Middle School Matters

The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond--and How Parents Can Help


By Phyllis L. Fagell

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A counselor and popular Washington Post contributor offers a new take on grades 6-8 as a distinct developmental phase–and the perfect time to set up kids to thrive.

Middle school is its own important, distinct territory, and yet it’s either written off as an uncomfortable rite of passage or lumped in with other developmental phases. Based on her many years working in schools, professional counselor Phyllis Fagell sees these years instead as a critical stage that parents can’t afford to ignore (and though “middle school” includes different grades in various regions, Fagell maintains that the ages make more of a difference than the setting). Though the transition from childhood to adolescence can be tough for kids, this time of rapid physical, intellectual, moral, social, and emotional change is a unique opportunity to proactively build character and confidence.

Fagell helps parents use the middle school years as a low-stakes training ground to teach kids the key skills they’ll need to thrive now and in the future, including making good friend choices, negotiating conflict, regulating their own emotions, be their own advocates, and more. To answer parents’ most common questions and struggles with middle school-aged children, Fagell combines her professional and personal expertise with stories and advice from prominent psychologists, doctors, parents, educators, school professionals, and middle schoolers themselves.


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MENTION THE WORDS “MIDDLE SCHOOL” AND MOST ADULTS groan. I get it. Even if we handled the phase with grace, we’re wired to remember the bad and downright awkward moments. I have my own mental catalogue: succumbing to pressure to weigh myself at a sleepover. Getting tossed out of classes for giggling uncontrollably and passing notes. Eking by with a D in seventh-grade math. Creating a “slam book” with friends so we could describe one another’s flaws in detail. That seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time, but the comments stuck. (It was thirty years before I cut my bangs again.) At twelve, peer approval was everything.

Kids are navigating a different world today, but middle school is equally memorable. No one gets out unchanged. Middle school is a stew of simmering hormones, shifting relationships, and increased expectations. Mere months separate elementary from middle school, but the shift is seismic. Suddenly, kids are yanked out of childhood and tossed into adolescence. They have to master locker combinations, multiple courses, and new routines. There’s an influx of new students and greater academic demands. All of this is exciting, but leaves them feeling unmoored when they most want to belong and fit in.

This is why middle school can seem like an endless soap opera featuring complicated characters, from the thirteen-year-old girl who takes pictures of herself in provocative poses and shares them with complete strangers, to the twelve-year-old boy who does his homework every night but refuses to turn it in. A mature eighth-grade boy may baffle his parents by sticking his head in a toilet for fun on social media. A once-easygoing fifth grader may lash out at anyone who looks at her the wrong way in sixth grade. A seventh-grade soccer player may shut down when he gets cut from the school team. As painful as this is for them to experience, it can be even more excruciating to witness. Your kids may seem unrecognizable to you and feel like strangers to themselves.

Your child’s lack of life experience exacerbates already heightened emotions. Adults tend to look back on that phase and remember only the intensity, but kids can emerge from this vulnerable period feeling happy, competent, and prepared for high school and adult life. Missteps are inevitable and shouldn’t be seen as disasters. It feels counterintuitive, but those slips actually build resilience. It’s tough to strike the right balance between supporting kids and impeding their emerging autonomy.

When I graduated from junior high school in 1987, I never imagined that someday I’d work in one. It took me a while to find my way back, but I’ve now been through middle school three times: as a student, as a parent, and now as a counselor. I started my career as a journalist writing about health and science. After the birth of my second child, I decided to change careers, becoming a licensed therapist and professional school counselor. Little did I know that my oldest son would start middle school the same year I began working in one! The following year, my daughter started sixth grade. (For the record, as of this writing, that’s two kids down, one to go.) On top of that, I was seeing middle school kids and their parents in private practice.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become a little obsessed with this age group. Shortly after I started working as a middle school counselor, I began writing for the Washington Post about the stuff that keeps me fired up at night: busting myths, stereotypes, and outdated beliefs about learning, gender differences, mental health, and communication. Rethinking how we foster autonomy, teach self-regulation, and frame success. Instilling honesty, kindness, and resilience. I’ve looked to other fields from character education to technology for inspiration. I’ve spent the past few years interviewing psychologists, teachers, writers, researchers, students, physicians, parents, entrepreneurs, administrators, consultants, and maker educators. Along the way, I’ve developed and honed my own approach. One thing is clear: we need a new middle school mind-set.

