Easy Does It: The Middle School Slow Start Program

The St. Stephen’s Middle School has been experimenting with a new way to kick off the school year for 6th graders. Their Slow Start Program was the brainchild of Kerry Patterson, Middle School math teacher. We asked her to explain the details of the program, which delays the start of core academics each year for the youngest members of Gunn Hall.

“Our Slow Start program started as an experiment three years ago,” Paterson said. “When we realized that if blessed with permission to delay diving into teaching content right away, we could use those days to explain to our students why the first few days of school are so critical in teaching and establishing patterns that would hopefully set up each child for a successful school year.”

Patterson said she first heard of slow start initiatives while attending college. In a methodology course, she read “The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher” by Harry Wong. “His book discusses the importance of procedures, why they need to be taught in a logical way and what potential consequences are if they are not upheld,” Patterson explained.

Patterson believed in the program so much, she brought it to the Middle School. “I have never taught at a school where the gift of time was honored in this way,” Patterson said. “Thankfully, our 6th-grade team was fully on board, and we had approval from Middle School Head Magnus Maccow to give it a try.”

Patterson said their first year running the program was “bizarre” because it was done online during remote learning. “That proved to be an additional challenge, but it also established those ‘invisible’ boundaries that we all feel helped lessen anxiety for kids overall,” she explained. “It gives us the chance to make better connections with students before taking on the rigors of core content areas.”

They ran the program again this year for the third time. After students returned from the 6th-grade retreat, they spent three full academic days tackling a number of skill-building topics and activities. The program was presented as an assortment of classes led by Middle School English, science, math and social sciences teachers. “The only classes that began immediately were athletics, language courses and fine arts,” she said.

Students also worked with the school’s learning specialists to gain study strategies, such as how to use a homework planner. In addition, they learned guidelines and expectations for maximizing their time in study halls and how to conference with a teacher. They also learned how to navigate the online LMS system, where students access homework assignments and review class schedules.

“We also introduced students to numerous components of the MySSES Resource Boards,” Patterson said. “We sent them on a scavenger hunt of the site that required them to click on 15 to 20 different tiles and find the answers to various questions, such as ‘what's for lunch today,’ ‘who are the fine arts teachers?’ and ‘when is the library open on weekends?’” Students also were taught how to read a Chapel hymn and were introduced to the school prayer.

“In addition to these more practical skills, we also discussed what it means to be a member of a community, such as being polite to others, picking up litter and saying hello to others on campus,” she added.

Middle School Dean Eileen Wilson is a huge fan of the program. “We have students with vastly different elementary school experiences; Slow Start allows the 6th graders to get in the rhythm of being a St. Stephen's student without the additional pressure of homework,” she said. “Through the program, they get accustomed to the schedule, switching classes, using their lockers and organizing their materials.

“My favorite part of the Soft Start Program is that it allows the students to bond with their teachers and classmates while doing activities that preview the curriculum or that highlight what makes St. Stephen's so special,” Wilson added. “They finish those three days ready to take on our rigorous curriculum and embark on their St. Stephen's careers.” 

Patterson noted that students and parents alike have responded favorably to the program. “The majority of parents specifically mentioned that they ‘loved’ Soft Start,” she said. “One parent of a current 6th grader mentioned that they are already seeing it pay dividends.

“We have more than 30 zip codes represented in 6th grade, and student stress levels can ramp up as we try to merge and blend the variety of educational backgrounds,” Patterson added. “Our Slow Start Program hopefully reduces the negative impact of all the changes a new school year can bring. We are empowering our students to use the tools they learned to navigate their social, emotional and academic daily lives.

“If they know how to use their resources, if they understand they have knowledge of how things work and if they remember they have the tools to problem-solve, then they will develop into independent learners with a supportive learning community on their side,” Patterson concluded.
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Address: 6500 St. Stephen's Dr., Austin, TX 78746
Phone: (512) 327-1213