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Helping Your Child Transition to Middle School

Will your son or daughter be starting middle school in the fall? If so, then be sure to read this:

During the past 20 years, many changes have taken place in how young teens are taught. These changes continue as we learn more about how these kids develop and learn. Today, fewer and fewer young teens attend junior highs. Instead, a growing number attend middle schools. Most of these schools are for grades 6–8 (although some may have grades 5–8, 5–7 or even 7–8). As the middle school movement has accelerated, many high schools have moved from serving grades 10–12 to grades 9–12.

As a mother or father, you may wonder, "Is one grade structure better than another for my youngster?” Most teachers believe (and research verifies) that the way a school organizes the grades is not as important as what goes on inside the school (i.e., what gets taught and how it gets taught). Additionally, the grade span of a school doesn't tell you much about the quality of the school and whether or not its educational practices are well suited for younger teenagers.

Most young adolescents entering a new school find that it's a big change. They're used to being the oldest, but now – once again – they're the youngest. Most peers are new, as are the routines and the homework. Coming at a time when young adolescents are undergoing many other stressful changes, the move to a new school can be overwhelming and have a negative impact on motivation and self-worth.

Because of this, many middle schools have programs to ease the transition. For instance, they may invite elementary school kids to visit the middle school to become familiar with the building, lockers and classrooms. Also, administrators of the middle and elementary schools might meet to discuss programs. School counselors might meet to talk about how to help children make a smooth transition. These and other practices can help make the new school seem friendlier.

Hormones may be fluctuating, but young adolescents of all backgrounds - and with a broad range of personal characteristics - still absorb vast amounts of information. They also can benefit from a strong curriculum. As young teens develop their cognitive skills, they are able to complete longer and more involved projects and to explore subjects in more depth.

Young adolescents generally benefit from being exposed to a broad range of experiences and programs (e.g., academic, recreational and vocational). These opportunities take advantage of their natural curiosity and can be invaluable in familiarizing them with new worlds and possibilities. These exploratory programs can also be entertaining. For these reasons, some schools provide opportunities - both in and out of school - for children to participate in sports, as well as learn subjects like foreign languages, music, drama and technology. Many schools also encourage children to participate in volunteer or community service projects. Exploratory programs can help young adolescents figure out where they fit in, and allow them to think about their future plans.

There's still plenty of room for improvement in middle schools. Test scores suggest that many young adolescents lack the skills needed for high school success. On international comparisons, they aren't scoring as well as they should in areas like reading and math.

More teachers and policymakers are becoming aware of the high levels to which young adolescents can achieve. This awareness is leading to still more change in middle-school (e.g., what gets taught, how it is taught, how educators are prepared, how to assess what children know, etc.).

25 tips for helping your child make a smoother transition to middle school:

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

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 her locker several weeks before school starts to give her plenty of time to practice opening and closing it. 

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

5. Encourage educators to continue using strategies that have worked for your youngster in the past, such as writing homework assignments on the board, or assigning a "homework buddy" she can contact if she forgets what her assignments are. If the school has a homework hotline, make sure your youngster knows how to use it.

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

7. Encourage your son or daughter to join sports teams, clubs, or other extracurricular activities.

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

9. Find out the length of the passing period between classes. Time it out for your son or daughter. Demonstrate how far he or she can walk in that amount of time.

10. 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.

11. 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 young teen 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.

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

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

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

15. Help your young teen with time management skills. Work together on a schedule for study time, break time, chores, etc.

16. If your son or daughter has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), meet with the middle school IEP team no later than the spring before your youngster enters the new school. Discuss the qualities of the "ideal" teacher for your youngster to help ensure the best placements.

17. 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.

18. 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.

19. Meet with educators early in the school year. Give them a profile of your youngster's strengths and where she needs help.

20. Practice skills needed for difficult social situations.

21. Remind your son or daughter to make eye contact when speaking or listening.

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

23. Take advantage of summer programs — academic or recreational — offered at the new school for incoming children. Your son or daughter will get the feel for the campus in a much more relaxed atmosphere.

24. Talk about social skills. Discuss how words and actions can affect other people. Also, talk about traits that make a good friend (e.g., being a good listener).

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

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