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Smoothing your child's transition to middle school

Planning and conversation will ease your tween's anxiety about meeting the new, complex demands of middle school.

By Nancy Firchow, M.L.S.

Ah, middle school. Though your child may barely be entering puberty and may still be a pre-teen, the transition to middle school is a big step on the road to maturity. A big, scary step. Regardless of what specific grade marks the beginning of junior high or middle school in your community, your child will be both excited and afraid. Researchers have found that students anticipating the move to middle school worry about three aspects of the change: logistical, social, and academic. Your child with learning or attention difficulties shares the same worries as her peers, and may be afraid the change will be even harder for her.

While you won't be able to calm your child's fears completely, with some advance planning and open discussions you can substantially ease her mind. The first step is understanding what may worry your child.

Logistical concerns

When researchers asked kids what aspect of moving to middle school most concerned them, the top answers related to how things at the new school worked (Akos, 2002). How would they find the right classroom? What happened if they were tardy? Where was the cafeteria? What about the bathrooms?

Middle school is a much more complex environment than grade school. The campus is larger, there are more students, and instead of one teacher and one classroom, your child will have a separate instructor, and classroom, for each subject or block of subjects (e.g., language arts/social studies or math/science). It's no wonder kids worry about finding their way in this new world.

For your student with learning or attention problems, understanding the rules and procedures of the new school may be even more important. The challenge of navigating multiple transitions between classes and organizing books and materials for every subject may be all she can handle in the first few weeks. Here are some strategies for helping your child make a smoother transition to middle school:

  • Explore the school's Web site with your child. Search for announcements, schedules, and events.
  • Accompany your child on campus tours and orientations offered to parents and incoming students. The better you understand the school layout and rules, the more you can help your child.
  • Get a map of the campus and take your child 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.
  • Include a couple of your child's friends on campus treks. They can boost each other's memory about where things are when school starts.
  • Take advantage of summer programs — academic or recreational — offered at the new school for incoming students. Your child will get the feel for the campus in a much more relaxed atmosphere.
  • Get a copy of your child's class schedule and mark the location of her locker and each classroom and bathroom on the school map. Tape both of these inside her binder. If your child has trouble reading maps, walk the route between classes with her — more than once, if necessary — and note landmarks that the student can use to navigate.
  • Find out the length of the passing period between classes. Time it out for your child. Demonstrate how far she can walk in that amount of time.
  • 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.
  • Buy your child a lock for her locker several weeks before school starts to give her plenty of time to practice opening and closing it. (Note: Consider whether a combination or keyed lock is best for your child.)
  • Make sure your child has an easy-to-read wristwatch so she can quickly see if she needs to hurry to be on time to class. If she has a cell phone, make sure the time is set correctly and she is in the habit of checking it.

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