Helping Your Tween Transition to and Navigate Middle School

Helping Your Tween Transition to and Navigate Middle School

August 25, 2014

When transitioning from elementary school to middle school, there are many mores your tween will have to adjust to—more teachers, more homework, more activities. As more responsibility shifts to your child, here are some tips to help him or her navigate middle school.

The transition from elementary school to middle school can be daunting. Kids must adjust from spending the day in one classroom to switching among several different rooms, change from letter to numerical grades, and manage the disappointment when they get separated from their best friends.

middle school girl in library

We spoke with guidance counselors, teachers, and parents of middle-schoolers to get advice on how to make the transition as smooth as possible.

More Teachers, More Books…

“With every transition, whether it be from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, or high school to college, more responsibility shifts from the parent to the student,” says Michael Haber, Ph.D., school psychologist at the Dwight School in Manhattan. “Students turn corners at every transition, [until] the bulk of responsibility and accountability is on them.”

In middle school, kids must keep their own agendas and keep track of their own homework for the first time, Dr. Haber says. They also must deal with the expectations of several teachers instead of just one, making time-management on assignments a must. Encourage your child to determine the amount of time he has available after school and prioritize assignments within that time frame. “Think, ‘If I have five hours after school, how should I spend it? What are my immediate homework assignments and how do I make the best use of my time? What long-term projects do I have?’” Dr. Haber says. That way, kids can determine how much energy they need to devote to each assignment.

Have your child estimate how long each assignment will take her to complete, suggests Beth Falk, Ph.D., school psychologist at Rockland Country Day School in Congers, and then keep track of how long the assignment really takes. “That way, going forward, you can estimate how long they actually need for homework,” she says.

One thing that doesn’t change, Dr. Haber says, is that students should get to know their teachers and feel comfortable reaching out for help when they need it. “If you need help, go and ask for support,” he says. “The teacher will see your effort and appreciate it.”

If your child is feeling overwhelmed at working with more than one teacher, “Emphasize that the cool thing about having lots of teachers is that they all have different personalities and different interests,” Dr. Falk says. “Some teachers run clubs and do double duty,” she adds. Students can find out which teachers are advising which clubs and spend more time with the teachers who share their interests.

Beyond the Final Bell

Kids often take on more after-school activities in middle school, such as sports and music groups. This increased commitment coupled with more schoolwork makes good time management even more important.

“In the first trimester or semester—whichever your school has—the child should do the minimum of extracurricular activities,” Dr. Haber advises. “Just do one or two. After that, you can reassess and decide how many your child can do. You should be open to the fact that they may not be able to handle it all. This is a new school, and there are going to be more challenges.”

When it comes to balancing work and play, Dr. Falk stresses the value of being a good role model for your child. “It’s important that a parent not be overly panicked and stressed and convey that to the kids,” she says. “Stay calm and talk about the different things a child has going on, and set a reasonable schedule together.”

Fostering Independence

Middle school is a time of transition for parents as well, says Susan Sternbach, a sixth-grade math and English language arts teacher at Accompsett Middle School in Smithtown. “Parent-teacher conferences are only on an as-needed basis, and we don’t have as many events where all the parents are invited. Parents need to learn to let go,” she says.

“Sometimes parents are more anxious than the students,” says Benjamin McKillop, a sixth-grade ELA and science teacher at Accompsett. “From an organizational aspect, we want parents to slowly release some of the reins. Students must become responsible for homework on their own. And it’s important that a parent doesn’t correct homework before it comes back to us, because we need to see where a student is having trouble.”

That said, it’s vital that there is good communication between parents and teacher, Dr. Falk says. “If a social studies assignment is supposed to take 30 minutes and it takes an hour and a half, something is wrong,” she says, and parents should let the teacher know that the homework is consuming that much of their child’s time.

Open Lines of Communication

Overall, there is more competition in middle school than in elementary, Dr. Falk says, citing everything from a coveted part in a school play to academic awards and scholarships. “Some kids love it, [but] some kids are daunted by the adjustment,” she says.

To help your child prepare for all of these changes, it’s important to have a conversation before the transition. “You could have a general conversation and ask your child what she is looking forward to in middle school, what concerns she has, and what she hopes will happen in middle school instead of giving her a lecture about assignment pads and workloads,” Dr. Falk says.

Make sure your child understands that there is added pressure amidst all the opportunities, Dr. Haber says. But they need to know they don’t have to do everything—they don’t have to be on three sports teams and the star of the school play. Although experiences are afforded to them that they may not have had in elementary school, they should take advantage of these in small doses. If they feel overwhelmed, it’s important that they say something to a trustworthy adult in their life. “If kids feel pressure, when it starts to feel like it’s getting to be too much it’s important that they share this instead of bottling it all up and keeping it all in,” Dr. Haber suggests.

“A parent can give a child perspective,” Dr. Falk says. “A child has never done this before, but a parent or older sibling has.” To ease your child’s nerves, point to another successful transition in her life as a confidence-booster. “You can talk about how the child was nervous going to kindergarten but it worked out,” Dr. Falk says. “It’s also important to listen to your kids. Sometimes you can just check in and let your child vent. And if the stress seems like too much, you can take your child to a counselor.”

The Social Battlefield

And then there are the social changes in middle school. Some elementary schools feed several different middle schools, meaning that a child could be separated from his best friend since kindergarten and have to make new friends.

“It’s important that kids find others that they have something in common with,” says Nancy Koch, guidance counselor at Accompsett. “Encourage your child to join after-school activities where they can find like-minded kids.”

That’s how Julie Indovino, a mom of three kids, two of whom attend Accompsett Middle School, approached this transition with her children. “My kids had to join a sport or a club,” she recalls. “It’s important to stay involved in school. We don’t want them to associate school with just work, we wanted them to have something they can look forward to at school.”

As far as cliques go, your child may feel left out from time to time—that’s a normal part of growing up. “You have to help him figure out who would be the best friends for him,” Dr. Falk says. “Teach him to cast a wide net and find the kids he likes, the ones who are funny and who he wants to hang out with. This will teach him to get around the middle school social battlefield.”

Kids also need to try new things and be open to new experiences, Dr. Haber adds. “They should not just do whatever’s comfortable to them—they should move out of their comfort zone.”

Dr. Falk suggests kids bring some of the familiar into these situations by having a partner in crime. “They can act in pairs,” she says. “They can team up with an old friend and say, ‘Why don’t we go sit with those kids [at lunch] instead of kids we are totally safe with?’ This way groups merge and kids get connected with a bigger group.”

When a child feels excluded, talking with a parent, teacher, or friend is advisable, Dr. Haber says. “When your child talks to you, find out what it is that’s hurting her feelings. If it’s being excluded, you must help your child be open to the idea that not everyone is going to be her friend, and that’s okay. She can always find somebody somewhere that she can connect with on some level.”

A Good Start

No matter what challenges your child may face in middle school, anything you can do beforehand to make your kids more comfortable is helpful. “Be sure to attend the school orientation,” says Ellen Stein, parent of a seventh-grader at Accompsett. “It helps to let them get in to see the school beforehand. They walk their schedule, see their lockers, and they’re not as nervous. It starts to feel like home and it puts them more at ease.”