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Harvard Commentaries
35320
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


A Parent's Life A Parent's Life
 

Helping Your Child Transition to Middle School


July 16, 2012

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

Starting middle school is a big milestone for children. In leaving elementary school behind, they are one step closer to being young adults.

Middle school is an important transition. Children try out new responsibilities and freedoms. When middle school goes well, there's a much better chance that a child will be successful in high school.

There are more demands put on children during this time. Learn what they are and how you can help your child meet them.

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Academic Demands

In most middle schools, students move to different classrooms for each subject. Each teacher has his or her own curriculum and homework.

In many — but not all — schools, the teachers coordinate efforts and are aware of what the others are doing. It's possible your child could get a whole lot of homework at once. And each teacher may have different expectations and styles. This is a very big change for students who are used to one teacher.

What you can do:

    • Help your child get organized. (A notebook to write down assignments is particularly important.)
    • Make sure your child has a quiet study place with necessary supplies (good lighting, pencil sharpener, pens, erasers, highlighters and notebooks, for example).
    • When scheduling activities, like sports and music lessons, make sure there is enough time for homework and studying. Your child will need more time than he or she did in elementary school.
    • Go to teacher conferences and back-to-school night. Use any other opportunities to get to know the teachers and their expectations.
    • Check in with your child on a daily basis about homework and projects (they may need some help prioritizing and planning).
    • If your child has trouble in a subject, work with the teacher and your child early on to come up with a plan of action. Don't wait until things get worse.

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Social Demands

Socially, middle school is very different from elementary school. There can be lots of new kids to meet and get to know. For some, this can be really overwhelming.

It's also an age when peers become more central to a child's universe. This means the social scene can get more complicated. Kids begin to segregate into groups (like the popular kids, the athletes or the geeks) and cliques develop. They also mature physically and socially at different rates. So some kids will look and act much older than others. This further complicates the social scene. And it's an age when kids can sometimes be intolerant and mean.

What you can do:

    • Understand that social concerns loom really large at this age. Don't dismiss your child's social worries.
    • As much as possible, keep the lines of communication open. Try to spend one-on-one and family time together.
    • Be watchful for any changes in your child's behavior, especially if they seem sad or withdrawn. Talk to them about it. Be supportive and nonjudgmental (channel your inner twelve-year-old).
    • Talk to a guidance counselor if you have concerns about how your child is doing socially. He or she can be your eyes and ears, and can help your child navigate these new social waters.

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The Need for More Independence

Just when school becomes more challenging academically and socially, parents need to back off. It might seem like a contradiction, but indeed, that's what you need to do. Little by little, give your children the freedom to find their own ways and make their own choices.

What you can do:

    • Support, don't hover. Check in with your child about homework and assignments, but don't be a "micro" manager. Ask about how things are going socially, but don't call up other parents (unless something big is going on) or arrange play dates.
    • Begin to let your child go places without you. Set up rules and expectations that your child will always let you know where he is and what he is doing. Gradually allow him some physical freedom. These are skills he needs to learn.
    • Don't always jump in and fix things when your child makes a mistake. Mistakes are part of learning. Your child will learn better if you aren't always at the ready to save the day.
    • Give your child some space, both emotionally and physically. This is an age when kids often like some alone time — and don't want to tell you every last thing. This is normal and healthy.

I won't lie: This is challenging. It's all about finding the right balance of dependence and independence. And that balance is going to be different for each child — and sometimes different from day to day. But as hard as it is, it's worth it — because it's the next step in getting your child ready to go off into the world. Which, really, is the point of parenthood.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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