Making the move from the comfortable and well-known life of an elementary school student to the increasingly chaotic middle school years can be more than frustrating: It can be downright time-consuming. Besides adjusting to changing hormones and developing social skills, these tweens are also expected to become masters of time management.
Alicia Lopez, an 11-year-old student at Pioneer Middle School in Steilacoom, easily pinpoints the most significant change: "It's stressful because I have to go to each class on time and get my books from my locker," she says, "and keep up with all of my work, too."
So far, Alicia says, the workload has been manageable. She receives about 30 minutes of schoolwork each night, which she credits to communication among her teachers. "I think they talk to each other so they don't give a bunch of homework at the same time," she says. The school also supplies day planners to make it easier for students to track upcoming assignments, events and activities.
While Alicia is making the adjustment, middle school is often a time when students struggle, counselors and teachers say. Lisa Dawson, head counselor at McClure Middle School in the Seattle School District, says it's realistic to expect "an hour to two hours of homework at night -- which can be really overwhelming for kids," she says. "And 11 is really young to make that transition. These kids need a lot of guidance and support."
While Dawson questions whether educators haven't gone a bit overboard when it comes to homework, she says that parent involvement will ultimately help ease the burden.
"It seems we've lost track of why we give homework," she says. "They're 11. There should be more time for imaginative play and fun." Although homework is a reality, "parents need to find out what the right balance is for their child," she says.
Dawson encourages parents to ask questions about schoolwork that evoke more than "yes" or "no" answers. "'Do you have homework?' is the worst thing you can ask," she says. "Instead, say 'show me what you did today' or 'let's look at your planner and show me where you are with your assignments."
Sharyn Merrigan, a sixth-grade teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Olympia, says that teachers, students and parents all need to work together to make the transition work. At Thurgood Marshall, for example, teachers discuss assignments with each other before assigning to keep workloads manageable. All sixth-grade students have two core teachers -- one for math and science, and another for language and social studies.
"Students only have two teachers they have to answer to when it comes to homework," she says. "Here, they go from meeting the expectations of one teacher to two teachers and by the time they get to high school it will be six teachers."
Merrigan recommends that parents work with students to declutter their lives, both at home and school. "These kids have a lot of supplies they're trying to deal with -- you've got the kids that are carrying around 50 pencils all the time and then you have the kids that sometimes don't even have paper," she says.
She advises parents to help their children organize backpacks and binders, and talk to them about developing a time management and organizational system. As a result, their child will have more time to focus on studies instead of looking around for a notebook or assignment, she says.
Establish a routine for your child, whether it's sitting down to do homework right after school or after dinner, and adhere to that routine as much as possible, says Mari Lysne, a guidance counselor at Lakeridge Middle School in Bonney Lake.
"Break down homework into small doable tasks with breaks in between," she says. "Create both balance and boundaries in your family life. There should be time for friends and fun, as well as homework and chores. If there is too much work or play, help your child set limits and stick to them."
Many school districts now offer Web sites that allow you to monitor your child's attendance and assignments with just the click of a mouse, and also provide teacher email addresses for easy contact. Merrigan advises parents to take advantage of all the tools the school offers, and also encourage their kids to participate in homework clubs and tutoring programs, if necessary.
"Parents [of middle schoolers] have the tendency to hover too tightly or disengage too much," Dawson notes. "You've got to find the balance that lets your child be somewhat independent, but still demonstrates that you are there for them and want to be involved."
Sarah Kahne is a freelance journalist and mother of a 5-year-old boy.