Help Your Child Through the Big Transition With These Tips
By Elena Epstein
I’ll never forget my oldest daughter’s first day of middle school. There was the scariness of a new place – not unlike the first day of kindergarten – only this time we didn’t have a sweet teacher taking her hand to reassure her everything would be OK. It was hard leaving our neighborhood elementary school, where most parents walked their kids into the schoolyard every morning. We were leaving behind Halloween parades, citizen-of-the-month assemblies, class plays and holiday parties. Middle school was multiple buildings, changing in a locker room, keeping track of projects for different teachers, friends wearing makeup and talking about boys.
The transition to middle school marks one of the most significant times of change for children, who must learn to navigate increasingly complex academic challenges while experiencing the onset of puberty and new social expectations.
“Everything is changing,” says Leslie Echols, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher with the UCLA Middle/High School Diversity Project, which has been examining the social interaction of 6,000 students from middle schools across Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and Berkeley since 2009. “Children are going through a significant biological change as well as a shift in social development. They start to pull away from family and their peers become their absolute focus.”
According to researchers and educators, children entering middle school have some typical concerns: Will I be able to find my classes? What if I can’t open my locker? What if I’m late getting from one class to another?
Preparation and open communication are the best ways to help ease these logistical worries.
“We take a field trip to our local middle school, but we also encourage our parents to go again with the kids and walk around, see where the classes and bathrooms are, practice opening lockers,” says George Hess, a fifth grade teacher at Round Meadow Elementary School in Calabasas.
Developing an effective system of organization and time management is also critical to success in middle school. A day planner is a good way for kids to keep track of assignments. Color-coded flashcards can help with studying. An accordion-file folder will keep notes and other paperwork organized so it doesn’t end up at the bottom of a backpack.
“We encourage our students to write down every assignment and all other obligations, such as piano lessons or soccer practice, in their day planners,” says Lindsay Rossall, assistant head of middle school at Viewpoint School in Calabasas.
Parents can bolster their children’s growing sense of independence and responsibility at home. “There is a temptation at this time for parents to become friends with their kids,” says Rossall. “But it’s so important for parents to continue to have a supervisory role and set clear expectations.”
The social scene is another major area of adjustment. “Middle schoolers have an intense desire to be seen and be accepted. They don’t want to be different in any way from their peers,” says Laura Caron, director of middle school at Westridge School in Pasadena. “This is also a time when friend groups are shifting, creating a very uncertain social environment.”
Caron says that parents need to honor the fact that change causes anxiety, and suggests moms and dads talk to their kids about friends. Ask questions such as, “What didn’t work for you today? or “What makes a good friend?”
“It can be incredibly intimidating to try to break into a new group,” Caron says. “Parents can role play with their kids and practice different strategies.”
A sense of familiarity and belonging is crucial at this time, and you can help ease the loneliness of the first few weeks of school by encouraging your child to become involved with school activities, whether that’s joining the band, the cheer team or student council. These activities create a safe environment where kids can develop authentic relationships.
“Peer relationships may have the most immediate impact on how kids view their day,” says Echols, the mother of a fourth grader. “When kids have a positive peer environment, they even perform better academically.”
Another important tool you can give your kids at this time of transition – along with encouraging healthy eating, physical activity and adequate sleep – is stress-management skills.
“It’s critical for parents to encourage their kids to learn how to soothe themselves during stressful times – whether it’s through drawing, listening to music, walking the dog or playing a sport,” says psychologist Melissa Johnson, Ph.D., founder of the Institute for Girls’ Development in Pasadena.
Johnson also suggests creating a comfort basket to keep handy for kids to turn to during the first few weeks of school. You can make a fun family project of gathering various objects that make your child happy. Choose items unique to your child, such as a photo of your dog, a favorite book, a music CD or some fun vacation photos. The idea is to create a tangible way for kids to find comfort.
With your child well prepared for this big transition, chances are good that you will feel more relaxed as well.
Elena Epstein is Director of Content at L.A. Parent.