As a first-time homeschool parent, middle school freaked me out. I thought I had to spend those years getting my child at a “high school level.” We needed to prep, write papers, and start learning algebra. As a result, neither my oldest child nor I enjoyed her middle school years very much, and in 8th grade, the stress became too much and we had to throw out all our plans and re-group. I’m now older and wiser and can tell you what you really need to know about how to teach middle school at home.
Did you see the movie InsideOut?
In it, Riley is a middle-school-aged student and we get to see what is going on inside her brain. At one point in the movie, we see essential parts of her character crumbling away. Her memories are shuffled and she struggles with her emotions. Eventually, she establishes some new character foundations, her emotions become more complex and so do her memories.
No, that’s not an alien. It’s your pre-teen child.
This sums up what is actually going on with kids in these middle school years pretty accurately. Their brains are actively disconnecting from who they were as children. They have to then rebuild themselves into a more adult-like brain structure.
There are a couple of things to remember here. Your child’s brain is actually in a not-fully-functional state at this age. Their emotions actually are out of control. And the transition to a more adult brain is difficult. No matter what you think you are going to teach your child in middle school, their brain may just not be up for it. So you need to be patient.
Another interesting fact about middle school? The typical curriculums appear to realize that kids aren’t going to retain much. Compare the math curriculum for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades and you may not find much difference between them. The numbers may get longer and bigger (or smaller, depending on where the decimal place is) but they repeat the same topics over and over.
A Recipe for Frustration.
If your child goes into middle school “great” at math, these curriculums may prove to be a waste of time, as your child isn’t learning much new information. This means that you can just slow down on teaching math in middle school, and worry about it less.
What you really want is for your child to be ready for Algebra. But being ready for advanced math is dependent on brain development. Once your child’s brain has plugged in those pieces that help them think in abstract thoughts and grasp advanced mathematical concepts, they will be ready for high school level math. However, until their brain is ready, all you can do is either wait or make yourself crazy trying to teach a brain that can’t do it yet.
And while we’re talking about math and the brain, it is important to realize that this process of development doesn’t end at age 12 or 13. Your child’s brain is actually growing and changing for years and years. So the child who struggles with Algebra at age 14, may find it much easier at age 16 or 17. Just because math is hard now does not mean it will always be that hard.
Take advantage of the time and opportunity to review.
The good news here is, that if your child has been struggling in math, middle school is a great time to catch up. Once your child’s brain starts laying down some ability to grasp more complex ideas, the child who struggled to learn to multiply can catch up with their peers in the middle school years. Use this time to learn all the math they didn’t seem to catch before.
Another place that curriculums look almost identical in these years is grammar. The grammar concepts taught in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades are very much the same. I recommend that instead of losing your mind teaching the same boring material every year, you spend a month on it once a year. Review the rules, practice, and move on. Your child’s brain may just keep discarding grammar rules as unimportant at this time. It is just not worth saving during the rewiring process.
Keep some perspective.
Think of it as though you were trying to hang up art in a room where the walls are moving. The contractor doesn’t have time for the pretty stuff yet, they need to get the walls set first. Spending a few weeks a year reviewing ideas will get just as much result as spending all year at it at this age. If you live in a state that requires end of year testing, be sure to do your grammar review just before testing, as those tests often put emphasis on things like comma use that your child’s brain won’t care about.
If your child still struggles with grammar in high school, you can then do a serious study on it, and their more mature brain will be more likely to retain it. A student who is worried about writing college essays is going to put more brain power into remembering where commas go and thus put that information into long term memory.
Spend Time On Things That WILL Stick.
So, now that I’ve told you not to worry about math and grammar, what do I recommend you teach?
First up, Shakespeare. Be sure to study at least one play a year. And go see it performed if you can! Shakespeare is a long complex string of jokes that any 12-year-old can appreciate. The art of insults and dick jokes were mixed together with timeless plot lines to create theater we still enjoy today. The use of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime make it so you can watch along with your child almost any play and pause it to discuss what is happening as you go.
My favorites for middle school study are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. But there are many to choose from. Some of the interesting parts of studying these is being able to discuss them. So make time to talk about them, instead of writing papers. Writing essays can wait until high school. Your student needs to work now on being able to summarize, discuss and debate orally.
Let them make some choices for themselves.
Another great choice in middle school can include being in a book club. Find a book club where students all get to suggest reading their favorite books. Getting to discuss what they liked and didn’t like can help your child expand their own reading lists and work on communication skills with peers. Students this age will be more interested in what their peers think than what the adults they know say. So use peers to introduce new ideas instead of relying on them to listen to you.
You can also do group studies on time periods, wars, weapons, mythology, biology, chemistry, or other topics your students are interested in. A deep dive on a single topic may be of more interest than trying to study the history of the entire world at this age.
Don’t Forget the Most Important Lessons.
The most essential thing to teach in middle school is life skills.
Teach your student to cook, light a campfire, buy something in person, order for themselves at Chipotle, and clean up after themselves. All of these are skills they will need for the rest of their lives. And the part of their brain that is straining towards adulthood is more likely to connect to these lessons because they will recognize them as important and relevant. A child who is now tall enough to safely reach the stove, fill the washing machine and put away the dishes can memorize the steps and do more around the house. And reinforcing to them that other family members like their cooking and appreciate their help can bolster self-esteem during these difficult years.
Middle school can also be a great time to take a break from traditional education and unschool. I’m not a fan of unschooling younger children. I think they need an adult in their life to help them learn what they don’t know they don’t know. Once a student reaches middle school though, they should have some ideas about what they would like to learn more about. You can talk to them about their interests and set goals. with them.
Teach Them to Trust Themselves and You.
When my own child unschooled 8th grade, we agreed she would tell me each day at dinner what she had worked on learning that day, to hold her accountable. We agreed on setting some screen limits each day, so she could focus on learning from real books, which I would purchase at her request, and doing real things. She also had a set of chores she had to do each day, which worked on those life skills I mentioned.
Her unschooling time led to her working on learning to play the piano, a deep dive into Norse Mythology, reading many novels, starting a blog and reading about a wide range of science topics that interested her. For my part, I ordered books, checked in with her, and supported her where she needed it. She learned to create the blog with just a little encouragement, but I proofread and grammar checked each post before she hit “publish.” I encouraged her every interest and gave her what she needed, whether it was actual books or someone to talk to.
In 9th grade, she started her high school course work without a problem. While she was unschooling, I was learning more about what we really needed to accomplish in high school and I calmed down. It turns out, as a homeschooler, high school is what you make it, and many of my fears weren’t founded. Speaking to moms who had graduated teens made me realize that we didn’t need to start 9th grade ready for college. We just needed to end 12th grade there! And that’s what high school is for, getting ready for the next stage of life.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.