As a counselor, I’ve vicariously experienced so much anxiety, but even so, I’ve started to question the cliché about middle school as an unavoidable period of misery that must be endured. After working with hundreds of kids and parents, I believe we’ve got the paradigm all wrong. Yes, middle school is messy, dramatic, and confusing at times, but it’s also the perfect time to proactively build character and confidence.

I’ve seen this happen so many times. When I first started working with a sixth-grade girl named Rebecca, she was obsessed with her grades. Every night, she’d dissolve into tears, terrified that she had bombed a test. Her parents and I worried that she’d buckle under the increased pressure of high school. For the next two years, we worked together to teach Rebecca relaxation strategies, encourage balance, and help her avoid catastrophizing. By eighth grade, she was back on an even keel. The high school transition ended up being a non-event.

Joey, an eighth-grade ringleader, took school in stride but felt little empathy for classmates. He’d roll his eyes when someone got a wrong answer. He’d whisper to friends about other kids’ lack of athleticism. When the gym teacher would ask him to cut it out, Joey would say he wasn’t there to make friends. One weekend, Joey started a group text chain, telling a bunch of friends that a girl in their class had been hooking up with boys at other schools. It wasn’t true, and when the girl’s parents found out, they complained to school staff and other eighth-grade parents.

Joey was furious that adults were “badmouthing” him to one another instead of addressing him directly. He accused them of acting more like middle schoolers than grown-ups. He may not have seen the irony, but he took on gossip as his personal cause. He led a gradewide discussion about conflict resolution and respect. As a result, he improved the social dynamics for everyone.

These types of wins are the reason I love kids this age. They’re flawed, curious, impressionable, and receptive to new ideas. They’re sensitive to injustice, empathetic, and attuned to one another’s needs. They’ll tell me if a girl is cutting herself with a pair of nail scissors she’s carting around in her pencil case. If a boy is skipping meals or his mood plummets abruptly, I’m likely to hear about it. When kids are instructed to tell an adult, that often means the school counselor. I frequently hear things that others don’t, and I take that responsibility seriously.

As a counselor, I also hear from parents and guardians, who have asked me all kinds of questions, from the practical to the philosophical. Should they pay their children to get good grades? Should they make them stick with activities they hate? Is there a way to ensure they make good relationship choices? They question their instincts because this isn’t the world they grew up in, when good grades and a slew of extracurricular activities set students up for the “right” college and successful careers. Parents are equally mystified by their kids’ online social lives. It’s a whole new era with many unknowns, and that can feel scary.

Understandably, parents want to control whatever variables they can. It’s discombobulating to realize how much is beyond their reach, from their kids’ shifting friendships to their interests and passions. While there’s no magical parent who holds the secret to connecting with teens or launching them on the right path, no one should be throwing up their hands. The parent of a tantrum-prone two-year-old doesn’t say, “You know, this kind of sucks, so I’m just going to hang back. When he’s three, I’ll teach him how to use his words.” Similarly, parents of middle schoolers can’t afford to sit this phase out.

Middle schoolers are young enough to be unjaded, but old enough to grasp sophisticated concepts. They can experiment, grow, and veer off course while the stakes are low. It’s the ideal time to impart strategies, teach social-emotional skills, and foster integrity and healthy risk-taking. Rather than merely helping our kids to survive these years, we should look instead to set them up to thrive. If we get it right, we’ll equip them to manage social turmoil, maintain reasonable academic expectations, and make well-considered decisions throughout their lives. Contrary to conventional wisdom, kids can emerge from middle school stronger and wiser for their struggles. Adults can and should play an active role in that process.

