Going to middle school has become an educational and social rite of passage for 11- year-olds across the country. Two Wake Forest University professors suggest parents can take an active role in helping their children make this potentially difficult transition.
“It is important for parents to be aware of the stresses entering middle school can cause,” says Christy Buchanan, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest and an expert on adolescence. “Developmentally, adolescents are going through a lot of changes, both physically and cognitively. Things happening in the middle school setting are often at odds with personal changes the adolescent is experiencing.”
The change in school structure- going from one or two teachers to four or five teachers- can make it more difficult for students to connect with teachers and peers, says Samuel T. Gladding, professor of counselor education at Wake Forest and author of several books on family counseling.
“They also lose some of the security of elementary school friendships,” Buchanan says. “Typically, middle schools are much larger than elementary schools and that can lead students to feel more anonymous.”
Becoming a smaller fish in a bigger pond happens at the same time adolescents are moving from having mostly same-gender friends to developing an interest in the opposite sex, she says. As they are figuring out how to act with boys and girls and wrestling with other social changes, they have left the relative safety of their elementary school group, says Buchanan.
Especially at first, she says, it is important to keep up contacts with peers from elementary school if they are not going to the same school or are not in the same classes. Parents can help their children maintain connections to familiar groups. This can include encouraging involvement in other organizations, such as youth groups and community groups to provide an opportunity for children to be in a smaller group setting.
“Get to know kids’ teachers and help the teachers get to know your child” is Buchanan’s basic commandment for parents. Seeing the school and meeting teachers is important.
Gladding suggests that parents can help their children by disclosing some of the mistakes they may have made in middle school. By recounting the story of forgetting a locker combination or sharing another embarrassing moment from their sixth grade experience, parents may help the child realize they do not have to be perfect.
Gladding also suggests reflective talks with kids, where the parent asks the child questions such as, “What do you expect from middle school?” Write the answers down and follow up periodically with conversations that encourage the child to describe the realities of middle school, the counseling professor says. He recommends making open-ended requests that require thoughtful replies, such as “Tell me about this class” or “What is teacher ‘x’ like?”
“Regularly give the child time to talk about difficulties and to brag about achievements,” he adds.
Role-playing situations can be helpful to some children, Gladding says. For example, the strategy works well with hypothetical boy/girl situations or acting out how to talk to a teacher the child does not like.
Some kids have difficulty meeting the increased need for organizational skills that come with middle school, says Gladding. To help, parents should ask kids to load their backpacks each night so they have everything they need for the next day. Parents can also review with their kids the due dates for projects and help them set dates for starting those projects.
In the sixth grade, school has a new level of seriousness, says Buchanan. And, that results in increased pressure.
The child is trying to figure out how to meet the elevated expectations of teachers and parents while also trying to meet the changing expectations of their peers, Gladding says.
“Whenever you enter or leave a situation there is always a bit of crisis as well as opportunity,” Gladding says. “And, when there is a bit of crisis, children will often regress before they progress.”
So parents need to be patient and encouraging if their children take some steps backward before moving forward.
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