The Middle School Transition


As an independent educational consultant, follow-up calls usually make me happy, but when Sally reached out only three months into the middle school career of her son Joey, I was trepidatious. No sooner did we start to speak than she launched into a laundry list of things that were going badly for him. She was so convinced we had chosen a perfect fit for him, and now she was worried we had made a mistake.

“He’s just falling to pieces,” Sally began. “He was always a straight A student without having to study. Now he’s getting C’s and even failing tests, missing assignments, and not writing down assignments in his planner, but his teachers assure me that this is typical of a new middle schooler.” Sally went on to express concern that the teachers were dismissing her alarm because Joey is a well-behaved kid who was still passing. This was not enough for Sally and she wanted to know what to do to find a school that would challenge Joey appropriately but reverse this downward spiral.

With a patient sigh, I explained that Sally’s concerns were understandable, but that Joey’s problems absolutely were typical of a new middle schooler. Middle school is a time when students who find easy success in elementary school often struggle to get on a smooth path. I assured her that the majority do succeed by the time high school rolls around, but that sometimes it could take months or even a few years to get there. In the meantime, there is a lot that parents can do to support their children, but first it is important to know what the problem is. Hint, it’s not that Joey suddenly became dumb or lazy!

In elementary school, the executive functioning expectations are low and those that are required are highly supported. Executive functioning affects those basic administrative tasks -– managing materials, assignments, and planning their time. Changing classrooms and teachers and using lockers, coupled with hormonal surges and new interests in socializing, make these skills even harder to achieve. Academics are more abstract and move away from rote memorization to longer-term assignments and projects. A good middle school must absolutely be specifically focusing on teaching executive function skills.

Early adolescence is also a time when children naturally start pulling away from us. They want less time with us and want more privacy and less parental guidance. Their friends, rather than their parents, are their primary social influences. These friendships can be fraught with complications – unrequited crushes, “mean girls,” bullies, the dreaded middle school dance. A lot of literature and media about middle school portrays a negative message that can make it even scarier.

For help in assisting our kids in navigating this complicated time, we need to turn to the experts.

Teach Them Independence, But Be

There To Catch Them If They Fall

James Leathers, Middle School Head at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, advises that the most important skill to be learned in middle school is independence. “Even a straight-A student won’t be set up for success in high school if they’ve had their hand held every step of the way,” he states. However, “there’s also such a thing as being too hands off and middle schoolers need support and accountability from the adults in their lives.”

Listen To Their Concerns,

Without Crowding Them

We rejoice in our middle schoolers’ abilities to get themselves to activities and school independently via walking, biking, and public transit. However, giving them rides can open up an opportunity for communication. Middle school teacher Alexandra Mirkowski, of the Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel, encourages car rides as a great time to have a valuable conversation with your tween. “There’s something about the lack of eye contact and the ability to have more of a casual interaction that allows kids to open up,” she notes. “You might have a topic you want to raise, but more often than not, they are actually the ones who use the opportunity to broach difficult issues that have been worrying them.”

Alexandra adds that she encourages families to eat dinner together as many nights a week as possible. “Sports, extracurriculars, parent schedules, and tweens’ general seeming disinterest in family life may make this seem more difficult, but it’s worth the effort. Kids this age will share their concerns and their successes over the dinner table even if they wouldn’t naturally come seek you out to talk about them.”

Help Them Set Themselves Up For Success

James Leathers has practical advice that he shares with incoming middle school parents. He suggests that students and parents set up a weekly time to check grades, to monitor progress and allow the student to be accountable. Talk about time management and setting up a place to work where the student can concentrate. Set boundaries for phone use and talk about priorities such as sleep, exercise, and family time. Review their agendas with them and talk to them about using it to plan out longer term activities such as studying for a test or doing a project.

Keep Them Moving

Many middle schools have dropped recess from the schedule, but middle schoolers still need exercise. Jeff Basler, also of the Walworth Barbour School, encourages parents to allow plenty of time for this. “There’s a reason many 6th graders are still in elementary school,” he notes, “and many schools continue to have recess through middle school. Physical activity is just as important as academics at this age.” Sports are not only a good way to keep active, they are an excellent opportunity for socialization and leadership. Even if your child is not a natural athlete, a sport such as cross country can be a low skill way to participate and get exercise.

What If There Actually

Is A Problem?

If you sense that something more is going on than just typical tween struggles and/or if a teacher raises an alert, you should absolutely request evaluation from your child’s school. This period can be a time when previously undiagnosed learning difficulties cease to be conquered simply by hard work and intellect. Kids with attention issues can fall apart with the added challenges of middle school. Dyslexic students can no longer memorize every word – they need strong decoding skills to handle the greater complexities in science and social studies where they are now reading to learn rather than simply learning to read. Students with autism might have found comfort and friends in elementary school but are now lost with all of the new faces and social nuances of the bigger institution. If your child attends a non-public institution, you can request such assistance from the public school system. Make the request in writing and document each step of the process. You will never regret finding out there is nothing wrong.

You Can Do It!

Before you know it, your nervous 6th grader will morph into a confident 8th grader ready to tackle the challenges of high school.

E.V. Downey is an educational consultant based on Capitol Hill. In addition to helping families navigate the school system, she is co-director of Busy Bees Camps. She also teaches flute at Music on the Hill and tutors elementary and middle school students.