How Can We Support Students Through the Middle School Transition?
For many students, middle school is a three year period of social, academic, and personal transitions. After gradually developing friendships and academic abilities during elementary school, transferring to a new school with new peers, teachers, and expectations can be quite a shock! So what are some of the issues that our middle school kids face?
The biggest logistical challenge of entering middle school is the transition (for many students) to a new school. After spending the first few years of their education in the same place, many students must learn their way around a new campus and school building (or buildings!). This is made even more challenging by the fact that students are expected to move between several classrooms each day on a bell schedule, which may be very different from the routine they were previously used to. Many students worry about being late or having difficulty finding their classrooms, particularly when they may also have to stop by their lockers.
Along with physically transitioning to a new school, there are several social changes in middle school. Some students will be separated from their familiar elementary school friends, and many will find themselves in classes with several peers they’ve never met. After the relative comfort and stability of elementary school, making new friends can be a challenge that students may feel unprepared for. Furthermore, middle school students are transitioning from being at the “top of the heap” as fifth graders to starting at the “bottom of the pile” as sixth graders. Unfortunately, there is also a general increase in teasing, exclusion, bullying, and gossiping in the social world of middle school. Altogether, these social tasks and challenges can have a big impact on students’ self-esteem and well-being.
Academic demands also ramp up in middle school, as students are managed by multiple teachers with differing personalities, expectations, and teaching styles. Classes become progressively harder, and even students who may have coasted through elementary school now find themselves challenged academically. Middle school teachers also expect students to take more personal responsibility for task completion, organization, and asking for help. For some students, this necessitates the development of study skills and work habits they have never really needed or used during elementary school.
Students in middle school, from about the ages of 11 to 14 years, also undergo growth and hormonal changes that affect their physical, emotional, and behavioral development. This, along with the aforementioned social transitions of middle school, can contribute to a “perfect storm” of confusion about one’s own identity and how/where they fit in. Developmentally, middle school-aged preadolescents also begin to assert more independence by pulling away, pushing against, and testing the limits of parents and teachers alike. Unfortunately, the adolescent drive for resistance is at odds with the middle school environment, with its more stringent demands and expectations for self-management.
The transitions and challenges described above may make both children and parents anxious about the transition to middle school. Keep in mind that most students will adjust well to the transition with a little bit of time and support. There are also things that parents can do to help their children prepare for and conquer the middle school transition. First, normalize your child’s worries and remind them that many of their peers will be experiencing similar concerns. Express your confidence that after some time to adjust to new schedules and routines, your child can and will be more comfortable in a new environment. Middle school is also an exciting time, so be sure to mention the new activities and experiences your child will have an opportunity to enjoy! Help your child understand the major changes they may face in middle school, and prepare them as much as possible to manage those changes. For example, attend open house and orientation activities offered by most middle schools and help your child find their locker, meet available teachers, and walk through their class schedule.
Encourage your child to get involved in school sports or clubs of interest so they can develop skills and peer relationships. Let your child know they can come to you about any bullying, teasing, or exclusion they may experience and you will be there to help support and coach them through it. To help your child manage if classmate relationships are difficult for a while, consider enrolling them in social and extracurricular activities outside of school. Furthermore, encourage your child to develop and explore multiple sources of self-esteem – other ways to challenge and express themselves through hobbies, interests, and extracurricular activities. Finally, monitor and moderate your child’s technology and social media use, which tends to increase exponentially during middle school.
Although middle school students are expected to take on more responsibility for their academic success, it is worthwhile for parents to continue monitoring and supporting homework completion. Many schools use an online student management system, so familiarize yourself with this resource and check your child’s grades, attendance, and/or upcoming assignments regularly. Encourage your child to advocate for themselves and talk to their teachers with questions or concerns about assignments. At the same time, while it may seem more difficult to connect with your child’s multiple teachers in middle school (compared to one primary teacher in elementary school), don’t hesitate to reach out if you are concerned about your child’s progress in specific subjects. Teachers are managing multiple classes of students, while you’re focused on just those in your home and may notice a problem earlier. School counselors can also be helpful resources to facilitate coordination and communication across multiple teachers, so parents should learn how to contact their child’s designated counselor for help as needed.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, be prepared to allow your child to struggle and face some challenges in middle school. For example, let them experience natural consequences at school for failing to complete homework tasks or come prepared with class materials – don’t attempt to explain away, blame, or rescue your child in these situations. Hopefully their work habits will start to change and improve with meaningful consequences (e.g., detention, poor grades). Focus on growth rather than grades in subjects in which your child is having difficulty. While it may be tempting to provide more help or even complete tasks for them, praise their efforts and how hard they’re working, encourage follow up with teachers, and access tutoring services or other supports as needed.
If you think your child would benefit from additional support as they approach the middle school transition, consider enrolling in my upcoming group at BASE, Conquering Middle School. This is a 6-week program in which students will learn self-regulation and effective coping strategies, organization and study skills, and social communication tools (such as asking for help and conflict resolution). For more information or to register, visit our Group Therapy page.
For Further Reading
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. New York: Guildford Press.
Guare, R., Dawson, P., & Guare, C. (2013). Smart but Scattered Teens: The "Executive Skills" Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential. New York: Guilford Press.
Hoffses, K. (2018). 10 Ways to Help Your Child Succeed in Middle School. KidsHealth.org
Gilewski, C. D., & Nunn, M. L. (2016). Research summary: Transitioning Young Adolescents from Elementary to Middle Schools.
Supporting Students in their Transition to Middle School. A position paper jointly adopted by the National Middle School Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.