“Part of growing up,” I used to tell my middle school students, “is bossing yourself so well that no one else has to do it.”

And then I’d tell them about my struggle to keep it together when I was their age—how I’d daydream in study hall,  put off doing papers until it was too late to do a good job, and read a book I loved instead of a book I’d been assigned.

“I got tired of adults nagging me,” I’d tell them. “so I gradually figured out some ways to make myself do what I didn’t want to do.”

Middle school kids, I found, want to see themselves as independent and responsible, in other words, grown up. But some of them need a few tips for taking charge of their own lives.

Here are some strategies they seem to understand and that I still use for myself:

  • Starting—I’ll do it for ten minutes, I often tell myself. In fact, I often set a timer. It’s amazing what can happen with a sink full of dishes, an empty word document, or an e-mail inbox in just ten minutes.
  • Chunking—I always eat more of my apple when I slice it, and when students break a task into parts, the task seems more manageable. Do a little, I’d tell students, then get up—stand and stretch, sharpen a pencil, or throw paper into the trash. Then do another chunk.
  • Rewarding—In education jargon, this is called the Premack Principle, but I described it to students as the When/Then Strategy. And they recognize it because adults have often used it on them: when you eat your peas, then you get a cookie. The key is to teach students to use this principle on themselves. When you do your homework, I’d tell them, do a page of math, then ride your bike around the block. Use what you like to make yourself do what you don’t like.

The goal at middle school is to help students shift into self-government, to increasingly hand them strategies instead of orders. Every day, for the rest of their lives, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do. But they’ll find this more palatable if they learn to govern themselves. It’s no fun to have someone else always bossing you around.

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