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With six kids, I’ve been through my fair share of school-related firsts; first day of kindergarten, first school field trip, first high school graduation.
The one “first” that hasn’t gotten easier is the first year of middle school. Each of my children have entered sixth grade the same sweet child they were in fifth grade. But by the end of that first year of middle school, some of their naivete’ is lost and they suddenly look and act more mature. They are no longer little kids.
“Middle school kids are stuck in the middle of adolescence and the teen years. They are torn between the silliness of childhood and the maturity of a teen,” says Rebecca Stacy, a Tipton County middle school teacher. “The difference in the rate that the students mature only compounds this issue.”
Stricter academic standards, more personal responsibility, hormonal changes, and the beginnings of social awareness can combine to make the middle school years a difficult time in a child’s life.
Transitioning to middle school can cause challenges for students in three areas: logistics, academics, and social skills.
Finding Their Way
Heather Starnes says in her 11 years of teaching middle school for Tipton County, the kids always have the same fears: Changing classes, using a locker, getting to class on time, using the restroom, and managing multiple teachers.
Middle school campuses are larger than most elementary schools and students fear they won’t find their classrooms. Tipton County schools eases some of those fears by offering a Fifth Grade Orientation program. Each fifth grade class takes a field trip to the middle school at the end of the year. They meet teachers and have eighth grade honors students lead them on tours of the school.
Shelby County Schools leaves it up to the individual elementary schools to schedule field trips. However, parents can call their middle school and ask to bring a child in for a tour before the school year starts.
Learning How to Study
Academic struggles are usually due to two factors; poor study habits and lack of organizational skills.
“I have taught more than 1,000 students in my career in multiple subjects, and a common theme with the majority of those students has been the stance that participating in classwork should be enough to pass the class and nothing more should be required,” says Starnes. “But this is far from accurate.”
Middle school is the first time students must learn to adapt to different teachers, different classrooms, and multiple subjects. Without good organizational skills, students can lose assignments and quickly fall behind.
In my own experience, middle school is the time my children no longer are given a set homework schedule each night. In elementary school, teachers send home a daily folder with homework clearly labeled. However, each middle school teacher has his or her own homework plans and makes it the responsibility of the student to be sure it is completed on time.
Although preteens are struggling to earn their independence, parents still must ask ‘Did you do your homework?’ And even more importantly, follow up and review the homework assignments. Starnes says although a parent may not see as much nightly homework, “a child needs repetitive practice and exposure to material to retain it long term.”
She says even at this age, parents need to take an active role in helping their children learn efficient study skills. Middle school kids can still benefit from making flash cards, reworking math problems, and utilizing online resources for to reinforce skills.
“The reality is most children will not take this initiative on their own, they are children and studying is work. Parents must set standards and expectations of what studying for school looks like when there is no homework to reinforce skills learned that day,” says Starnes.
Joey Cox, fifth-grade teacher at Munford Elementary, says parents and teachers can make the mistake of babying students in the elementary years, leaving them unprepared for the stricter standards of middle school.
Cox tries to add more discipline and responsibility in his fifth grade classroom to better prepare students for middle school.
Amy Bradshaw, fifth grade teacher at Briarcrest Christian School, agrees that fifth graders need to be prepared for the academic rigors of middle school. Bradshaw says she teaches her students the importance of using a planner to keep track of all upcoming assignments.
“They have to learn to work ahead on projects. Studying for tests and quizzes often takes several minutes or several days compared to studying the night before in elementary school,” says Bradshaw.
With 16 years of teaching experience, Stacy says she would like to see elementary school teachers require their students to write more to better prepare them for middle school. “Not write spelling words three times each,” she says. “Write out their ideas, write answers to questions that have to make them think, and add more creative writing.
Unlike in elementary school, peer pressure is now becoming a stronger influence than the family unit. The desire to fit in with a specific social group is intense.
“Difference and uniqueness are not always tolerated by other students,” notes Stacy “which can make it difficult for a child to feel they belong.”
In fact, the social struggle to adapt can sometimes be harder than the academic ones.
“The academic struggles are concrete standards that the teachers and parents are constantly reinforcing,’ Starnes says. “Socially, this is the beginning of social awareness and is a very delicate time because the kids are hyper sensitive to the opinion of their peers.” Starnes recommends parents keep two key factors in mind when helping their children adjust to middle school.
“First your child is growing up which means changes are going on with his or her body. Talk to your child regularly about hygiene and provide them with the toiletries necessary to maintain good hygiene.”
Second, don’t just ask your child about grades and upcoming assignments. Ask about the social aspects of school. However, Starnes cautions parents to remember, “This age is learning to express themselves, so just like a gossip column, things are always exaggerated, and slightly enhanced to make the story more interesting.”
Bradshaw also says learning to navigate the social structure of middle school is challenging. “What is minor to us often tends to be major to middle schoolers,” she says. “Many times you just need to listen and the kids will work it out themselves.”
Those successful middle school years are vital for a successful transition to high school. There is even less communication between the school and parents in high school and even more personal responsibility placed on the student to prepare them for college. Middle school is the time to learn time management skills, study skills and the social awareness necessary for the rest of their life.
Each of the teachers agreed that parental involvement is key to helping your child transition to middle school.
“Let them have their independence, but still monitor them,” said Stacy.
Signs your child might be having difficulties adapting
- New behavioral issues at home and at school
- Excessive anger and frustration while completing school work
- Anxiety about school work
- Attempting to stay home from school or leave school due to fake illness
- Tween begins to isolate himself from peers and family
- Hiding grades or notes from the teacher
Tips for helping your child transition to a new school:
- Visit the school first. If an official tour isn’t offered in your district, call and ask to bring your child to see the building and meet the teachers.
- Beginning in fourth or fifth grade, add more structure to at-home study time. Be sure your child has everything necessary to study; a quiet work area, computer access, and additional help when necessary.
- Help your child stay organized. Make sure they have the required school supplies for each class.
- Attend your school’s Open House night to meet the teachers and see the school for yourself.
- Be sure your child’s teacher has your email address and phone number to be able to call you to discuss any issues she may be seeing in the classroom.
- Ask your school about its parent contact system. Some schools offer text messaging or automated calls for upcoming event reminders.