Most kids get a rush of excitement and nerves each September. It's as much a part of going back to school as picking out supplies and meeting new teachers and friends. Major transitions - when a child is beginning a brand new chapter of academic life - bring an extra burst of anticipation, be it happy, anxious, or a mixture of both. Each of these leaps comes with its own rites of passage, whether it's making new friends in Kindergarten, managing jitters about changing classes in middle school or balancing the responsibilities and freedoms of high school.
As children progress through each chapter in their school career, they face different challenges. They need to adapt to new standards of behavior, teacher expectations and social pressures to fit in with their peers. In addition to changing academic and social demands, students also experience physical and emotional changes.
Although children are continually engaged in the process of adapting to new challenges, educators and mental health professionals agree that there are certain critical transition points that can be particularly stressful and require special support and understanding. Parents and educators can help children cope effectively with their changing school experiences in a number of ways.
Understanding Child Development
Facilitating smooth and successful transitions requires an awareness of each child's developmental level. There is wide agreement about certain patterns in child development. Influential theorists such as Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson assert that growth and development follow universal and reasonably predictable patterns, but a child's individual rate of development, culture, personality and environment all influence the rate at which a child reaches developmental milestones.
Normal differences in development can span two chronological years, or up to two grade levels. Since growth can be uneven, learning may occur in spurts followed by consolidation. Understanding these theories of change can help us to understand what our children are going through, without limiting them by setting unrealistic expectations.
Transitions - Social, Emotional and Academic
Kindergarten through Third
Socially, children in grades Kindergarten through third are still learning to be friends with both sexes, but by the end of this stage, boys and girls will separate into gender groups. Emotionally, these youngsters are self centered but also need and seek approval from adults.
Academically, this is a time when children are gradually moving from learning to play and communicate to playing with the goal of learning new information. Between Kindergarten and first grade there is a shift in cognitive development that is accompanied by a shift in reasoning and the understanding of cause and effect. Your child's curriculum includes learning through the senses - by touching, seeing, smelling, tasting and hearing - rather that thinking alone. Homework becomes a consistent daily routine during these years.
Fourth through Eighth
When children reach grades four through eight, socialization is influenced by major growth spurts. The advanced maturity of girls as compared to boys can be a source of awkwardness, jokes and embarrassment. Joining clubs and groups with individuals who possess similar interests becomes very important. At this age, children still have difficulty understanding the perspectives of others, but do recognize the benefits of making siblings, peers and grownups happy. Emotionally they need to feel accepted and worthwhile, and thus tend to be competitive at times and can overreact to failure. There is an increase in their moral thinking, in their sense of justness and fairness and in their need to be a part of something important.
The transition to middle school, which happens as early as fifth and sixth grade, is quite significant. Children are moving from thinking concretely in absolutes to thinking logically and abstractly. Children are no longer learning to read; rather, they are reading to learn and integrating multiple sources of information.
The structure and environment of middle school demands a higher level of independence than elementary school. During this transition, your child is going from a protected environment to one where he or she must be self-reliant. Remembering class schedules, getting to class and organizing belongings, without relying on parents and teachers, becomes essential. Often, children are also dealing with a significant change in the size of their school and number of classmates.
Ninth Grade: Starting High School
Upon entering high school, challenging decisions about classes, social interests and extracurricular activities are heightened by the competition to get into college. Younger teens are seeking autonomy from parents and have difficulty with compromise. Relationship skills are increasingly developed through daily social interactions with peers but are also complicated by an increased use of social media. Independence and identity become issues of primary importance. Teens are likely to set goals based on feelings of personal priority, and they may reject goals set by others.
High school students will encounter significant changes in the number of their peers enrolled in each of their classes and the number of teachers they encounter. They are expected to be independent learners and are perfecting their cognitive reasoning skills. Advancements in cognitive abilities can lead to increased motivation to perform and to do well, as students now understand the ways in which academic performance impacts their futures.
What parents can do
Creating a balance between home and school is important in facilitating and supporting your child's academic endeavors in concert with his or her emotional development. Here are some things parents can do to help kids move more easily through their school careers:
- If your child is transitioning to a new school, schedule a visit before the first day of classes to help acclimate your child to his or her new environment.
- When possible, schedule a visit during an open house or an actual school day to help familiarize your child with the school surroundings and the routine.
- For a younger child, encourage the child to discuss the future transition by asking him or her specific questions. Compile a list of yours child's concerns and together try to find answers to the questions raised.
- Seek out parents whose children are also transitioning and schedule play dates so your child will have a buddy in the new classroom. You can also schedule introductions with teachers and school leaders.
- For older children, there may be school ambassadors, either peers or older students, who 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.
- Consider personal and family situations that may impact your child and make a particular year more difficult. Inform and collaborate with the school staff to obtain the best support.
- Make sure you're especially available to your child after school starts. Understand that your child may need extra family time, attention, love and support. When there is a change, he or she may regress to an earlier developmental stage. Help your child explore ways to cope with concerns, and continue to be available for further discussion.
- Form a partnership with your child's teachers and school personnel. In meetings, listen to their points of view and let them explain their expectations. Children can behave differently at home than in school, where they may be under stress from academic and social challenges.
- If homework keeps your child up well past the usual bedtime even though he or she is putting forth the best effort, discuss the issue with your child's teacher. The aim of both parents and teachers should be to prevent parent/child homework conflict and to help the child avoid feeling incompetent.
- Be ready to problem solve. By taking an active, helpful role in your child's academic achievements, you can help broaden his or her horizons, increase self-esteem, and provide a foundation for perhaps the biggest transitions of all - to college and beyond.
Updated August 2010