Prior to coming to Morgan Park Academy, I was an adjunct professor, teaching Acting, Theatre History and Speech classes at two state universities and one private college. At each of the three institutions, there was a visible trend in my students’ effort and achievement between the months of February and April: the dreaded second semester slump.

kurutIn reviewing report cards for the third academic quarter, the same trend is evident at the Middle School level. Many students whose grades had been on an upward trajectory take a sudden dip, indicating a drop in effort and/or a “relaxing” of work habits. Anecdotally, I see more emails and hear more tales of students whose phone privileges have been taken away, or whose parents are considering taking them out of a sport or other cherished activity. The American Psychiatric Association even has a name for what our students typically experience – “Middle School Malaise.” Whatever we title it, this slump is often the main topic of conversation at Spring Parent-Teacher conferences, and invites questions from our parents: what happened? How can we get this student back on track and motivated? What can we do to help?

What happened?

It’s worth noting that the second-semester slump is a normal, natural trend. Often, it is attributed to a combination of factors, including dreary winter weather and a complacency with daily routines. In addition, there is merit in acknowledging that the third academic quarter is significantly longer than the two previous quarters. It’s hard for a student, especially adolescents whose brains are not yet fully developed, to consider academic consequences when the end of the quarter seems so far off.

How can this student get back on track?

The advice that I give to students who are falling behind or in danger of a big grade drop includes a combination of the following suggestions:

  • Stay active – especially in the cold weather, getting up and moving are important for staying motivated and energetic. Inactivity begets more inactivity – and any student (or adult) who has found him/herself watching YouTube videos for hours at a time can appreciate the truth of this statement. Likewise, it’s hard to sit and work on a school project for two hours straight, so I recommend breaks that involve moving around.
  • Manage your time wisely – as a college student with daily rehearsals to attend, I became proficient at managing my time. It seemed the busier I was, the more diligent I had to be about getting work done on time. I recommend that students schedule their work time with parent help.
  • Plan, parcel and prioritize – It is crucial for students to look at upcoming assignments and plan ahead. With major projects or big reading assignments, dividing the work into manageable chunks makes the task seem less monumental. (I had a college professor who used to ask, “How do you complete a big project? The same way an ant eats a pizza. One bite at a time.”) For some students, prioritizing may mean getting the least desirable project or subject out of the way first.

As a parent, how can I help?

  • Help with time management – when I was in school, the tasks that seemed most daunting to me were the big reading projects. My mom would help me by doing the math for me… if I had to read forty pages by Friday, and it was assigned on Monday, then I had to read ten pages per night.
  • Put things in perspective – When your child is disappointed by a grade or outcome, help him or her deal with what may feel like failure. It’s always helpful to keep in mind that even a quarter grade is one grade, in one subject, in one quarter, in one year of what will be a long academic career. Make plans to do better next time, and focus on the things you can change (future work habits) rather than the things you cannot change (the already-earned grade).
  • If possible, don’t take your child out of cherished activities – by all means, take away Xbox time or social media or the iPhone, but try to steer clear of making your child less active. Being in plays or on sports teams benefit your child in both physical and social-emotional ways, and can often provide a much-needed feeling of successful accomplishment.

Finally, recognize that we are all on the same team – the team of adults working to teach your child and help him/her learn applicable skills and work habits. Yes, the second semester slump is common, but it need not be a permanent situation. As with just about everything else at school, that dip in achievement and effort can be a tremendous learning experience.