What to Expect When You Have a Middle Schooler
What an exciting time! Your child has reached the next phase of schooling: middle school. What a scary time! Your child has reached the next phase of schooling: middle school. What a daunting time! This list could go on and on. While there is no one feeling that encapsulates this transition from elementary to middle school, students, parents, and other family members alike are undoubtedly feeling apprehensive as a child gets ready to start middle school. And no wonder! Parents and older family members probably remember middle school as a time of change and uncertainty. Maybe some recall middle school fondly, remembering the teachers who helped them to transition well and to build a foundation for high school. Maybe others do not want to remember middle school at all because it was such a difficult and painful time. No matter where you fall on the continuum, middle school offers many opportunities for people to find themselves and to build skills that will last a lifetime.
I have been teaching middle school students for most of my teaching career and have spent much of my time teaching 6th grade in a school for intellectually gifted students. I have observed some students struggle with the transition and others acclimate to middle school with ease. So much happens in the first year of middle school, and at times, it is difficult to process everything, so I created a guide for supporting middle school students as they transition to this next phase of life. Students face countless challenges–physically, mentally, emotionally, and academically–at this time in their lives and oftentimes do not want to talk about their struggles. My hope is that you can use this resource to find some talking points and to encourage you and your students on difficult days.
What do we do now?
This question surely drifts through many minds when families think about having a middle school student. No matter where people attend middle school, these principles can guide them and their families.
- Support-Students need a lot of it in middle school. While it can be tempting for parents to have a laissez-faire approach to schoolwork, study skills, organization, and staying connected with students because middle school students are more independent than elementary schoolers, it is important for students to feel that they have a support network. Each child is different, of course, so the amount of support needed for success will vary. Parents know their children best and can adjust as needed. Teachers will also be able to give input as to how to help students.
- Work-You have to work hard—both parent and student. While it is no secret that success takes hard work, sometimes that lesson is difficult to learn. Entering a new school with new routines and schedules is challenging and will take work to understand. However, the work that you put in will be well worth the results.
- Blood-Hopefully you will not deal with blood! However, preteens and teenagers are growing and may experience clumsiness. Sometimes blood is part of the process.
- Sweat-You may not think that the transition to middle school will be so physically demanding that you will sweat. While it is true that students may not physically sweat (except during P.E.), they may need to put in some extra effort to understand new concepts or to figure out complex material. For more information, refer to number 2: Work.
- Tears-At times middle school is an emotional roller coaster. Students are going through many changes, and hormones are real. Frustrations appear in many forms, and sometimes students will cry because they are overwhelmed. Perhaps they are physically hurt; maybe they are dealing with difficult social situations. No matter the cause, tears tend to surface inevitably in middle school, especially 6th grade. Students are trying to discover who they are, which takes time, trial, error, and effort. Allow them to express their feelings, and work with them to develop valid ways to handle their hormones, frustrations, and feelings. Basically, let students know that they are supported and that they will be able to overcome the situation they are facing, even if the solution does not seem to be evident at the moment. As always, refer to number 1: Support.
“How do I find my stuff?”
Reading a middle school schedule and staying organized can be quite challenging. For one, students have several classes and many different teachers, especially compared to elementary school, where many students only have a handful of teachers, if that. Therefore, the schedule itself can be overwhelming before students even get to the building. While teachers spend time walking students through how to organize their materials, how to write assignments in their planners, and how to read their schedules so that they make sense, inevitably, some students struggle to keep themselves, their papers and other materials, and their lockers organized. This challenge is a unique one for middle school students. For some people, this may be the first time they have had lockers, which can quickly become black holes. Papers and materials get lost easily, and since students only have a few minutes to change classes, the papers and materials can pile up quickly.
Many successful students have found ways to help them to cope with the quick transition and large amount of materials. While each student will ultimately have to find what works best for him or her, one strategy that works well is for students to put their materials in the order that they will need them for the day. Then they can quickly grab what they need for their class. Students should also plan to clean their lockers periodically. Sometimes, teachers will have locker cleanouts during a certain time of the day; at other times, students will need to take charge of their organization. Ultimately, students will need to experience class changes and locker visits before they can learn what works best for them. However, staying on top of organization can help immensely.
“I can’t do this!”