The good news is you aren’t helpless. You add value by sharing both your positive and negative life experiences, offering unconditional love, modeling critical thinking, and giving them tools to manage setbacks. I’ll provide a road map and outline concrete strategies for a wide range of scenarios, from “getting fired” by friends to managing a learning or attention issue. I’ll also debunk many of the persistent myths about middle schoolers. By the time you finish this book, I want you to feel empowered to handle any middle school situation—and to see it as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it is for your child.



“I’ve always loved middle school because kids are intellectually growing so much and discovering what they’re passionate about, but still young and not too obsessed with whether they’re cool. You can still capture that little kid part of them, but they’re ready to go intellectually. It’s that combination that’s magical.”


WHAT SETS MIDDLE SCHOOLERS APART? MIDDLE SCHOOL IS when life begins to get more complicated for kids, but it’s not just the setting that makes it different. The psychologist G. Stanley Hall first identified early adolescence as a unique phase in 1904. By the 1950s, pioneering Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget had built on Hall’s research and was working on developmental stage theory. We now know much more about these unique years of early adolescence—and why we should give them special attention.

These years are a time of incredible growth; the only other time in a child’s life when they changed this rapidly was between birth and age two. Your middle schooler is changing physically, intellectually, morally, socially, and emotionally. Their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles executive functions and making decisions, is still developing. Adolescent developmental pediatrician Ken Ginsburg explains, “Brain development is occurring at a heightened pace; your ability to experience and interpret emotions is very, very high; you’re beginning to imagine yourself as an independent being; and you’re trying to figure out how you fit in.” Ginsburg, the codirector of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of Raising Kids to Thrive, wants parents to understand that adolescents’ fundamental questions are “Who am I?” “Am I normal?” and “Do I fit in?”

Kids are starting to think abstractly, engage in moral reasoning, and look for meaning. They’re tuned into fairness and equity, and they’re starting to solidify the beliefs and values they’ll hold for life. Social-emotional maturity is still a work in progress, and sorting out relational drama is a time-consuming task. Many are in the throes of puberty and becoming moodier, more self-conscious, and less self-assured. The great paradox of middle school is that kids can simultaneously feel judged and ignored. As they toggle between wanting to form their own identity and fit in with peers, they may withdraw or rebel.

Michael Gordon, a middle school principal for forty years, shared with me that both the fun and the challenge of middle school is that on different days, the same kid may present as thirteen going on thirty or thirteen going on three. “It often seems that two distinct versions reside simultaneously within the body of each student,” he told me. “One is a wide-eyed, open, and happy child who will follow you anywhere with excitement and is amazed by almost anything well-presented. The other is more emotional and cerebral, capable of doing many things and synthesizing involved concepts.”

When you consider what’s happening to their brains and bodies, it’s no wonder that the shift from elementary to middle school can be bumpy. By 1966, educators started advancing the need for a separate middle school model that could respond to the distinct characteristics of ten- to fifteen-year-old children. Still, there’s reason to believe the traditional middle school/junior high model isn’t ideal. In a study published in the American Educational Research Journal, investigators looked at 90,000 sixth through eighth graders in New York City and found that the social and academic benefits of being “top dog” are strongest in sixth grade. Kids seem to learn and achieve more in schools with longer grade spans, whether the school serves grades K–8 or 6–12. In another study published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, researchers tracked 6,000 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. They concluded that starting a new school in sixth or seventh grade negatively impacts kids’ motivation and feelings about their academic ability.

There are many different iterations of middle school. High Rock School in Needham, Massachusetts, for example, has a separate school that’s just for sixth graders. The city’s public middle school serves the town’s seventh and eighth graders, which mirrors my own junior high experience. By the time I felt like I’d adjusted, it was time to leave. Other schools, such as Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, DC, run from fifth through eighth grade. That model allows the fifth and sixth grades to function as an upper elementary program within the middle school. I met with the school’s principal, Sally Selby, shortly before her retirement. “The sixth graders benefit from the interdisciplinary nature of instruction, the homeroom model, and the real connection to one adult,” she told me, adding that the oldest students benefit, too. “There’s a refuge in having eighth grade in middle school that allows them to keep baking. They don’t have to take on the weight of the responsibility of high school—the seriousness of, ‘Oh my god, grades count.’”

