Helping Middle School Students Thrive

Middle School Matters

Phyllis Fagell knows a thing or two about middle school. Two of her children have been through it, one is still in it, and in her professional role as a guidance counselor, she works with students K-8 every day, and has done so for years. It’s with these two perspectives that Fagell just published her first book: Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond—and How Parents Can Help.

Fagell argues middle school is not just an expected time of physical, emotional, and intellectual change; it’s an unprecedented period during which parents can help shape their tween and teen’s character and boost their self-confidence. In this latest Q&A, Allison Gilbert, senior writer for the Center of Parent and Teen Communication, explores what parents need to know to put adolescents on the best path to success.

Headshot of Phyllis Fagell, expert on middle school age children
Phyllis Fagell

Allison Gilbert: You write there are 10 skills that are essential to student success in middle school. If you could only choose one, which would be the most important?

Phyllis Fagell: That’s like picking your favorite child! Well, the one I would choose is the ability to consider other people’s perspectives. Middle school is when kids are most self-critical and the most convinced people are watching and judging them. If you raise middle schoolers to both appreciate where others are coming from and value those differences, there’s a greater likelihood they’ll embrace what makes them unique, too. Teens who grow up understanding what makes other individuals special tend to have a healthier self-identity. They’re also more willing to advocate for social justice, take risks, be vulnerable, and share their thoughts and ideas out loud.

AG: How can parents help?

PF: Middle schoolers watch their parents’ every move. They want to please their parents, and they care what their parents think. It’s a miss for parents to think their tweens and teens don’t want to engage; they just want to engage differently than when they were eight years old. A parent with young children might be directive, telling their son or daughter exactly what to do. With an older child, there has to be a give and take. Parents tend to have better relationships if they find the “right” times to talk. A few examples of “right” times could be: while making conversation about a character in a movie; when passing along an interesting article; during moments when no friends or siblings are around. Sometimes it’s easier to have meaningful talks when parents and teens are able to avoid direct eye contact, like when driving in the car together.

Parents should also be aware that students in middle school tend to view feedback as criticism. And because they hear feedback this way, it’s especially important parents pay attention to not only what they say, but how they say it. Try to ask open-ended questions. That’s a very good tool.

If you raise middle schoolers to both appreciate where others are coming from and value those differences, there’s a greater likelihood they’ll embrace what makes them unique, too.

AG: You include a guide for educators in your book. How can teachers better support their students?

PF: Teachers, like parents, are role models. They have the ability to teach life-lessons about resilience and how to be proactive. Teachers may be afraid that addressing these non-academic skills is somehow out of their lane, but wanting to help students succeed should always be the bottom line.

I also encourage teachers to addresses emotional well-being at the beginning of the school year and throughout the academic calendar. I want teachers to describe to their students, “This is what depression is,” “This is what mood fluctuations look like.” I also want them to say, “I’m a helper. I will make sure you get the help you need. I may not have the answers, but I will help you get to someone who does.” (Fagell wrote about the importance of teachers identifying themselves as helpers in this article for The Washington Post.)

AG: You offer different strategies for raising boys and girls. Is each group really so different?

PF: 100%! Girls are generally resistant to bring attention to their accomplishments. There’s concern if they mention an achievement, they’ll be viewed as bragging. Yet they’re not hesitant to take and post selfies. The best way to counter this is by encouraging girls to begin talking and posting about their friends’ achievements. This way, they build a culture based on achievement, not looks or personality or beauty.

For boys, they face their own cultural headwinds. Many boys have the need to express a full spectrum of emotions, but too many are conditioned to think sharing feelings isn’t manly or acceptable. It’s crucial parents encourage boys to express all emotions. If there’s a dad in the picture, he has an opportunity to model the concept that masculinity doesn’t come in one shape or size. In schools, students benefit from boys-only discussion groups.

AG: What chapters of the book could not have been written 25 years ago? Meaning, in just one generation, how is parenting teens different than it was when we were growing up?

PF: When we were growing up, we could get a break from any social drama in school as soon as we left at dismissal. Now, with social media, that drama is 24/7.  The news cycle is also 24/7 and parents are incapable of shielding teens from disturbing events. These changes are seismic. Teens need more coping skills. Parents should not hesitate to introduce the benefits of yoga, calling a friend on the phone, volunteering, or playing a musical instrument simply for the pleasure of it.

AG: If parents have only one takeaway from your book, what would you like it to be?

PF: We need to shift the paradigm of what it means to be a good parent. The common thinking is that the role of a good parent is to protect. But middle school is a time when the stakes are actually low and the capacity to learn and absorb information is high. Parents would do well to consider these years as the perfect time for tweens and teens to make mistakes. Let them experiment. Allow them to discover what they’re actually good at on their own.


Supporting Your Teen’s School Success

When parents are involved in schools and support learning, young people are more successful. Click through to review benefits of getting involved with your child’s education.


The Benefits of School-Parent Partnerships

When teachers and families partner together, teens develop important social and emotional skills and have better academic performance. Look for ways to partner with your teen’s school. This may include volunteering, meeting teachers and administrators, or supporting school events.


Provide Support at Home

You can be involved in your teen’s education from home. Talk regularly with your teen about school and learning. Make it clear you value their education.


Build a Strong Relationship with Your Teen’s Teacher

Meet the teachers in the beginning of the school year. Learn how they best communicate. Share important information that may affect your teen’s school work.


Help Your Teen Manage School Work

This doesn’t mean doing your child’s homework. It means empowering your teen to come up with a routine to effectively complete assignments. It also means helping develop time management and organizational skills. And encouraging healthy eating, sleep, and exercise habits to keep your teen focused and prepared for school.

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.