By Dr. John M. Niska

For the past three years, a small cadre of public school and college middle level educators with advisory experience has provided assistance to approximately 35 Rhode Island middle level schools as they have designed and implemented their individual advisory programs. This assistance has taken the form of conference workshops, schoolwide professional development, roundtable discussions, college credit courses, and visits to schools with exemplary advisory programs.

Conducting these trainings along with observations, feedback from participants, reflection by trainers, and conversations with school Design Team members, has provided a valuable opportunity to see and learn what works. The insights gained through this process should prove to be a benefit to all middle level schools—whether they are just beginning the planning process or hoping to make adjustments to their current program.

These insights include:

Selecting a Design Team
Leadership for the development of the program is most effective if provided by a Design Team composed of representatives from all different groups (administration, academic interdisciplinary teams, unified arts, special education, and counselors) in the school and at least one influential parent. With input from all staff members, the Design Team hammers out major decisions with continuous conversation and feedback from the total staff. The result should be a plan which reflects the faculty’s collective judgment.

Determining Emphasis
One of the first decisions to be made is the selection of an emphasis or type of program (advocacy, community, skills, academic, invigorative, administrative, or a combination). Examining what personalization already exists in the school and then possibly having all staff participate in the card-sorting exercise designed by John Galassi of the University of North Carolina should assist in helping to determine an advisory emphasis. This decision can then lead to considering organizational options (how often will groups meet, for how long, when, etc.).

Creating Buy-in
Students, advisors, and parents all must understand what an advisory is, its purpose, and its benefit to both students and staff. A report in Education Week (December 19, 2007) cites related research on 207 programs nationwide, focusing on social and emotional growth and doing what they were intended to do; namely, to show students are better behaved, more positive, and less anxious than peers in control groups. The programs also showed student achievement improved as measured by both their grades and test scores. Faculty must come to believe advisory, as part of personalization, benefits a student’s overall performance and that each faculty member is responsible for every student’s growth.

Planning and Conducting Professional Development
This is a crucial part necessary to increase advisors’ confidence and competence. With the selected program emphasis in mind, the Design Team can determine what understandings and skills staff members presently possess and which additional ones are needed. Also, short periods of time at staff meetings can be devoted for Design Team members to model and lead sample activities. When eighth graders were asked at several middle schools what was important to include in advisory preparation, several were very vociferous in their response, “Make certain advisors are trained and well prepared. It shows when they are not.”

Devising Content for the Program
Although the primary focus is the relationship or connection developed between the advisor and student(s), activities can serve as a vehicle to get to that relationship. Our experience tells us a prepackaged approach does not work, as the program at each school is unique and therefore each school should develop its own materials. This past summer, Design Team members from half a dozen middle schools shared their binders of activities they had created over the summer as part of their participation in one of the college credit classes. Keeping their program’s emphasis in the forefront, they used both their knowledge of the five stages of group development (pre-affiliation, power and control, intimacy, differentiation, and termination) and the developmental differences between a 10 and 14 year old as a guide. They realized what they created can be used by an advisor, but it must be coupled with the specific needs of each advisory group.

Thinking Process Over Content
The more each advisor understands about typical behaviors in each stage of the group process (pre-affiliation, power and control, intimacy, differentiation, and termination) the easier it is to help advisees. Content is subject matter under discussion—what is being said. Process relates to how it is being said (or not said), when, by whom, to whom, and how the group reacts to it. Advisors must see themselves as facilitators of learning, not as disseminators of knowledge. An advisory program is primarily about the change in the roles of teachers with students. Also, members on a well-functioning interdisciplinary team can have a strong sense of how to deal with process issues which can be translated to their advisor role.

Taking Time
And finally, take at least a year to design your advisory program, procure some professional development, visit advisors and schools with exemplary programs, prepare the total staff, and devise pertinent activities to complement the needs of each advisory group. It certainly will be time well spent!

Dr. John M. Niska, an associate professor and the coordinator of the Middle Level Teachers’ Program at Rhode Island College in Providence, plays an active role in the middle level advisory work in Rhode Island. Niska, who has experience implementing a program both as an advisor and a middle level principal, is the president-elect of the National Professors of Middle Level Educators (NaPOMLE) Chapter. His professional development kit, Launching a Successful Advisory Program, co-written with Dr. Sue Thompson of the University of Missouri, is available at He can be reached at


Galassi, J., Gulledge, S. A., &Cox, N. D. (1997). Advisory: Definitions, descriptions, decisions directions. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Niska, J. M. and S. C.Thompson. (2007). Launching a successful advisory program: A professional development kit. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Viadero, Debra. (2007, December 19). Social skills programs found to yield results in academic subjects. Education Week, 27 (16), 1-3.