Challenges in the Transition to Middle School

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The mother was concerned about her daughter. She had become anxious and was having trouble falling asleep for the past week. In addition, her daughter had been experiencing nightmares. All of the difficulties seemed to be due to her daughter starting 6th grade and beginning middle school.

Anxiety about entering middle school is common as children ready themselves for a major transition in their educational experience. Middle school is a much larger facility and the children go from being the oldest in a school to being the youngest. This can feel overwhelming to children.

In addition, the anxiety is sparked by concerns such as older kids picking on the younger ones and the teachers being mean and strict. Other concerns include children struggling to find their way around the school, being able to get to their lockers in time, having no one to sit with at lunch, and not having classes with friends. There are a lot of unknowns for children.

Fortunately, school districts are aware of these anxieties and most districts offer orientations either at the end of 5th grade or a few days before the 6th grade school year starts to ease student transition. These orientations can help answer a few of the fears that children have about the move to middle school. Parents can also assure their children that their fears are normal and that they are there to support them.

However, there are other transition issues that are not as easily addressed in an orientation. Middle school focuses on helping students learn self-management skills such as keeping track of homework and being able to turn it in on time. Parents will frequently see their children’s grades fall in middle school as a result of not completing or turning in homework. It is important for parents to intervene early if their child starts slipping academically and provide extra support as needed.

Another middle school focus is learn how to operate successfully within a larger system. This means students need to obey the rules, cooperate with authority and follow the school’s routines. These are particularly hard lessons for children to learn as they are at the age where they are striving to be more independent.

There is also a social shift among middle school students. Friendships start being based on more psychological similarities and not proximity based. In addition, students try to negotiate where they fit into the social hierarchy at school. This results in various forms of social cruelty as the sorting process is taking place. The cruelty can occur at school but also on various social media sites such as Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook.

The changing social landscape in middle school is one of the most difficult transitions for children. Parents should be aware of what is happening and tell their children that they want to know if they are experiencing any social cruelty at school or online. It can also help to have children develop social relationships outside of school to help moderate any drama that is occurring at school.

Transition to middle school is one of the most difficult children will experience in their education. Parents should take steps to help their children prepare and to provide the support they need to successfully get through it.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on August 5, 2016

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