Middle school is algebra and lockers, text messaging and mood swings. It’s also when school counselors start mentioning college, noting that it’s not to early to start thinking about the Big Decision even though higher education may be seven years away.

But middle school is too early to zero in on a specific college, says Jim L. Miller, coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“During the middle school years, we should be talking to students about envisioning college as a goal,” Miller says. “They need to know that what they’re doing now will have an implication on their future, and college is part of that path.”

For many families, college has been on their child’s radar screen since she was making snakes out of Play-Doh. Parents who love their alma mater and enjoy talking about their college experience reinforce that message early on. And parents who didn’t get the opportunity to go to their first-choice college are often equally determined to instill the concept in their kids at a young age.

But Miller says a lot of talk in middle school about exactly which school your child will attend is premature. Your child hasn’t had time to learn about himself and figure out what he needs in a college.

Instead, it’s best to focus on what it takes to get into a selective college. “Good habits equal positive outcomes later,” Miller says.

Here are more of Miller’s tips for parents of middle schoolers:

Choose courses carefully. In elementary school, most students are on the same path. Kids with special needs and those who are gifted might take detours, but in general everyone studies the same material. In middle school, however, your child might be offered advanced courses. Make the decision carefully about taking these courses based on what your child is capable of, but note that coursework difficulty is a major consideration in admissions decisions—a lower grade in a more challenging class might be seen as better than a higher grade in a less challenging class.

Talk about what your child enjoys. Some kids gravitate toward a musical instrument or know from an early age that they love to build things with their hands. These are strengths you can build on as you talk to your child about the future. If your child hasn’t discovered a particular passion yet, keep exposing her to new things and encourage her to try activities long enough to see if she’s really interested.

Let your child grow into her own person. It’s normal to want your child to attend your alma mater. But let her know you want her to go to the school that is the best fit for her. “Try to get away from the concept that there is a best college,” Miller says. “It’s about thinking about what you want to study and letting that drive where you go.”

Don’t close the door on certain schools. Middle school is too soon to tell your child that the University of Hawaii is too far away or that Harvard is beyond is reach. Instead, encourage him to be open to a lot of different schools.

Don’t overemphasize cost. If you can’t afford to contribute to your child’s college education, it’s OK to let her know. Assure her that there are many high-quality, lower-cost colleges. But don’t harp on the cost at this early stage. Instead, research financial aid. You’ll find that a lot of schools offer grants and scholarships.

Motivate, motivate. It’s frustrating when your bright, capable middle schooler shows no enthusiasm for school. Tap into whatever he likes to do, Miller says. For example, if he wants to play video games for hours on end, talk to him about people who make their living developing such games.

It’s hard to think about getting your child ready for college when she is just finding her groove in middle school. It gets easier if you shift your thinking away from aiming for a specific college and toward planning for college in a general way. The last two years of high school are when your child will narrow her vision to the school that really fits her dreams, but the goal at this time in middle school is to encourage your child to think big and wide.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.