How to deal: Middle [and high] school transitions

It’s a fact: By the time elementary school ends, your child will likely be ready to stop being treated like, well, a child.

Which makes the transition to middle school even more natural.

At the same time, that transition—and later, the transition to high school—can present a bit of a challenge. Middle school, after all, is a bit of a proving ground. It’s that in-between time when your child is readying himself or herself for the rigors of high school and—gulp! already?—college applications. Then throw in social stresses related to burgeoning hormones or perhaps the move to a new school.

So how can you—and your child—deal? When my own kids are nervous about a next step, I always suggest a bit of “role play.” Here are a few scenarios you can consider:

What if: Your child is starting a new school.

Try this: Make sure to tour the new school with your child so he or she can become familiar with the layout and knows where homeroom is and where classes will be held. If your child plays (or wants to play) sports, many schools hold summer practices, which is a great way to meet potential new friends, making that first day at a new school not quite so scary. Or, if it’s doable with the class size, you as the parent can host a back-to-school party so that new and old kids can get together and meet one another before school begins.

What if: Your child doesn’t like a teacher.

Try this: One of my child’s teachers once said something at a school orientation that I quote all the time: “I will believe 50 percent of what your child said happened at home if you believe 50 percent of what they claim happens here.” If children come home and complain about school or about the teachers, listen, but also teach empathy and good behavior. If, for example, your child gets written up for talking and is upset about it, listen, but explain that the teacher was trying to do her job and likely didn’t appreciate talking in the middle of her lesson. It’s important for children to respect the fact that a teacher is the authority at school, and a good parent-teacher partnership is key. However, always listening to your child is also important in case there is a concern with the school or teacher that you need to address.

What if: Your child is dealing with “mean girls” (or boys).

Try this: Hormones make us all do crazy things. In middle school and perhaps even more so in high school, everyone is hormonal. And that’s where bullying and “mean” cliques can often raise their ugly heads. What I tell my kids is that you can’t pick your family, and you often can’t pick the people in your life. So it’s an essential, but tough life lesson: You have to learn how to deal with other people. One way is for your child to avoid the meanies and find their niche, whether that’s sports or art or academics. Children can also seek friends in other grades or in non-school activities. Meanwhile, parents, be good listeners and know when children want help and a solution versus when they want you to just listen—which can be tough for us too!

What if: Your child starts to struggle academically.

Try this: During elementary school, children should have begun to learn different study skills, whether that’s index cards or rewriting notes or going over material over and over again. Middle school is when those skills should be refined, and children should become more independent in their studying. With the move to online systems, it can be easy for parents to forget to review online report cards, but from personal experience, I can tell you it’s important to keep up so that you can step in if your child starts to struggle!

For me, it’s all about helping my child be organized. An assignment book where he or she writes down all assignments and due dates is a great start. Children can also at times feel overwhelmed by the amount of material they’re now covering in middle school, so help break up the work into chunks. For example, if your child has a term paper or other big project, help your child think about breaking up tasks into more manageable pieces, such as finding a theme, doing the research, mapping out an outline, then writing one section at a time.

Because middle school is where your child prepares for high school and then college, this is when they should really learn how to study and excel. Don’t let your child be satisfied with less than he or she can handle. At the same time, remember that it’s not all about academics (hello, college applications!). Definitely support your child in his or her extracurricular interests, whether that’s soccer or painting or dance, since competitive colleges love seeing kids who are dedicated to a passion.

Finally, remember too that if everything’s working well at school and at home, kids are generally ready to make the jump from elementary to middle school and middle to high school—emotionally, physically and academically. Our job as parents is to keep those lines of communication open, to be there to support them and always to listen, listen, listen. Because while your child may want to be treated like a grownup, we all know that our children will always be our babies.

About the author

Kathryn Strickler McLeod, MD

Kathryn Strickler McLeod, MD

Pediatric General and Adolescent Medicine