Some educators are innovating to help students make a smoother transition to middle school. Robert Dodd, a principal in Maryland, collaborated with Johns Hopkins University faculty to assess whether sixth graders do better with less departmentalization. Dodd implemented the program, called Project SUCCESS, in two middle schools in his district and found that students have higher levels of achievement and social engagement when they spend half of each school day with one teacher and an intact peer group. It’s an approach that more closely resembles the kids’ elementary school experience. “The data is ridiculous,” he told me. “These kids are more likely to feel that their teachers value and care about them and their peers want to help them.”

I’ve been a counselor in both a huge, public 6–8 school and a small, independent K–8 school with a separate middle school program. In my experience, one school model might soften the journey more than another, but the developmental phase seems to define the experience more than the setting. Whether or not a student is “top dog,” children in early adolescence require sensitive educators who can address their unique needs.

It can be a tough transition. Suddenly, kids are expected to act a lot older than they were just a few months earlier. On top of juggling increased academic demands, they’re navigating a more complex social world. The expectations are higher academically, socially, and even athletically. Students’ performance and motivation often slide during this transition, and as the American Psychological Association notes, this can lead to self-doubt. They’re also discovering their academic identity. This is when you might hear a child start saying, “I’m not a math person,” or, “I’m terrible at art.” We need to preserve their creativity and confidence, because middle school is around the time when both take a nosedive. (This is especially true for girls. A Ypulse study found that between their tween and teen years, girls’ confidence that other people like them falls from 71 percent to 38 percent—a 46 percent drop.)

Middle school can leave the most self-assured parents full of self-doubt, too. Your child may test your last nerve or pull away, but don’t be fooled. They all crave acceptance. If you’re frustrated, baffled, or in need of an empathy boost, remember what it felt like to be twelve. Try to appreciate how exhausting it is for your child to manage supercharged emotions every single day.

The Ten Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond

No matter where your child is developmentally right now, my goal is to ensure they emerge from this phase with the following ten key skills, which range from the social and emotional to the logistical.

1. Make good friend choices. In middle school, shifting friendships are a given. The ability to make good choices in friends comes on the heels of making some questionable ones. Kids will figure out quickly which friends instill a sense of belonging and which make them feel uncomfortable. Some will still insist on hanging out with the ones who make them feel terrible, and it can take a long time for them to realize they’re sacrificing themselves. I’ll cover everything from gossip to bullying, providing specific strategies to help kids manage social turmoil.

2. Negotiate conflict. Kids this age must cope with increasingly complex social interactions. They need to learn how to resolve conflict, whether they choose to go several rounds in the ring with a friend or walk away from a toxic relationship. They also must learn how to work with peers. Not many students get through middle school without feeling like they had to carry the load on at least one group project. Teamwork provides a window into kids’ grit, flexibility, self-awareness, and resiliency. They might be hampered by clumsy social interactions or an inability to collaborate. I’ll outline a range of ways to bolster their ability to work well with others.

3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch. Kids can learn from a teacher they don’t like. It’s a chance to practice working with someone they find difficult. This is a life skill they’ll need in the workplace, and it requires understanding themselves. I’ll offer strategies to help kids manage these types of situations so they won’t feel powerless.

4. Create homework and organization systems. Ideally, children, not teachers or parents, take ownership of homework and grades. Kids may say they don’t care, but they don’t have to be invested in a particular outcome to change their behavior. After all, people who hate exercise can still choose to lift weights. They need to be able to create and tweak their organization systems and learn to monitor and take responsibility for their own work. If you care about this more than they do, why should they worry? They need to learn to carry the burden and experience the connection between preparation and performance. Conversely, if they’re perfectionists, they need to know they can survive and manage the disappointment of a low grade. I’ll give tips on raising independent, curious, motivated, and resilient learners.

5. Consider others’ perspectives. If we want kids to accept their uniqueness and embrace differences in others, they must build their self-awareness. They also need to develop the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. I’ll describe how parents can build kids’ empathy, foster their positive self-concept, and help them cope with setbacks by transcending the self.

