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Making the Jump: Elementary to Middle School

Most parents dread the middle school period more than any other developmental stage—for good reason. Your previously happy, docile child can suddenly become moody, resentful and downright difficult. Some of these behaviors are simply part of the developmental process, but the transition to middle school can cause emotional angst.

Heading off to middle school means new friends, a new environment and higher academic expectations. Good organizational skills and a dose of perspective can help soothe your nerves as well as your child's.

"Parents of students in 6th grade and lower should work as managers. However, during middle school, parents should begin transitioning out of that role to become more of a partner than a manager." Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years

The Social Scene

Middle schoolers are all about trying to figure out where they fit in with others—a tall order when they're not yet entirely comfortable with themselves. Between raging hormones and a lack of self-awareness, middle schoolers might be the most sensitive people on the planet. Drama is the order of the day. Exuberance and hurt feelings, first crushes and first break-ups—all sorts of triumphs and tragedies—occur on a regular basis. Remember, there's a purpose to this developmental period beyond testing the limits of your patience.

For many children, middle school is a time to explore new ideas and experiences. Middle schoolers interact with a much broader range of people than they did in elementary school, and they begin to gain a sense of their own values, interests and needs. These youngsters crave acceptance from their peers, but they don't always know how to interact, says Ann K. Dolin, founder and president of Educational Connections Tutoring and Test Prep, which has offices in Fairfax, Va., and Bethesda, Md. It's an exciting period for kids, but it can also be scary.

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One of the most common fears middle schoolers express is that they won't have any friends. You probably remember the feeling of entering the school cafeteria and wondering if you'd have someone to sit with. Most schools have two or three lunch periods. Encourage your child to find out which lunch period his friends have before the first day of school so he can anticipate a friendly face in the cafeteria, Dolin suggests.

Whether your child is the extroverted student-government type or an introverted science genius, encourage him to join a club or other activity. "This will not only allow him to grow a social network, but will also help him to explore interests and passions," Dolin says.

And when the inevitable dramas come, offer an understanding ear and try to avoid doling out advice unless your child asks for it. Steer your child toward friends with similar interests who treat him with kindness.

Keeping It Together

Imagine how you would feel going from a small company with fewer than 100 employees to a huge Fortune 500 company with thousands of staff. You'd probably feel excited, anxious and maybe even downright freaked out. Going from the comfort and relative security of elementary school to middle school is a similar experience for your child.

Middle schoolers go from having one teacher and one classroom to having five or more teachers and classrooms. Most schools allow a five-minute transition period between classes, so students rush at breakneck speed to reach the next destination. Throw in trying to keep track of all the books and remembering the locker combinations—while simultaneously appearing cool to friends—and you've got a recipe for major anxiety.

To calm the first-day jitters, visit the school a week or two ahead of time, suggests Mary Mokris, an education specialist with Teaneck, N.J.-based Kumon, an after-school math and reading program. "Get a map of the school and walk with your child to each class (if allowed)," Mokris recommends. If locker assignments and combinations are available, she says, have your child practice opening her locker a few times.

In addition to the logistical challenges of getting around a new school, your child will also be faced with keeping track of folders, textbooks, gym clothes and planners. A few hooks or bins will help your child keep her locker organized.

"When kids feel good about themselves they're more likely to say no to peer pressure and drugs. ... Decisions really come out of how children feel about themselves." –Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years

At home, set up a system for keeping track of papers, homework and books, Mokris advises. A box by the door conveniently stores everything for the morning rush.

Making the Grade

Middle school marks the beginning of more challenging schoolwork and paves the way for academic success through high school and college, but getting there isn't easy. The academic transition from elementary school to middle school is a steep climb. Teachers expect more while providing less direction. Elementary school teachers typically work with 25 students every day; middle school teachers might have 200 or more students. Teachers are less likely to reach out to you unless there's a serious problem.

Homework increases in both difficulty and quantity. At the same time, your middle schooler might balk at your offers of help, and you may wonder just how involved you should be in her academics. The answer depends on your child's personality and learning style, but most kids need at least some support through middle school.

Before your child ever registers for middle school classes, take some time to consider her learning strengths and needs. Help your middle schooler select classes based on her interests and abilities. The ideal balance is one in which she feels engaged, interested and challenged without feeling overwhelmed.

To decrease the chances of homework wars, set up a routine before school starts, says Toronto-based Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn's Guide to the Teen Years.

"It's a good habit to have them finish their homework before dinner, then use the time after dinner as a relaxing period," says Gordon, who has a doctorate in marriage and family therapy and a master's degree in counseling. "Parents can talk to their child's teacher to find out realistically how much time should be budgeted for their homework."

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Set up a method for communication with your child's teachers, and check in periodically. Many schools offer websites through which you can find your child's homework assignments, missing assignments and grades on completed work. How often you communicate or check the website depends on your child's needs, but aim to slowly reduce communication.

"Middle school is a transitional period," Gordon says. "Parents of students in 6th grade and lower should work as managers. However, during middle school, parents should begin transitioning out of that role to become more of a partner than a manager."

The years of middle school can be frustrating for both you and your child. An empathetic and understanding approach to parenting can keep your relationship intact while your child makes this life transition.

A Final Note: Watch for Red Flags

Although emotional ups and downs are the norm for most adolescents, a few behaviors can be cause for real concern.

"Be aware of social pressures," says Mokris. "Middle school is a time when students can be exposed to drugs or alcohol. Students must learn to handle peer pressure and make smart choices. Talk with your child daily, showing an interest in what he or she is doing and feeling. Listen to your child—especially to what is not said."

Gordon believes that poor self-esteem is usually behind worrisome behaviors such as smoking pot, cutting class and eating disorders. She encourages parents to focus on boosting a child's confidence to improve behavior.

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"When kids feel good about themselves they're more likely to say no to peer pressure and drugs," says Gordon. "Decisions really come out of how children feel about themselves."

The experts agree that during the middle school years, children typically become more involved with peers and spend less time at home, so make sure you stay plugged into your child's life. Staying connected will make it easier for you to spot any worrying behaviors, and your supportive presence can reduce your child's risk of serious problems.

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