Learn about the issues | Elementary | Tweens + Teens | Behavior + Discipline | Ages 11–14

Be prepared for move to middle school

Imagine this: It's the second week of sixth grade. Your middle schooler is having melt downs. More than one teacher has phoned to tell you about missing homework assignments. The pricey new sweatshirt is already lost. She or he has missed the bus to school twice already because of the amount of time spent in the bathroom. To top it off, the sassing mouth is more out of line than ever.

Sound like an exaggeration? Not really.

And to think that much of this (let's be real, not all of it!) might have been prevented.

Given the momentous nature of the move from elementary to middle school, some fray is inevitable. Not only are tweens transitioning to a relatively less personal, less nurturing school environment, their biological clocks are set to ring at puberty. Double jeopardy.

As important as it is for parents to get their child ready for what's ahead, the key to easing the entry begins with the parents' mindset and preparation. Four general guidelines for parents contain implications for middle schoolers.

Get a grip on what you can control and what you can't. Middle schoolers' drive for independence is nature's way of ensuring that they develop new behavior skills, but nature also gave them parents and other adults to protect them from danger and keep them on track.

Whether it's riding public transportation, cooking meals or doing school work independently, parents should begin extending new freedoms and adjust the reins according to their kids' track record and trustworthiness.

Still, middle schoolers benefit from solid family rules aimed at developing new skills and healthy habits. In August, have a family meeting to set up your policies. Consider making a hard copy of the agreement as a way of clarifying expectations. (See sidebar for areas to address.)

Develop a clear sense of what's important during middle school. While it's true that middle school is the training ground for handling the academic demands of high school, parents risk making school a battle ground when they focus narrowly on grades.

Middle school is the moment of all moments to mobilize a child's investment in learning. But what's even more important than the report card and mastering content, per se, is that they have positive feelings about themselves as a student and learner.

How to do this? By making sure they're developing good learning habits, by focusing on constructive gains rather than exact scores, and by maintaining a generally positive rapport so that parents can problem-solve with their child when the inevitable bumps and setbacks occur.

Have realistic expectations about the messiness of the age and stage. The emotional, social, cognitive and physical changes of puberty are not to be underestimated. Middle schoolers' bodies are growing before their eyes. They're likely to need more mirror time, be moody and hypersensitive, lose their sense of humor with the family, and be quite egocentric. Wise parents give wide berth to their children's prickliness, while setting limits to extreme selfishness and disrespect.

Peers will -- and should -- be a big part of their lives. Parents routinely groan at how much time middle schoolers want to spend with friends, but thanks to this interpersonal training they develop valuable people skills. Although it may be difficult to tolerate messy rooms, unappealing fashions, colloquial teen-talk and a need for privacy -- all related to their social development -- these serve to build an identity.

Middle schoolers become capable of thinking abstractly and analyzing more complex concepts, but they're highly inconsistent at it. For parents, this means tolerating the lapses and fuzzy logic. Don't be surprised to hear a middle schooler expressing a sophisticated thought one minute and playing with a toddler toy the next.

Stay involved. Listen to teachers' concerns, since they will have a unique perspective on your child. If they suggest checking out a learning issue or other problem, seek an assessment. And if they tell you to relax, consider that too.

For love or money, don't miss curriculum night because it is one of the best ways to know your child's academic world. Despite myriad other demands, look for volunteer activities that help you stay close to what's happening in your child's school. This sends a message to your middle schooler that you're invested in their schooling.

Families who concentrate on these four areas -- ironing out expectations before middle school begins -- will have a jump start. It can help families let go of the little things, focus on the positive and promote the positive snowballing that makes for middle school success.

Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D., a writer, are the authors of The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press, 2002) and The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

Tips for being proactive
Spare your family the headaches of waiting for problems to arise and then trying to fix them. Before middle school begins, plan new family policies. Although the list is variable, families can concentrate on the following issues:

  • Bedtimes -- they need a lot of sleep at this age
  • Phone time and use -- landlines and cell
  • Screen-time rules for TV and Internet, particularly instant messaging
  • Electronic- and phone-free study times
  • Having friends in the home without adults
  • Chores -- deadlines and consequences
  • Expectations/consequences for morning rituals -- bathroom, breakfast and bus
  • Expectations for extracurricular activities
  • Expectations/limitations surrounding their social life

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