, and some parents) committed to doing just one thing at a time. Students found out from ONEtober what may seem obvious to their parents: limiting devices and other visual entertainment made a huge difference in the amount of time they needed to successfully complete their assignments. We are repeating ONEtober this year – please be on the lookout for more details.
5) Encourage chunking.
Breaking assignments into smaller chunks can turn what may seem like a giant load of homework into a few, manageable tasks. Our working memory can only hold a finite amount of information at one time. Chunking also accommodates the fatigue and flagging attention span that can come at the end of the day. Taking breaks for conversation, checking social media or eating a snack can help reward and clear the brain for the next task.
6) Support their systems.
In classrooms, advisory and in Middle School Skills class, we focus heavily on teaching time management, digital organization and effective study skills. All students are issued a paper planner and taught to use online platforms to organize and keep track of their work. Instead of micro-managing each assignment, we encourage parents to become familiar with their child’s organizational systems and encourage their use instead. Helping students build independent skills offers the most long-term benefit. Ask them to walk you through PowerSchool. Do they know how to find their assignments and grades?
7) Help them self-advocate.
At Pacific Ridge, learning is a collaborative process. Our teachers make themselves available to students before and after class, after school and during Purpose Period every Wednesday. This is a priceless learning resource, but middle schoolers often hesitate to reach out to teachers. Some are hesitant to admit they don’t understand a concept, while others feel intimidated simply approaching a teacher to ask a question. Parents can help by talking their child through the process or role-playing constructive ways to explain to a teacher how they have tried an assignment and where their confusion lies.
8) Be a coach and cheerleader – from the sidelines.
Empowerment is key during the adolescent years and, as stated above, middle school students benefit most when their academic path leads toward independence. Will there be bumps along the way? Of course. How parents respond to those bumps can make an enormous difference. Think about the expectations you bring to the homework process and how they may need to change as your child grows. Encouraging students to have a growth mindset and to follow strategies that will help them succeed will go a long way toward making homework a positive learning experience. And, providing the emotional support that only a parent can give will help you stay connected to your child during the teenage years.
Director of Learning Center