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Education: Getting Ready for Middle School

If you have a child who is about to leave the elementary school years behind and enter middle school, here are some tips to help your child (and you) adjust to the changes.

What changes can you expect? Think: Physical, social, emotional, and academic. In short, new experiences are coming.

And what a difference a year makes. In fifth grade, your child probably knew most of the kids in her class since kindergarten. She had one teacher for all subjects, and remained in the same classroom throughout the day. Her homework likely didn't require an excessive amount of long-term planning or advanced time management skills. There's also a good chance that she eagerly asked you to volunteer as a chaperone for the end-of-the-year school field trip.

Fast-forward to sixth grade. Because most middle schools enroll students from a variety of elementary schools, it is possible that your child won't recognize many of the faces in her homeroom class. Each of her subjects will be taught in a different classroom, some in different buildings. The amount of homework will multiply, and require more complex reasoning and organizational skills. And because these years mark a significant leap towards independence as well as an increased interest in peer relationships, chances are your pre-teen won't be asking you to chaperone the school dance anytime soon.

But don't panic. While the transition from elementary to middle school can feel overwhelming -for kids and their parents- it truly is an incredible time of growth and discovery. And there are many things you can do to ease the transition and embrace the many changes that lie ahead.

Talk and listen. You're not the only one who's wondering what middle school life will be like. Your child probably has many questions and maybe some concerns. Ask what she is most excited about, what she worries about, and how you can help. Talking about the experience is the first step in easing the transition. If she feels apprehensive, assure her that her feelings are normal. And remind her that, while change can be scary, it can also be exciting.

Be informed. Your bookshelves may be lined with books about the physical and emotional life of an elementary school age child, but much of that information no longer applies. Learn about pre-teen behavior so you have realistic expectations and develop useful parenting strategies. Parenting classes, offered by universities, community centers, churches and synagogues could provide helpful information and support.

Plan ahead. Attend the middle school orientation with your child. When she receives her schedule, encourage her to take a few practice runs walking from class to class so she can become familiar with the school and where her classes are located. Be sure she also knows how to find the front office, the lunchroom, the bathrooms and the bus circle.

Promote responsibility. In middle school, your child will be assuming more responsibilities than ever before. She will need to learn her daily schedule, get to her classrooms on time, bring appropriate school supplies and books to class, and organize her study time so she can complete projects and assignments. At home, provide the tools and the support to help her get organized. Help her learn how to use a day planner and identify a quiet place where she can study.

Be available. During the middle school years, it is typical for children to place greater emphasis on peers than parents. Hang in there and don't take it personally. Instead, remain involved and available in her life. Find opportunities to spend time together and talk about the things that are important to her. Daily activities such as eating a snack or driving to an after-school program can provide meaningful moments for the two of you to talk and connect.

Be involved. Research indicates that when parents are actively involved in their child's education, they do better in school. Plan to get involved in your child's middle school. While your days of volunteering in the classroom may be over, you can help with a school committee or join the Parent-Teacher Association. Get to know her teachers, guidance counselor and friends.

Seek support, when indicated. If you have concerns about your child's adjustment to middle school, discuss them with a school counselor or family health care provider.

Laugh when you can. While there are many serious issues associated with entering middle school and the "'tween" years, there are plenty of joyful ones, too. Laugh when you can and try not to sweat the small stuff. Don't expect perfection- in yourself or your growing child. Enjoy this time.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org. She is the author of "Positive Parenting," a weekly feature of the Miami Herald.

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