6. Self-advocate. This is hard for adults, let alone kids, but it’s imperative in a world full of people who’ll tell them “no.” By middle school, kids should be mastering how to ask teachers for help or clarification. To get them to a point where they can do that, we need to encourage them to take risks and manage fear. I’ll describe how parents can help them progress from meek to direct so they don’t fall through the cracks.

7. Self-regulate emotions. Children often need assistance labeling strong emotions before they can regulate them. It’s not easy for middle schoolers to make connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They may be stuck in all-or-nothing thinking or be consistently self-critical. Unlike adults, they lack the benefit of life experience or perspective. I’ll share how parents can help kids manage their stress, whether they feel bad about themselves, concerned about a specific situation, anxious about events in the news, or worried about their own future.

8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations. When children are fired up about something, it’s important to let them run with it. Even if their chosen interest doesn’t seem exciting to parents, they’re identifying their strengths and figuring out what drives them. They’re also discovering where they struggle. This is useful information. No one needs to be good at everything, and school isn’t one-size-fits-all. By honoring who they are and giving them appropriate outlets for their talents, parents can position their kids to feel competent and make a difference.

9. Make responsible, healthy, and ethical choices. Kids need to know how to respect and take care of their bodies and make safe, healthy decisions. It’s equally important that they understand how to avoid putting others at risk. I’ll offer strategies to keep the lines of communication open as you tackle issues such as sexting or self-harm.

10. Create and innovate. Our changing world needs imaginative creators and divergent thinkers. When children think outside the box, it builds their confidence. As your kids do their homework, read required texts, and take standardized tests, they may not understand that these benchmarks are not the only ways to measure success. To be prepared for the innovation era, they’ll need to be able to make connections across courses and to build, write, invent, and experiment. When parents foster an inventor’s mentality, they heighten their kid’s resourcefulness. For many adults, this requires a mind shift, so I’ll offer specific tips.

If we want kids to master these ten crucial skills, we need to start with the basics. If you use the strategies outlined in this book, you’ll set your child up to thrive in high school and beyond. I’ll use a key at the beginning of each chapter to illustrate how different strategies help kids acquire these competencies. The book is divided into four domains: values and integrity, social skills, learning, and empowerment and resilience. Let’s start from the inside, with values and integrity. To morally and ethically negotiate challenges, kids need a solid sense of self and empathy for others. Chapters on smart decision-making, honesty, kindness, and embracing differences are all about building kids’ character.

The second section covers social skills. Chapters on shifting friendships, bullying, gossip, sex, and love will help you teach your kids to identify healthy relationships and cope with social turmoil.

The third section focuses on learning. To help kids take responsibility for their own learning, parents need to foster intrinsic motivation and set reasonable expectations. In chapters on grades, homework, and learning challenges, I’ll talk about how to capitalize on kids’ strengths and interests and address their weaknesses.

The final section is on empowerment and resilience. Chapters on staying connected to your sons and daughters and nudging them out of their comfort zone will help you teach them to self-advocate, connect with others, and communicate effectively. This section also offers techniques to help kids manage setbacks, prepare for a changing world, and think flexibly and outside the box. Of all the skills on my Top Ten list, this one might be the most critical to their future career.

Parents’ primary job is to love and honor their children, and this is especially important in middle school. The wider the gap between who kids really are and who they think you need them to be, the more they’ll struggle. If they learn to embrace what makes them unique at an age when they most want to fit in, they’ll be more accepting of others. Even as they establish boundaries, they need you now more than ever. You’re the role model and safety net as they try on new identities and attitudes. I hope that you’ll experiment with your kids, testing different approaches to academic, social, and emotional issues while the risks are small and the rewards are big.


“It’s easier to lie than to deal with all the drama.”



“Is it safe to vape water? What about pot? How much alcohol is too much?”

“I hate Katherine, so I got her Google password from her planner and deleted the TV script she’d written.”

“I lost a bet, so I had to drink hot sauce. I got really sick.”



