10 Skills Adolescents Need to Thrive in School

Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond—and How Parents Can Help 
By Phyllis Fagell
(Hachette Book Group, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Cheryl Mizerny

If you’ve ever read my MiddleWeb posts, you know I’m hooked on professional development. I just can’t stop myself from reading articles or buying a new PD book. I found Phyllis Fagell’s work at AMLE and in the Washington Post, and I’ve since become a huge fan.

When given the opportunity to read her book, Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond—and How Parents Can Help, I jumped at the chance.

Full disclosure—I am not a parent. However, I’ve been teaching for 27 years, primarily at the middle school level, and I’ve watched my four nieces and their parents navigate the middle school years. In addition, I teach 6th grade, which is the transition year from elementary in my school district, and am always looking for great ways to help ease this move.

I was drawn to Fagell’s work because I could tell that she understands the heart and soul of middle schoolers and she is walking the walk as a parent and counselor.

Beyond middle school stereotypes

Whenever someone finds out I teach middle school, I am often met with mock-horror and many even say “bless you” or “I could never do that.” In Middle School Matters, Fagell tries to combat this mindset by encouraging parents (and educators) to appreciate this time as the Wonder Years and not something to dread.

She shares the many gifts that this age-range brings to the table and helps parents unwrap them. She states, “Parents’ primary job is to love and honor their children, and this is especially important in middle school. The wider the gap between who kids really are and who they think you need them to be, the more they’ll struggle” (p. 8). She spends the bulk of the book helping adults find a way to close this gap.

Fagell breaks down the 10 skills middle school kids need to thrive. She groups them into four categories: Values and Integrity, Social Skills, Learning, and Empowerment and Resilience. The skills addressed include everything from making good friendship choices and negotiating conflict to creating homework systems and cultivating passions.

Fagell goes beyond advice about potential trouble issues into encouraging your child to be the best version of themselves. And she does all of this with practical, straightforward advice that is informed by her own experience and research (as a parent and school counselor) without getting bogged down in the weeds of the psychology. The chapters read like you are talking to a coworker or fellow parent because that is exactly who she is.

What I really appreciated about Middle School Matters

1. Fagell attempts to clear up misconceptions parents may have. For example, the common notion that parenting will be more hands-off when children reach this age. In reality, they may need even more monitoring and guidance than they did in elementary school.

2. She lists the key skills in each of her four categories at the beginning of each chapter, and ends with key takeaways in the form of “Top Tips for Parents.” This makes the book quick and easy to navigate and allows busy parents to find just what they need.

3. She provides real-life case examples in every chapter, and these are all things I have seen first-hand in my work. This helps to contextualize these behaviors and can ease parental concern about whether their child is exhibiting “normal” behavior.

4. She gives specific, easy-to-follow advice on how to have tough conversations with your child, including brilliant “Conversation Starters” at the end of each chapter. I found these to be perfectly phrased to elicit a conversation rather than to make adolescent children feel judged and therefore shut down. In fact, the entire book is a no-judgement zone, and I appreciated that she is not trying to make parents feel as if they have already made irreparable mistakes or as if they are not doing enough. After all, every child experiences some difficulties and it doesn’t help if parents feel defeated from the onset of a book intended to help.

5. She provides separate chapters on gender-specific issues. (And she does address the fact that, while there are separate chapters for boys and girls, she realizes it does not “capture the full spectrum of gender identities” and provides resources for further information (p. 166). I teach at an all-girls’ school and have previously taught mostly boys when I taught special education. I found her insights to be spot-on.

6. She encourages parents to be proactive and introduces them to issues that may potentially arise so that they can head them off at the pass.

7. Finally, she provides advice for the educators of middle school students, and I appreciate that she realizes parents, teachers, and counselors are a team working toward the same goal.

Who should read this book?

I would not hesitate to recommend this book to parents of current or future middle school students. In fact, we had parent-teacher conferences on Friday and I found myself doing just that multiple times. In addition, I shared the book with my principal who was so excited that she in working on having Phyllis Fagell come speak to parents at our school.

This is definitely one book that I’m happy is in my toolbox, and I will refer to it for many years to come.

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 27 years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here and here.

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