The transition from elementary to middle school is notoriously difficult for many children. While some take it in stride, others have a rockier transition. Understanding the challenges beyond the increase in homework and teacher’s expectations is key to helping your child succeed.
We’ve asked local teachers Emily Musch (Language Arts teacher at Calapooia Middle School), Anna Merwin (6th Grade Language Arts/Social Studies teacher at Timber Ridge School), and middle school student, Xyelena for insight.
Common Challenges for Middle Schoolers
Social. Xyelena shares that her first few weeks of middle school were overwhelming . She was intimidated by the magnitude of new faces. She wanted to fit in with her peers, but was afraid they wouldn’t like her. Social life is huge in middle school.
According to Merwin, the drama surrounding peers is one of the biggest struggles middle schoolers face. Meeting new friends is hard, but experiencing a “friend shift” is even harder. A “friend shift” happens when a student goes to middle school expecting to remain close with their old friends, but instead is dropped and replaced by new friends. This can be quite distressing and disorienting. Parents are affected by this, too.
Not only are they concerned for their children, but it can be hard for parents to keep up with all their child’s new friends. Musch encourages parents to stay involved, “The number one influence of children this age is their peer group. Make sure you know who your child is spending time with and that they have adult supervision.”
Identity. Middle School students often struggle to define themselves. They aren’t teenagers, but aren’t little kids either. Musch stresses that middle schoolers are, “searching for their identity and are easily influenced by their peers.” Merwin adds that her students want to be liked, and are very concerned about what others think about them. They don’t want to stand out, so they conform to what everyone else is doing/saying/wearing. Xyelena agrees and says she wanted people to like her, and would sometimes act like her peers just to fit it.
Materialism. Merwin has noticed materialism crop up with many of her students in their pursuit to be a “big kid” and to be popular with the other kids. Things become status symbols. Students want cool clothes, shoes, and whatever popular item is in circulation.
What Can I Do to Support My Middle Schoolers?
Communication. Both Musch and Merwin stress the importance of communication. Merwin says to keep communicating even if you’re only getting grunts in reply. It’s sometimes helpful if parents can share an embarrassing story of something that happened to them in middle school. Showing our children we understand, can make all the difference. Musch encourages parents to take time to build the relationship. Xyelena confirms that her mom’s involvement and continued dialog made all the difference for her.
Check grades/binders. Musch encourages parents to check online grading systems with their child. “Teach them how to check their own grades, so they can be responsible for their own success.” She believes that organization is key to success in middle school. She suggests that parents “look at their child’s binder and check their planners from time to time.”
Merwin cautions parents to investigate if your child doesn’t bring anything home or they don’t want you to check their planner or haven’t been writing in them. They might be falling behind. She feels that organization is important to success. If your child is disorganized they won’t be able to find assignments needed to complete at home or to return to the teacher.
Let them fail. Merwin advises parents to allow their kids to experience natural consequences without rescuing them. She says that middle school is a wonderful place to fail and bounce back. Even though we want our children to do well, middle school grades are somewhat benign, because they don’t affect transcripts for college. Parents who allow their kids to fail, and don’t shield them from the consequences help them to learn “resiliency and grit.” These experiences help them mature so they are ready for more independence, and responsibility. Musch agrees parents should hold their child responsible for their own consequences which will teach them about accountability, and they will gain self-esteem.
Stay connected. Merwin suggests that parents put a note in their child’s lunch or binder to let them know you are thinking of them. It can be huge in keeping them going. Even if they throw it away, it will encourage them and remind them that home is a place where they are loved and accepted just the way they are.
Intervene. If your child’s grades are slipping or they are really struggling to adjust even after several weeks of school, you may need to intervene.
Connect with their teacher. One big issue student face is falling behind in homework. For this issue and any other Musch advises parents to talk to their children and encourage them to be their own advocate. If the student can’t resolve the issue independently, then it’s time to contact the teacher. She asks, “Remember that the student, teachers, and parents are all on the same team. We all want success for your child, so always be positive and respectful in your communication. The last thing you want is a negative relationship with your child’s teacher.” If after a significant amount of time your child still struggles socially or with adjustment and you’ve done all you can, Merwin suggests parents enlist the help of their child’s favorite teacher.
Mentor. Merwin proposes an interesting approach for students who are having trouble getting the hang of middle school. “Talk to another parent, that your child knows, who has a child who has recently been new to middle school. Ask them and their child if they would be willing to mentor your child.” This can be a unique opportunity to get first hand advice and support.
The biggest support you can offer your child is your interest. Allowing them to grow while guiding and assisting them when necessary will help them with this important transition.
by Wendy Sinclair