  • "[Fagell's] advice is fresh and relevant, welcoming and welcomed."
    Chicago Tribune
  • "No one captures the magic, delight, struggle, and triumphs to be found in middle school like Phyllis Fagell. She knows middle school inside and out, and her advice is some of the best available for students, parents, and teachers."—Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure
  • "Middle School Matters shines much-needed light on the fascinating -- and fraught -- middle school years. With the wisdom of a seasoned counselor and the relatability of a close friend, Phyllis Fagell offers an unflinching, reassuring, and indispensable guide to a pivotal time in parenting."—Lisa Damour, PhD, author of Under Pressure and Untangled
  • "I love, love Middle School Matters! Phyllis Fagell has done a stupendous job! Middle School Matters gives parents of middle school boys and girls an essential guide to walk alongside their children as they go through middle school. The book is filled with just the right combination of research and common sense strategies that only a middle school counselor in the trenches could deliver. With this book, parents don't need to dread the middle school years. Instead they can be prepared and informed so they can do best by their kids. I wish I had had this book when my boys were in middle school!"—Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes and founder of Cultures of Dignity
  • "Middle school parents: help is finally here! This is the book parents have been waiting for since...forever. Parents have long been socialized to fear the middle school years as a time of great turmoil and never-ending drama, but Phyllis Fagell opens our eyes to the modern middle school student by sharing a powerful combination of current research, anecdotes from actual middle schoolers, and her own expertise as a middle school counselor. Middle School Matters is packed with helpful tips and actionable strategies to help your middle school student thrive instead of simply survive."—Katie Hurley, LCSW, author of No More Mean Girls and The Happy Kid Handbook
  • "Middle School does matter! And, parents matter during these years...as much as you ever have, maybe more. As young people strive to answer, 'Who am I?' they need you to stand solidly in their corner reminding them that they are perfect just as they are. Phyllis Fagell has created a masterpiece here -- an actionable guide filled with the skill-sets you'll need to support your child through these critical life-shaping years."—Ken Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed,author of Raising Kids to Thrive and Building Resilience in Children and Teens, Parentandteen.com
  • "Middle School Matters is a must-read for parents, educators and anyone else seeking guidance through the transitions of this critical developmental period, with all its psychological, physical, social and academic challenges. Fagell writes clearly and concisely, offering practical suggestions and engaging anecdotes to illustrate her points. The conversation starters are excellent!"—Mary K. Alvord, PhD, psychologist and coauthor Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens, and Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescence
  • "As a lifelong educator and the parent of two teens and a tween, I cannot recommend this book enough! I just wish Middle School Matters had been written when I was a superintendent and led a middle school transformation effort, as the ideas, advice and practical guidance are invaluable. Phyllis Fagell has done us all a great service by breaking down the middle school years into easily-understood concepts that parents and educators can use to work with early adolescents in any setting. Phyllis presents simple strategies and approaches to help students -- and adults -- navigate an amazingly complex and exciting time in their lives. I highly encourage teachers, principals, parents, policy makers and anyone interested in using the middle school years to lay the foundation for success in the teenage years and beyond to read and apply the lessons of this book now!"—Joshua P. Starr, EdD, Chief Executive Officer, PDK International
  • "Phyllis Fagell's Middle School Matters is full of practical ideas and timely wisdom. Grounded in her own deep experience as a school counselor, Fagell guides parents and teachers in the complex choreography of leading--and listening to and following--teens during the often difficult, emotionally uphill and unpredictable years of middle school. With clarity, compassion and honesty, she teaches us how teens can avoid the risks and damage that middle school can bring. But she also reminds us that middle school can be a time of tremendous, exciting growth. With active, thoughtful role models, middle schoolers can develop knowledge and skills that are key to becoming thriving, engaged, kind and justice-minded high school students and adults. Every parent with a middle school child should read this book."—Rick Weissbourd, Senior Lecturer on Education, Faculty Director, Human Development and Psychology and author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development

On Sale
Aug 6, 2019
Page Count
288 pages

Phyllis L. Fagell

About the Author

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor, a certified professional school counselor, a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and other national publications, and author of Middle School Matters. She is a school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and provides therapy to children, teens, and families at The Chrysalis Group Inc. in Bethesda, Maryland. Phyllis also speaks and consults on issues relating to parenting, counseling, and education.

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