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Helping Anxious Children With Their Transition To Middle School

So your child is entering middle school this fall, and you are wondering how to manage the transition? The answer is, "very carefully" because his or her life is about to undergo a number of major challenges. The transition to middle school is marked by several significant (and perhaps stressful) changes:
  • This is a time when young teens are most likely to experiment with at-risk behaviors.
  • This complicated period of transition has often been associated with a decline in academic achievement, performance motivation, and self-perceptions. 
  • The transition to middle school comes at a time when kids are also experiencing a host of other changes associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence. They are beginning to mature physically, and to think of themselves as individuals outside of their families. Their attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers — while avoiding exposure and embarrassment. The atmosphere at home may become strained as both parents and kids struggle with redefining roles and relationships. 
  • The middle school “mission” is different than it was in elementary school. In middle school, educators focus more on the child's acceptable conduct and adequate performance. As one teacher asserted, "We treat students as less delicate and more responsible here. We don't coddle them. We expect them to act more grown up."
  • Social, developmental, and academic experiences are affected, requiring kids to adjust to what they see as new settings, structures, and expectations.
  • Social cruelty gets worse. Both males and females become more socially aggressive with each other as they jostle for a place to socially belong among their independent community of peers. 
  • It is the point at which kids begin to make pivotal decisions regarding their academic and career choices — precisely at a time when they may be distracted or turned off by academic endeavors.
  • In most elementary schools, kids are taught in self-contained classrooms with a familiar set of peers and one or two educators. Once children reach middle schools, however, they must interact with more peers, more educators, and with intensified expectations for both performance and personal responsibility. 
  • Early adolescence often brings a change for the worse. Young teens start pulling away, pushing against, and getting around adult authority in order to create more freedom to grow and to live on more independent terms. Now complaints, arguments, delays, disobedience, and testing limits become part of the child’s repertoire at home and at school.

So how can parents ease the transition and help reduce the friction that comes with this difficult change? Here are 25 important tips:

1. Accompany your youngster on campus tours and orientations offered to moms and dads and incoming students. The better you understand the school layout and rules, the more you can help your youngster.

2. Avoid overreacting to grades. Making sure your youngster gets a handle on how to meet the demands of the new school is the critical factor in the early weeks.

3. Buy your youngster a lock for his locker several weeks before school starts to give him plenty of time to practice opening and closing it. Also, consider whether a combination or keyed lock is best for him.

4. Ease any loneliness in the early weeks of school by helping your youngster arrange weekend social activities with neighborhood, church, or grade school peers.

5. Talk about your child’s concerns and anxieties about moving into middle schools. Be upbeat and reassuring.

6. If the middle school has a homework hotline, make sure your youngster knows how to use it.

7. Encourage your youngster to join group conversations. Discuss how to join in without interrupting, to add something relevant to conversation in progress, etc.

8. Encourage your youngster to join sports teams, clubs, or other extracurricular activities.

9. Explore the school's Web site with your youngster. Search for announcements, schedules, and events.

10. Find out the length of the passing period between classes. Time it out for your youngster. Demonstrate how far he can walk in that amount of time.

11. Get a copy of the student handbook. Review rules and requirements — especially the school's code of conduct, which describes consequences for violations of the most important rules. Ask the school staff questions about anything that's unclear.

12. Get a copy of your youngster's class schedule and mark the location of his locker and each classroom and bathroom on the school map. Tape both of these inside his binder. If your youngster has trouble reading maps, walk the route between classes with him — more than once, if necessary — and note landmarks that he can use to navigate.

13. Get a map of the campus and take your youngster to explore. Pick a time after school in the days just before school starts. Be sure to check in with the school office to get an OK for your explorations.

14. Go to back-to-school night, open houses, parent-teacher conferences and other events where you can connect with your youngster's educators.

15. Help your youngster be his own advocate. Encourage him to discuss problems and solutions with educators on his own, but be ready to step in and help as needed.

16. Help your child with time management skills. Work together on a schedule for study time, break time, chores, etc.

17. If your youngster has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), meet with the middle school IEP team before your youngster enters the new school. Discuss the qualities of the "ideal" teacher for your youngster to help ensure the best placements.

18. Include a couple of your youngster's friends on campus treks. They can boost each other's memory about where things are when school starts.

19. Make sure your youngster has an easy-to-read wristwatch so he can quickly see if he needs to hurry to be on time to class. If he has a cell phone, make sure the time is set correctly and he is in the habit of checking it.

20. Moms and dads need to learn about young adolescents and their developmental issues and stages so that they will understand better this new and wonderful person with whom they live, and be able to interact with her in positive ways that build relationships.

21. Moms and dads should watch for signs of depression and be ready to address them.

22. Practice skills needed for difficult social situations. Talk about social skills. Discuss how words and actions can affect other people. And remind your youngster to make eye contact when speaking or listening.

23. Stay connected to your youngster's school work. Try to teach him to work more independently while supporting him enough to give him confidence.

24. Talk about traits that make a good friend (such as being a good listener).

25. Work out an organizational system with your child. Acknowledge and make allowances for his anxiety. At first, he may need to carry everything for all classes all the time in order to feel prepared.

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