Most people look back on their time in middle school and cringe at the memories of bullies, bad hair and worse skin.
Not Dr. Cheryl Ellerbrock.
“Middle schools are my thing,” says Ellerbrock, an associate professor of middle grades and general secondary education at the University of South Florida. Ellerbrock points to middle school as the period when students are experiencing the most dramatic shifts academically and socially.
For Ellerbrock, this means it’s an ideal time to be inside the classroom, as teachers can have “the greatest amount of impact.”
But she knows, for parents, it can mean a headache.
A year or two in, seventh- and eighth-graders will know what to expect. But it’s easy for sixth-graders to be caught off guard as they’re punted from top-dog status back to the bottom of the food chain.
Ellerbrock answers common questions parents have to help their children ride out that transition from elementary to middle school where cliques, bullies and new responsibilities abound.
▪ What are the major changes incoming sixth-graders will experience as they transition into middle school?
Some of the biggest differences the kids will see is the quantity of classwork and the quantity of homework. There’s this constant increase in rigor and expectations as kids progress through the system from kindergarten to 12th grade. Kids will report that as being the most difficult part of the middle school transition academically.
Another area is social. They’re the little guy again. You’ve got kids really worrying about those older peers, you’ve got kids worrying about who their friends are. Often times, kids will disperse, attending different middle schools than their friends. They end up worrying, “Am I going to be able to keep my elementary-aged friends? Am I going to make new friends with all those new kids on campus? What about those older kids?” A lot of times these elementary friendships can be displaced, and they have to make these new middle school-aged friendships.
Also, middle school tends to mark this time where young adolescents begin to care more about what other people think. A lot of time, kids are entering puberty. They begin to get involved in romantic relationships. These things are very natural developmental changes, but they affect how well the student will do in middle school socially.
Then there’s that procedural concern — navigating around the new environment. Middle schools are often larger than their elementary schools. There are multiple classes taught by different teachers. The sheer size of middle school on the school property is intimidating. The changing of classes, typically with a bell, and new schedules can all be added challenges.
▪ Will these concerns ease over time?
Procedural-related concerns tend to decrease within the first weeks to months of the academic year. Kids learn how to get from class to class, they get used to the bell schedule, they figure out where they’re supposed to sit for lunch. What doesn’t tend to decrease is the academic and social concerns. Those things begin to increase throughout the first year of entering into middle school. In the middle of the school year, when kids begin to get report cards and maybe they have a semester exam, all of a sudden, academics begin to really become a concern. As kids begin to get more comfortable in their new social setting, some other social concerns can creep up — cliques and questions about fitting in and friendships coming and going.
▪ What can parents do to ease the transition into sixth grade?
Parent involvement matters, big time. But I really want to caution parents and those older siblings on the messages they send their incoming sixth-graders. A lot of times that parent or that sibling will communicate inaccurate information — over-exaggerated stories or something like, “They’re going to shove you in the locker.” You see it perpetuated in media and in movies. This is not the time to sensationalize things. It’s really the time to provide support and encouragement and accurate information.
Also, it’s important to understand more about the middle school. Often, the new middle school will hold transition-related events. These events are really key to getting that accurate information and translating that for your child. If the parent can get on campus, one of the nicest things they can do is take that kid and walk class by class, so their kids can see exactly how they need to walk around the campus. Also, getting in contact with the teachers as soon as possible to ask what ways they can support their children at home rather than waiting for the teacher to contact them. And remember, in those first days of school, parents are inundated with paperwork that comes home from every teacher. We really need to take time to read those because in those documents, the teachers are communicating their level of expectation, such as how much homework their kid should be doing.
▪ What can students do to help make this transition easier on themselves?
I would tell the students to get involved in at least one thing — student government, clubs, even sports. Having that one connection to the middle school is going to help that student stay invested in school and succeed. Additionally, find a way to organize yourself. Organization management and time management are killers as you move through middle school and into high school, so they need an organization system. When are they doing their homework? Where are they doing their homework? Who’s going to help them check their homework? Are they going to have a study buddy?
I would also tell students that they need to just realize that their fears and concerns are valid and that over time some of these concerns will be alleviated but, for other concerns, they may have to reach out for support.
▪ What are some of the things students can look forward to as they transition into middle school?
Middle school kids express excitement about the chance to be more grown-up, to take more responsibility, to meet new people, to have more electives, and to have extracurricular opportunities. So, I don’t want to paint such a negative picture of everything because there are absolutely positive aspects to the transition into middle school.
▪ How can elementary schools help make the transition process smoother?
Elementary schools should take care of the concerns proactively, so when students do matriculate in the fall, that’s not the first time they were on campus. That’s not the first time they saw their schedule. That’s not the first time they’ve met a sixth-grade teacher. That’s not the first time they’ve talked to an eighth-grader or a seventh-grader. A smooth transition really depends on the amount and quality of the interactions between the elementary and the middle school.