Undoubtedly, those words may be spoken more times than can be counted during the 6th grade school year. While platitudes and encouragement can help, only when students have buy-in can they truly learn and thrive. Motivation is an essential piece to a successful transition to middle school. While intrinsic motivation–that which derives from inside oneself–is the best, some students need some external inspiration to keep them going. Especially when tasks get hard, students may feel like giving up or not finishing their work. Sometimes an external motivator will help someone to finish until he or she finds the willpower to complete tasks on his or her own. Everyone has tasks that he or she does not like to do. For some, cleaning is a chore. Maybe for others, cooking is the bane of their existence. We adults also do some things as function of our jobs, but we do not like to do them. Nonetheless, it is important to model completing tasks, no matter if we want to do them or not, so that students can see positive examples.
Motivation boils down to knowing your child. As one of my colleagues says, you need to find your child’s “currency”. What makes that person tick? What is proverbial “carrot”, as the counselors at my school often say, that you can dangle in front of your child to help him or her finish tasks he or she does not want to do? When the tasks get difficult and the tendency to give up is present, what is going to help your child to finish?
“I’m never going to get this!”
How many times have we heard a child or even ourselves speaking these words? I cannot count the times I have used them. Frustration is part of the learning process, especially if we are facing something particularly challenging to us or new material or if we are tired. No matter what, frustration will happen. Many times, I have seen students experience frustration over the most trivial situations. While the circumstance may seem small to an adult, middle school students are undergoing significant changes mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially and may not understand what is happening to them or to others. Therefore, the situation that seems small to us may be monumental to the child. At other times, family members get frustrated because they do not know how to help their children understand concepts, to work through situations, or to help them understand what is going on around them.
In these situations, it is crucial to remember a few key points. First, please do not take your frustration out on a child or teacher. We teachers are here to help, and while it may be easier to take your frustration out on someone else, please refrain. Instead, take some time to recover yourself and/or to teach your child some positive ways to overcome the frustration. Teachers will be doing the same at school.
Second, try to find the root cause of the frustration. Perhaps there is fear of failure or perfectionism. Maybe there is fear of rejection or of the unknown. Oftentimes, by focusing on strengths and by identifying the root of the frustration, it is easier to overcome and to find ways to manage it in the future.
The Support Team
One thread that has been woven throughout this text thus far is that you, students and families, are not alone. You have an incredible support team waiting to embrace you. I know the beginning of the year is awkward, especially if teachers cannot remember students’ names or if they call them by their siblings’ names. However, teachers are here to help, and we want to help. Yes, our job title describes our role, but we are prepared to do so much more than teach. We want to support students and families to help make this transition to middle school as seamless as possible by building strong relationships with students and their families. Seamless does not mean easy, as oftentimes you may find your way fraught with obstacles, but we are here to support and to encourage. The counselors, administration, office staff, cafeteria staff, custodians, nurses, and everyone else in the building want you and your child to succeed. Sometimes that means your child must find his or her own way, and maybe even fail, to get there. Sometimes it may take longer than you think it should for your child to feel at ease in middle school. Perhaps your child may take the entire 6th grade year and more, but no matter what, we teachers are here to support, working hard for your child and for you and receiving training in best practices.
The Elephant in the Room
Until now, I have not yet addressed the elephant in the room: grades. However, now is the time. Students who come from elementary schools may not have experienced grades before since elementary schools use proficiency scores. The thought of being graded on a scale can be daunting. Nonetheless, if you keep the following information in mind, this part of the transition will make more sense and will be easier to understand.
First and foremost, grades are not the end-all, be-all determiner of success; they are indicators of progress. Please do not become too distressed during the first few weeks of school if a grade is lower than expected. Students are facing so many new things and need time to adjust. Usually by October, we will start to see clear trends and patterns that we can address to help students to grow
Another aspect of grading in middle school is that proficiency scores from elementary school do not correspond to letter grades. Therefore, an A does not equal an AP, a B does not equal a P, a C does not equal a DP, and a D does not equal an N. You cannot see letter grades as equivalent to proficiency scores. Moreover, it is okay to get a B. A B is not failing, no matter what parents tell their students or students tell themselves. Even getting a C or a D, or–wait for it–an E, is not an indicator that a student is a failure. However, if a student is consistently scoring a C, D, or E, rest assured that we teachers will be working our hardest to figure out what is going on. We will also be asking for the support of families. We will not leave your child to flounder on our end, but also remember that your child needs familial support, as well.
