So, your kid is in middle school. If you’re like most parents, you’ve got your hands full with exploding backpacks and germ war lockers. When it comes to tests and papers, you’re probably biting your nails (and your tongue, too!) But at least the big stakes of high school and college are still way off in the future…right?

Not exactly, says the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Of course, there's still plenty of room for your child to fool around, and it’s true that college applications won’t really hit until twelfth grade. But, NACAC researchers have found that middle school lays important foundations for higher education. Whether it’s calendars or coursework, there’s a lot you can do now to pave the way for high school and college success. Here are some tips to get your middle schooler started:

  • Connect with the school. “We always say, consult the school counselor, even in 6th grade,” says Shanda Ivory, Director of Communications for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Don’t hesitate to ask for details about your child’s full program, and check in often. Let the school know that you’re open to bad news as well as good—but that you do expect to be an active partner. “Parents,” says Ivory, “just have to be involved in their child’s education.”
  • Seek Solid Challenges. Kids should take the four core subjects – English, Math, Science, and Social Studies – for all three years of middle school. To smooth the way for college, however, you should also encourage your child to take foreign language as soon as it’s on offer. And pay attention to math: if students can complete Algebra I by the end of eighth grade (now listed in several states’ standards, anyway), it will pave the way to more advanced math and science classes in high school. Finally, check with the teacher to make sure that your child’s English course includes grammar and writing as well as literature.
  • Build Good Study Habits. Turns out that all that fretting over flyaway papers has a purpose: kids always do better in school when they keep their stuff organized, and establish strong study routines. Get your child a student planner at the beginning of the school year and show her how to use it to keep track of homework assignments, upcoming tests, and project due dates. The National Association for College Admission Counseling also suggests taking kids often to the library, and helping them learn to use its many resources, especially for research.
  • Connect With Your Kid. Sure, your young teen may seem to push you away sometimes, but make no mistake: you are just as important as ever. Spend time together in activities you both enjoy; talk and listen over meals; ask plenty of nonjudgmental questions. In particular, encourage your child to dream about an exciting future, one which will include college. You might even want to plan a short day trip if there’s a college nearby—not to apply, but to build good feelings and hopes for the future.

So does this “future focus” mean that your middle schooler can’t ever bang around and goof up? Of course not, says Ann Coles, Ed.D., Senior Advisor for College Access at TERI, a Boston-based educational organization. Kids are kids…but in today’s complex world, parents can play an invaluable role in helping kids choose wisely with an eye towards the future. “The world today,” says Coles, “is very different from the world 25 years ago. Opportunities to earn a living wage and participate fully in society require higher levels of literacy—in both math and language—than before. There is so much more information…This isn’t just about getting into Harvard. It’s about reaching your dreams in real life.”