In the future, I'll use this space to answer questions about “Middle School Matters," my roadmap to the phase for educators and parents. But first, I want to share my philosophy and approach to an age group that too often is misunderstood and maligned. As an exasperated colleague once told me, middle school is the Jan Brady of education. Rather than neglect these years, we should use them to build students' character and confidence. 

I have a unique perspective on middle school because I wear multiple hats. I’m a middle school counselor, a therapist working in private practice with tweens and their caregivers, and the parent of a sixth grader. (My older two children are now middle school graduates.) I also write about tweens for The Washington Post and other national publications. My goal is to bring research to life and give it practicality. 

I started writing “Middle School Matters” when I realized there was an information void. In private practice, parents were complaining to me about how schools deal with issues ranging from bullying to learning and behavioral challenges. At work, colleagues were expressing frustration with parents who they felt either enabled or neglected their middle school children. As a journalist covering evidence-based practices, I knew that some schools were innovating, but many more were relying on outdated, developmentally inappropriate practices and strategies. Parents and schools also lacked a common language, and that was leading to adversarial home-school relationships. 

On the positive side, everyone was hungry for information. Parents sought my advice when their chatty children suddenly turned inward or rebelled. Teachers consulted me when students hurled insults, yelled out non sequiturs, refused to follow the rules, or shut down completely. My students wanted help with everything from clashes with friends to processing changes in family structure to adjusting to heightened academic expectations. As every middle school educator knows, tweens are complex. Depending on the hour, they can be 13 going on three or 13 going on 30. They can simultaneously feel judged and ignored. The same child who spearheads an anti-bullying campaign can ostracize a peer. They can do their homework but refuse to turn it in, or cheat on a test but feel indignant when a classmate cheats in a soccer game. A mature child might confound his principal by sending classmates a video of himself swishing his head in a school toilet. A student might actively desire a positive culture, yet fail to see how spreading rumors impedes that goal. The same kid who desperately wants their principal to see them as trustworthy will dig themselves into a hole by lying about a mistake. There are endless examples.

Middle school has its challenges, but it's a prime opportunity to turn out decent and competent people. Young adolescents are old enough to absorb sophisticated ideas, but young enough to still be impressionable. They’re enthusiastic, open to new ideas, wired for moral action and beginning to solidify the values they’ll hold for life. They’re changing more rapidly than they have at any time in their life other than from birth to age two. They’re morphing cognitively, neurologically, socially, physically, emotionally--even athletically. 

They’re also becoming acutely aware of their real and perceived shortcomings at the exact time when they most want to conform and fit in, and they’re all wondering if they’re good enough. They need the adults in their lives to normalize and coach them through the inevitable challenges, to help them form a positive identity, to instill a sense of purpose and belonging and to foster their growth as learners. This is no easy feat, and it requires sensitive educators who possess a solid understanding of their needs. Tweens have to perceive that school rules are imposed consistently and fairly and that the adults in the building believe in them and have their back. They need reasonable expectations, compassion and a chance to press the reset button when things go awry.

In the book, I start by laying out the ten skills kids need to thrive in middle school and beyond. At the beginning of each chapter, a key indicates which of the following ten skills the content will address. They include:

  1. Make good friend choices

  2. Negotiate conflict

  3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch

  4. Create homework and organizational systems

  5. Consider others’ perspectives

  6. Self-advocate

  7. Self-regulate emotions

  8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations

  9. Make responsible healthy and ethical choices

  10. Create and innovate

The book is divided into four domains: values and integrity, social skills, learning, and empowerment and resilience. If educators want kids to develop these ten skills, we have to start from the inside out. The first section is about helping children morally and ethically negotiate challenges, which requires developing a strong sense of self and empathy for others. The second section covers social skills, and includes chapters on shifting friendships, bullying, gossip, sex and love. The third section focuses on helping kids take responsibility for their own learning, set realistic expectations and develop intrinsic motivation. The final section includes tips for communicating and empowering students, nudging them out of their comfort zone, arming them with coping strategies and preparing them for a changing world. 

In every chapter, I include sentence starters and tips for educators. Throughout the book, I share real students’ stories that capture how exhausting it is to navigate emotional highs and lows without perspective or life experience. I offer possible solutions to a wide range of scenarios, whether students cheat, wreak social havoc, self-harm, struggle with attention, avoid public speaking, dominate group projects, need accommodations, or lack social skills. I include best practices from schools across the world, including Ivanhoe Girls Grammar in Australia, which devotes an entire week to celebrating failure. I share my own approach to building community and improving school culture, and I include discussion guides for both parents and educators that are designed to build common understanding.

Administrators are on the front lines. You’re uniquely positioned to build collaborative partnerships and heighten both teachers’ and parents’ empathy for kids in this age group. If you're successful, the payoff will be a setting where kids feel safe, take risks, strive to be their best selves, develop a strong sense of self and leave middle school feeling stronger and wiser for their struggles. I hope “Middle School Matters” helps you work more productively with your staff, students and parents, and I look forward to answering your questions.


Please send questions for Phyllis Fagel regarding her book “Middle School Matters” to Questions are due on December 23, 2019 and will be answered in the January edition of MASSP in the Middle With You

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC and a counselor at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD. She's the author of "Middle School Matters," a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and a regular columnist for AMLE and Kappan magazines. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at