teenage student giving thumb up while using laptop

In my last post, we looked at a theoretical framework for child and adolescent development.  The big takeaway was the importance and necessity of transitions.  No matter the theoretical framework, all children advance through numerous stages.  Those who are able to transition smoothly are usually the ones who experience the most successful (and least stressful) journeys.

As noted in the last post, the transition to middle school occurs right around the age of 11 or 12, depending on the student’s birthday.  The confounding part of this process is that this is also the age where children begin to experience huge shifts in their cognitive and psychosocial developments.  For this reason, not surprisingly, the transition to middle school is littered with challenges, both cognitively and socially/emotionally.

Today I want to examine specifically what those challenges are and, more importantly, how to navigate this transition successfully.

What are the biggest challenges?

Having spent two years as a middle school principal, I feel uniquely qualified to speak to the obstacles middle schoolers face when matriculating.  It continues to amaze me the gigantic differences between 6th graders and 8th graders.  To me, this is by far the biggest gap in development among the three main schooling years (elementary, middle, high), as 6th graders are still babies compared to 8th graders.  Consequently, they face big kid “problems” but do not necessarily possess big kid skills.

The biggest challenges students face when transitioning to middle school are:

Social

As students’ psychosocial skills naturally develop, they feel increased pressure to fit in socially.  Additionally, this is the age where social media begins to take hold.  Very few, if any, 6th graders are prepared to handle the enormous responsibility and decision-making that comes along with social media.

Emotional

We begin to see a rise in anxiety and depression around this age, particularly from students who may be prone to either due to family history.  Additionally, social and academic pressure can easily lead to elevated feelings of anxiety.

Gender Differences

Whereas in elementary school boys often play with girls relatively naturally, 6th grade is when puberty begins to happen.  Puberty can make boy/girl relationships much more tenuous and awkward. At this age, boys and girls begin to separate and not interact as easily.

Academic

Most middle schools required students to take multiple classes from multiple teachers throughout the day.  Additionally, many middle schools begin offering advanced track courses such as Pre-AP and Honors.  Many parents struggle at this age to determine what the appropriate level of rigor for his or her child.

Executive Function

Because students begin taking multiple classes with multiple teachers, executive function skills are increasingly necessary.  However, many students at this age simply do not possess the cognitive skills to self-monitor effectively without additional support.

Electronics

There is a ton of evidence demonstrating the detrimental effects of too much time spent on electronics for kids; however, kids increasingly spend time on electronics at this age, both for leisure and academic purposes.

How to Transition Successfully

Given the enormity of obstacles for middle schoolers, the transition to middle school can feel overwhelming for both students and parents.  However, the good news is that the vast majority of middle schoolers turn out just fine, even if the first semester of 6th grade can be a bumpy road.  Below are some tips to help your student (and you!) transition successfully to middle school.

Choose the right environment

The traditional path for many families includes transitioning from public elementary school to public middle school. However, this is not always the best choice.  A good friend of mine has a fifth grader who is considering his options for 6th grade next year.  They have toured six different private schools and were also considering the local public school.  After doing their research, they found a small private school that is the perfect fit.  Do your own research; look for schools that speak to your family’s values and offer activities of interest to your child.

Parents, get involved

During the middle school years, it is critical that you are involved in your child’s life. This is true both in and out of school.  Getting involved in the school life is relatively easy.  Most PTF organizations are in need of parents who can volunteer.  Also, make sure you know your child’s friends.  Middle school is a time of exploration, and your child will be much better off if you are at least somewhat involved in his social exploration.  Have play dates at your house, organize activities with your child and his friends, or volunteer to coach one of his or her teams.

Do not emphasize grades

This tip is a hard one for many parents because we are conditioned to acknowledge the importance of grades. However, the middle school years are all about exploration.  As a middle school principal, I used to tell parents all the tine, “Middle school grades do not matter!”  What matters is that your child learns how to be a good student.  That means emphasizing effort and exploring classes and activities that are interesting.  Also, by not emphasizing grades, you cut down on the amount of pressure that can lead to increased anxiety.

Extracurricular activities

In order to develop effective social and emotional skills, extracurricular activities can provide a safe and nurturing environment to do so. We often think of extracurriculars as sports, but there are numerous other opportunities, including theater, arts, robotics, community service, and church youth groups.  Students who are involved in activities afterschool typically function at a higher social/emotional level.

Limit technology

There are countless studies that exist demonstrating the negative effects technology can have on students’ cognitive, academic, and social/emotional development. One of my favorite campaigns is Wait Until 8th, which challenges parents to wait until 8th grade to give their children a smartphone.  While smartphones are not inherently evil, they do lead to all sorts of problems in and out of school.  It is essential that parents not only limit technology but also teach children how to use it safely and responsibly.

Encourage exploration

A common theme throughout middle school is the idea of exploration. The theoretical framework we discussed previously outlines the importance of exploration during this time.  Parents must understand that the middle school years are time when kids can make mistakes and have plenty of time and opportunity to recover.  The more you encourage your child to explore his or her interests, the more he or she will try new things and meet new people.

The middle school years are by far the messiest years for parents.  So much development happens in a relatively short period of time.  But just remember, these years fly by.  Before you know it, your child will be ready for ninth grade.  The steps you take now can ensure those years are a success as well.