Before ending this section, I want to address an important topic: seeking the highest grade possible without putting forth the effort to earn it. Remember that grades are earned, not given. Teachers grade by using a rubric and will give you and your students access to that rubric so that you can see what we are looking for. The goal is for students always to work toward the exemplary part of the rubric. We often have students who get to the end of the quarter and want to earn Principal’s List, which means that the student has an A in every class without getting an A-. That student may realize that there is one class keeping him or her from getting Principal’s List, and the student may ask the teacher himself and herself how to raise the grade. At that point, it is too late for the student to raise the grade. Instead, what we are looking for is that the child demonstrates mastery throughout the quarter, and if he or she is not getting a skill right away, we teachers will work to help that child get there. It may not fit into a nine-week box, so an A-, B, or C may end up on your child’s report card for a quarter. Again, do not fret. We are looking for trends and patterns. Moreover, if students have the opportunity for retakes, they should take advantage of that situation. Teachers want students to understand what they are learning, which sometimes means offering more than one opportunity to show mastery. Students should take advantage of these situations if they have the chance and should put forth solid effort to prepare.
Another important point to remember is that the grades earned in 6th grade are not going to matter to college admission folks. Yes, some 6th graders do take high-school credit courses, but even then, students have the potential to improve their work in the course over the next several years of schooling before graduation. Therefore, a B or C in English, for example, will not ruin someone’s chances of getting into high school or college. Now, I am not saying that students should slack off and not do their best, but I am saying that if someone’s best in a course is a B or C, then that is totally fine. Remember that we are looking for excellence, not perfection.
A Two-Way Street
Undoubtedly, you have heard that communication a two-way street. This statement is definitely true for families who are helping their students to make the transition to middle school. With the myriad of changes that will be happening this year, the teachers and other folks in the school are going to be communicating lots of information throughout the year via phone calls, emails, learning management system, the gradebook, and conferences. We teachers ask that parents communicate with us, as well, because it helps the transition to go much more smoothly. In the case that families are frustrated, please remember the chain of command. Please talk to the teacher of record first. Then if we need to get more help, we can talk to administration. If all else fails, then we can go higher, but please start with the teacher. He or she can address the issue and work to get it resolved in a timely manner.
Let’s discuss each communication method and how it can aid in the transition. Throughout the year, teachers will be in touch for various reasons–good news and areas of concern alike. Understand that teachers are going to do our best to keep families informed on our end because middle school is different from elementary, as has been stated previously. It can be especially difficult to know what is going on because your child may not want to speak to you or because there are so many teachers compared to elementary school, so please use the methods of communication we are providing. One of the main methods of communication is email. Be sure that the school has a valid email address on record.
Teachers and students can send messages to one another through learning management systems like Schoology or Canvas, and course materials may be published there. Parents should have access to this resource, as well, and can see what assignments are due. The gradebook is also a tool for communication. Teachers update the gradebook and often write notes about assignments. Again, refer to the section of this resource about grades. We are not expecting you to check grades every hour, but weekly should be often enough to keep everyone informed.
Finally, teachers do hold conferences in middle school, but they look different from elementary. Typically, we hold conferences with the whole team of teachers because we work together with the students as a team and meet as a team. We schedule middle school conferences through the counseling department and do not hold impromptu conferences in parking lots or the hallway. Oftentimes, middle school conferences are the next step when we are concerned about a child, and we have not seen changes after emails and phone calls. These conferences are not punitive; instead, they are another avenue for families and the school to work together to support students. Sometimes we even invite students to the conferences so that everyone is able to hear what is going on and to be part of the decision-making process. We want everyone to have buy-in to the decisions that are made so that the process is more effective.
Overall, remember that teachers want to be sure that all students are getting the most support possible so that they can be the most successful that they can possibly be. We see positive results most often when students feel support from home and at school. Therefore, we will be communicating quite often with parents and families, and we ask that you do the same for us via the proper chain of command.
“I never had to work before.”
If I had a penny for every time I heard this statement from a student or a parent, I would be rich. Honestly, for some students, elementary school was a breeze because they did not have to work hard. The material came easy to them, and they could spend their time doing what they loved. However, middle school is a different animal. Students have many more teachers and a rigorous class schedule. Many people find their free time is minimized or non-existent, and extracurricular activities take an enormous amount of time. Juggling all the “things,” as one of my colleagues likes to say, is quite the balancing act. Nonetheless, there are some tips and tricks to help in this area.
