By: Jackie Stachel, MS CCC-SLP   Director of Communications, Beyond BookSmart

Few phrases are more fraught for families than “now that you’re in high school…” As if middle school wasn’t challenging enough, with bad hair days, projects, hormones, and science labs that actually expect students to construct a device to prevent a raw egg from breaking from a drop of 20 feet…with JUST STRAWS AND RUBBER BANDS! Well, you get the picture (probably all too clearly).

Turns out, there’s a darned good reason for parents to feel anxious. Even when the curriculum in middle school has been rigorous, in high school the expectations get amped up in ways that put students with weak Executive Function skills in peril.

Key Differences Between Middle School & High School

Team teaching, common in middle schools, is not widely used in high school settings. According to Heather Coffey, on the website Learn NC, “[middle school] Teams are typically composed of between two and four teachers working collaboratively to plan thematic units and lesson plans in order to provide a more supportive environment for students.” Sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teachers in this model use collaborative planning time to interweave themes across subjects. Long term projects, tests, and papers are spaced mindfully, so that students are not juggling too many high-stakes assignments simultaneously. Ideally, teachers strive to have consistent expectations across academic disciplines, with clear methods of communication (for example, all assignments are found online, in a single location). Teachers on the team have meetings where each child is discussed and flagged if they need support, as necessary.

Fast forward to September 20th or so of ninth grade: The typical student has 5-7 different teachers who see each other only during mandatory faculty meetings, or in passing in the parking lot or hallways. The typical high school freshman has been assigned a research paper on ancient Roman culture in History, an essay on the summer reading (that was half-heartedly thumbed through on Labor Day), a test in Spanish, a quiz in Math, and a binder check in Science, all within the same week. Nightly textbook reading has increased to 10-15 pages per subject, per night. And man, that science text is inscrutable, with all those new vocabulary words in italics every paragraph or so! Add to that the time demands of after school athletics, with later game times, longer travels to away games, and more frequent and rigorous practices, on top of an earlier start time for morning classes than in middle school, and you’ve got a big heaping helping of angst during this transitional period.

Priority 1: Time Management

What’s a sleepless parent to do? First of all, help your child become mindful of his time and how he is using it. Help him set up his own Google calendar and populate it with color coded chunks of time (i.e, blue for school, green for sports, yellow for social activities, orange for family time, purple for appointments), so he can plan ahead and start thinking beyond the present moment. Show him how to set reminders on his calendar, and to set aside specific times for homework. Eventually, your child should own his schedule, so that the response to “Mom, when is my choir practice?” can be “Where can you locate that information yourself? Have you put the schedule on your calendar?” Google calendar is also a powerful way to envision time. If your child wants to add another activity to an already packed schedule, take a look at his calendar together and ask “Where will you fit this in? Have you accounted for drive time? How long is this activity?” This will help build time-management skills that will take him far beyond high school.

Priority 2: Prioritizing and Chunking

Second, model for your child the ways in which you track your own work, and how you break down tasks into smaller parts and plan when to do them. “I have to write a blog article tomorrow. I’ll do my research for the article today, but I also need to see 3 clients this afternoon. Looks like I’ll devote the morning to research.” Encourage your child to check with his teachers frequently to get guidance on how best to break a specific long-term assignment into chunks (also known as chunking). Particularly if he or she is taking advanced-level courses, many teachers assume these students have learned planning skills already, so they might not provide explicit instructions beyond the panic-inducing “Don’t forget, the essay is due tomorrow!”

Priority 3: Reach Out For Support

If your child is resistant to your guidance, reach out to school support personnel, or contact an Executive Function Coach. While the transition from middle school to high school is fraught with tension for many parents and students, the key to easing that transition are Executive Function skills such as planning, prioritizing, and time management. Now is the time to start solidifying those skills for a good start to a successful freshman year, and maybe sounder sleep for parents…until your teen gets the car keys, that is.

Download our free guide: 5 Essential Tips to the Transition from Middle School to High School