middle school kids sitting against lockers

Middle school means lots of changes – new teachers, new friends, new subjects, new classes. Some kids worry about making the move. What do they worry about?  
Susie: I’m afraid there’s much more work and much more homework.
Eloise: There are classes in different places, and we may not have enough time in between to get there.
Stacy: I worry about getting my locker open.
Marti: I hate changing clothes for gym with other kids watching.
Michael:  How am I going to keep the assignments from different teachers straight?

These worries make sense; they reflect some of the real challenges of middle school. The move to middle school is a critical transition point that can be particularly stressful. Along with these challenges come the physical and emotional changes of adolescence. Kids need special support and understanding during this time.

What’s so different about middle school?

The classroom climate:

Students, used to the supportive setting of a single classroom with a single teacher, have to adjust to a more impersonal classroom atmosphere. They rotate through specialized classes for each subject area, taught by a number of teachers, each with his or her own teaching style and expectations.

The academic demands:

The structure and environment of middle school demand a higher level of independence than elementary school. Without a single teacher to guide and support classroom work, middle school requires more self-direction from students. Middle schoolers are held responsible for remembering class schedules, getting to class on time, keeping track of assignments for multiple classes, and organizing belongings. Homework demands may increase, and assignments can be more varied, sometimes requiring research above and beyond books assigned by teachers. Grading standards and procedures are different.
In order to deal with the new expectations, students need to stay organized and manage time well. Some may be asked to maintain a daily or weekly planner for the first time. They have to manage daily assignments and at the same time plan for long-term assignments. In some cases they have to integrate information from one content area to another, such as reading a book for language arts that may also pertain to social studies.

The social climate: 

Just at the age when peer acceptance is becoming critical, some students newly entering middle school may be separated from their friends from the lower grades and now need to establish new relationships. This is an age when cliques form, particularly for girls, and some may feel left out. Formerly the oldest students in the school, new middle schoolers are now the youngest and may not be prepared to deal with pressures created by the presence of older kids. Some have to deal with a significant change in the size of their school and number of classmates.

The cognitive changes:  

Current research shows that young adolescents experience tremendous brain growth and development. Significant intellectual processes are emerging. Adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking, and to the beginnings of metacognition (the active monitoring and regulation of thinking processes). They are developing skills in deductive reasoning, problem solving, and generalizing, all of which are necessary to deal with the academic challenges of middle and high school.

The personal physical changes:

In addition to the social and academic adjustments necessary during the middle school years, most kids also experience the onset of puberty, which requires adjustments in their perception and understanding of the changes in their bodies. They may become more self conscious and sensitive, and experience intense emotions and mood swings.

How parents can help ease the transition

In early adolescence children want to be more independent, and usually don’t want their parents as involved in their lives as they were during elementary school.  However, the move to middle school may be rocky for some kids; parents should be sure to continue to be involved in their children’s progress.

  • While they may want to be more self directed, middle school students are not quite ready for teenage independence, so make sure you're especially available to your child after school starts.  He or she may need extra family time, attention, love and support.
  • To help familiarize your child with the new procedures, you may want to visit the school together, map his or her classrooms, practice using the combination lock, talk to a staff member about the rules. Sometimes older students are available to show your child around. Often future students are permitted to sit in on some of the classes they will be taking during the upcoming year.
  • Since there is usually less teacher-initiated contact with parents in middle school, make it a point to meet your child's homeroom teacher or academic advisor at the beginning of the year.
  • Provide a homework area that is free of distractions and set up a consistent homework time each day. Keep hands off assignments; act as a guide or resource for children. Discuss possible ways to approach an assignment, but don't actually do the work.  
  • Parents can and should:
  • Monitor homework
  • Provide materials that supplement class work
  • Help kids develop organizational strategies such as managing time, working with checklists and planners, breaking long assignments into manageable parts.
  • Children learn from their parents’ own learning styles and activities, such as family discussions, newspapers and other reading materials, television habits and quests for information and knowledge.
  • Show your child, through your behavior, that learning about the world is a lifelong process.
  • Network with other parents and consider becoming a classroom volunteer or PTA member. Hearing that other children are having the same problems, or how someone else resolved a similar issue, can help put problems in perspective.
  • If homework is keeping your child up well past their usual bedtime, despite the fact that the child is putting forth his or her best effort, discuss the issue with the teachers involved. The aim of both parents and teachers should be to prevent parent/child homework conflict and to help the child avoid feeling incompetent.
  • If your child experiences social, academic or homework difficulties, include the child and teacher in open discussions about the specifics of the problem and in developing solutions.

Updated Sept. 2012