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As children progress through different grades in school they face different challenges. 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 which can be particularly stressful and require special support and understanding. Parents and educators can help children cope effectively with their varied school experiences in a number of ways.
What particular transition times pose specific challenges?
- Physical and emotional challenges: For many children, preschool requires the first prolonged separation from parents and other individual caregivers. Children may also be required to sit quietly for short periods of time at a table and listen to directions.
- Social challenges: The group nature of preschool means toddlers must learn to share activities, supplies, and attention, and relate to new children.
- Academic challenges: Preschoolers develop their listening, attention and memory skills by learning the names of colors and shapes, listening to and telling stories.
Early elementary school:
- Physical and emotional challenges: The transition to the grade school years may require moving to a new building and a longer school day. Learning to be a student also becomes important, involving adjusting to the routine and structure of the school day and the development of a sense of responsibility for completion of assignments and homework. Students face more structured, objective rewards and consequences for their behaviors.
- Social challenges: In the early grades, children are still adjusting to a world outside the home. They form new friendships, learn about teamwork and may find themselves developing special interests and skills.
- Academic challenges: Mastery of the fundamentals needed for the rest of their school careers is required. Children acquire basic reading and math ability; they learn computational skills, how to read words and how to read for meaning. They are required to answer questions about who, what, and where, which gives them information about character, plot and setting.
Upper elementary school:
- Physical and emotional challenges: In the upper elementary grades (grades 4 and 5) more independent functioning is required. Differences among students become more apparent with regard to abilities, and given the increased demands on all fronts, new problems may surface or existing ones may be more difficult to handle.
- Social challenges: Children have the opportunity to expand friendships, to work cooperatively with others, make their own social arrangements, join social groups outside the family, and plan independent activities. Cliques may form and bullies may cause difficulties, although these difficulties may happen at any point.
- Academic challenges: The academic emphasis is no longer on the acquisition of basic skills. Children are expected to be able to use basic skills to acquire information and solve problems, to be competent in reading comprehension, written expression, and knowledge in content areas.
- Physical and emotional challenges: Some communities define a specific period of time as middle school; the span can vary from 5-8th grade or 6-9th and usually entails moving to a new school building. Many children, as in New York City, change schools at 6th grade; independent schools may keep students in one location through 8th grade. The challenge to educators is to help children in these in-between years. Educators are responsive to the concern, for example, that 7th graders have very different needs than 4th graders, and additionally, the younger, newly entering students are unprepared to deal with pressures coming from the older students. During this time, the onset of puberty necessitates changes in the teen's perception of his or her body and feelings about those changes.
- Social challenges: In changing schools, students may be separated from friends with whom they have gone through the lower grades. In addition, the social context changes from the often supportive and individualized setting of a single classroom with a single teacher. Students have to adapt to a social climate that is usually more impersonal as they rotate through departmentalized classes with a number of teachers with different teaching styles and expectations. Peer acceptance becomes critical at this age as do other social pressures such as religious ceremonies (confirmation, bar mitzvah, etc.).
- Academic challenges: More independence is now required. Children need to master several unrelated classes and assignments and utilize organizational skills, perhaps maintaining a daily or weekly planner for the first time. The exposure to diverse content allows them to integrate information from one content area to another, such as reading a book for language arts that directly influences their thinking on a topic in social studies.
- Physical and emotional challenges: For most, the move to high school means a move to a new building, with a greater number of students, new teachers, a new principal, new expectations, and a new, more rigorous disciplinary system. In addition, the adolescent also has to cope with the developmental task of establishing independence from the family while at the same time maintaining family connections. At this stage of life, parents have less direct input into school activities and academic decisions.
- Social challenges: Establishing new social connections, balancing work and social life, and, for some students, managing a part-time job, are some of the new demands faced by students entering high school. Pressure to experiment with or engage in alcohol, drug, and sexual activities is also often increased.
- Academic challenges: Students are expected to have developed an assertive and efficient learning style, and good study and organizational skills. The transition into high school means entering into an academic environment which assumes that the student can take responsibility for decisions regarding academic tracks and course selection. The pressure of what to do after graduation and for many, college decisions, is also present.
How schools can help
- Teachers and other staff should be aware of the challenges typical at different points in a student's academic career. Anticipating the causes of stress and normalizing the experiences for parents and students can be a first step in minimizing any negative impact.
- When the new school year brings a change to a new school, schools can prepare children for the transition by arranging visits to the new school and scheduling meetings with new teachers and the new principal. Orientation to new buildings and new expectations should happen more than one time. And once the school year starts, a big sibling program can help -- teaming up a new student with an older student.
- When changes in the structure of the school day will be involved in the next year, as in moving to a departmentalized program, practice experiences can be provided on a smaller scale the year before. For example, some elementary schools prepare children for the transition into middle school by providing more specific work on study skills and having different teachers teach courses. The impact of the transition can be softened by giving students plan books, binders, homework folders, etc.
- Although homework expectations and the consequences for noncompliance are the school's responsibility, input from students and parents should be considered. If, for example, a majority of parents report that students are spending an unreasonable amount of time on assignments at home, homework practices should be reconsidered.
- Collaborate with parents. A child's parents can be a useful source of information about a child's academic history. Prior school experiences, both positive and negative, influence both children's and parents' expectations and should be considered when engaged in problem-solving.
What parents can do
- Be aware of the different age-related, social and academic challenges children face at various stages and that times of transition can be an added stress. Also know the specific needs of the child that makes transitions harder.
- Consider personal and family situations that may impact the child and make a particular year more difficult. Inform and collaborate with the school staff to obtain the best support.
- Prepare the child for new school experiences by discussing the changes beforehand and phase in necessary adjustments ahead of time. For example, at the end of a vacation gradually set an earlier bedtime to make entry into the new routine smoother.
- Young children can be helped to separate from parents and interact with new school-mates by providing them with opportunities to spend time with friends or relatives without their parents. Arrange play dates, play groups and other opportunities for socialization. Introduce some school-type activities at home, such as story time, snack time, and rest time.
- Form a partnership with the child's teachers and school personnel. In meetings, listen to their point of view and let them explain their expectations. Children can behave differently at home than in school when under stress from academic and social challenges.
- Keep hands off assignments; act as a guide or resource for children. Discuss possible ways to do the assignment, but don't actually do the work.
- If homework keeps the child up well past the usual bedtime, despite the fact that the child is putting forth his or her best effort, discuss the issue with the 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 alert to the specific situations or types of assignments that are particularly difficult for your child. Investigate the problem with the school and consider obtaining an educational evaluation.
- Consider both the student and teacher partners in the education process. If your child is experiencing social, academic or homework quandaries, include both the student and teacher in open discussions about the specifics of the problem and in developing solutions.
About the Authors
Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D. ATR-BC, is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.