First and foremost, students, you will have homework. You will need to do it. You will also need to study. This is not elementary school. Now, saying that someone needs to study is easy. Studying is actually not as easy as it sounds. Studying looks different for each class. Studying is not reading your notes once and being done. Studying looks like regular review and consistent habits, not procrastination and cramming. Once you visit your classes, you will understand what I am talking about. You will have to adjust your study schedule per your afterschool activities and class load. Math concepts and world language skills—if a child is taking a world language—build on one another. Therefore, they need to be practiced every day. Social studies and science concepts are fact-heavy, and you will need to spend time practicing every week, not just trying to cram all the information into your brain the night before a test. If you play an instrument, you will need to budget time to practice every day. English is a recursive class, meaning that you will be working on reading and writing, which you have been doing since day one in school; yet, the concepts will become more complex. Be prepared to do more challenging reading and more writing than you have done before.
Another tip is to turn work in on time; otherwise, the snowball effect occurs, where the work piles up and becomes overwhelming. As I wrote previously, lockers and short time between classes can create a situation where organization is non-existent. However, there are some solutions to this challenge.
One way is to utilize a planner consistently. Have students write their assignments faithfully in their planners when they go to class and check off the assignments when they are complete. Families can verify that students have completed the work by viewing the completed assignment and the checked-off planner.
Another tip is to use class time wisely. Oftentimes, teachers will give students an opportunity to start working on assignments in class. If this happens, students should take advantage of this opportunity. Often, students have many extracurricular activities once they leave school, and using time at school to complete work and to ask teachers questions is invaluable.
Moving to a new school can be so difficult! I know because I moved to a totally different school in 6th grade where I knew two people. Most of the students had been together since kindergarten or at least knew each other outside of school because their parents were friends. I, on the other hand, was moving into this environment where I did not understand how to do the English work. The math was easy, but English was difficult. I had no idea what nouns and verbs were, let along how to diagram a sentence. Irony that I am now an English teacher? Perhaps, but I spent time learning the skills and became an expert on the topic because once I opened my mind to what was going on, the structure of the way my new school taught English made sense, and I have not looked back.
At the time, I did not realize that I was utilizing a growth mindset, but now that I understand the concept, it makes sense. That does not mean that everything I did in middle school was easy. On the contrary, the fact that I did not really know anyone was tough. Many students who are entering middle school may feel the same way, especially if they are in classes or on a team without any of their friends.
Students, one of the easiest ways to connect is to sit with different people at lunch each day to see who clicks with you. Another way is to get involved in afterschool activities where you can find like-minded individuals.
However, not everything is easy when you are interacting with people, especially hormonal pre-teens and teenagers. There will be days when drama is rampant. Undoubtedly, the drama will change daily, hourly, or even by the minute, but it will happen. The best thing to do is to make sure you try to work things out with the person first. If that does not work, or if you are in a bullying situation, please be sure to speak to a trusted adult about the situation so that they can help to resolve it. We want to be sure that all students are modeling positive citizenship traits and that everyone feels part of the school.
We are reaching the end of this resource. I speak both to students and to parents in this section, although I really want to encourage students. If you have read this far, congratulations! I know that this information is a lot to take in, but have no fear. You will be fine. We are to help you. We want you to succeed. Remember that. Even when your world seems to be crashing in around you, and you cannot find the bottom from the top because you are in a tailspin, remember that you can do it. Take a deep breath. Pause. Reflect. You will be doing this a lot during 6th grade, but that is okay. It is all part of the process.
The learning process is messy, and that is okay. You will have times where things do not come easy. You may see a final product that looks great, but that does not always tell the story of how someone got there. Remember that you can do this. Put what you have read about a growth mindset into practice. These tools are essential for helping you to develop your identity and strong study habits and organizational skills.
At this point, you may be thinking, Yeah, right, this teacher has no idea what she is talking about. She has everything so easy. She has been doing this for so long that it has become rote.
How I wish this were true. Every day is a learning process for me, especially this school year. Sometimes I do not have a growth mindset. Often, I am tired and unfocused. I get bogged down and overwhelmed by minutiae. However, I am developing my growth mindset, and that is making all the difference.
So, take heart. You will encounter many new experiences this year. Some of them may feel overwhelming, but by relying on your support system and putting the ideas in this resource into practice, you, too, can have a successful transition to middle school. Happy trails!