PMP175: Middle School Matters with Phyllis Fagell

Do you remember what is was like to be a middle school student?

For many people, memories of those years often bring back stories filled with anxiety and awkward physical, emotional, and social changes.

According to Phyllis Fagell, however, those years can be good ones. “Probably what people might be most surprised to know is that I actually had a positive middle school experience, and I was really inspired to write because of my experience as an educator and seeing how dramatically different childhood is today than when I was growing up.”

A school counselor and authorPhyllis Fagell has insights for middle school students and their parents.

“A lot of people have difficulty anticipating their own child going to middle school because they bring negativity to the table,” she explains. “I like to reassure parents that their own memories actually are inflated because they too were going through puberty. Actually those experiences weren’t probably markedly worse than any negative experiences they had at other times when growing up.”

In this week’s podcast episode, Phyllis Fagell, makes a guest appearance and shares about the skills middle school students need to develop. She provides an overview of ten skills, and she unpacks a few key areas where school leaders can provide stronger guidance.

Phyllis’s Bio

Phyllis Fagell is a lincened clincal professional counselor, certified professional school counselor, author, and journalist. She has worked in both public and private schools with students in grades K-12, focusing on middle school for the several years. She currently works full time as the school counselor for Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. As a journalist, Phyllis writes for a number of national publications and is a frequent contributor for Washington Post on counseling, parenting and education. She is the author of the new book, Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help. 

10 Skills for Middle School Students

At the start of our conversation, Phylliss provides an overview of the 10 key skills kids need to know to thrive in middle school and beyond, which include the following:

  1. Make good friend choices
  2. Negotiate conflicts
  3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch
  4. Create homework and organization systems
  5. Consider others’ perspectives
  6. Self-advocate
  7. Self-regulate emotions
  8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations
  9. Make responsible, healthy, ethical choices
  10. Create and innovate

Responsible and Ethical Choices

She also unpacks areas where school leaders can better understand those need areas for their students, including how principals can help students develop responsible/ethical choices. She shares how a veteran principal used meaningful responsibilities as a way for students to build positive identities at school and decrease behavior challenges among his middle school population. 

Finding ways to engage students in building their own strategies also helps them own their learning and empowers them to support school practices. With cell phones, for instance, Phyllis argues that most students want a break from technology but want the rules enforced consistently – if everyone is complying, they avoid Fear of Missing Out or FOMO. 

The more we treat students with respect, she explains, the more likely they are to participate in fulfilling expectations.

Self-Regulating Emotions

Phyllis explains how students may not recognize their own emotions. When school leaders validate, not shame students, they have better outcomes in transforming behavior. Ask students if they’ve been their best selves.

In another story, she explains how a principal confronted middle school boys who were harrassing an eight grade girl. At first the boys were defensive, but when the principals switched gears asking them if they were being their best selves, they softened and were open to correction – creating an opening for restorative consequences.

She explains that when principals help students connect their thoughts to feelings and behaviors, they better they are able to manage their emotions. Other strategies include: Asking kids to choose an emotion, place a name tag by emotion, asking them to assign numbers to their emotions, i.e., 1-10 “I’m in dire straights” to “I’m feeling joyful” and acknowledging both negative and positive emotions.

Helping Boys Connect and Girls Feel Empowered

Finally, Phyllis shares how leaders can help boys and girls learn to express themselves and push against stereotypes. In her work with boys and girls, she helps them identify emotions others may deem unacceptable for them to express, teaches them not to compete with opposite genders, and helps them understand healthy body image as well as ways to work on building trusting relationships.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Whether you are working directly with middle school students or supporting parents or others who work with them everyday, the mental health of your students is as important as their academic health. Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help, is a great resource for caring for their most essential needs.

Now It’s Your Turn

What are some ways you can help your students engage in owning more responsiblity for schoolwide and classroom practices, procedures and expectations? How can you reframe questions to students by focusing helping them be the best versions of themselves? In what ways can you help boys and girls learn to communicate in ways that are safe and empowering?

You can find out more about Phyllis Fagell at her website:

You can check out her new book here:

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker