Growing a Middle Schooler

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Imagine the thoughts of fifth-grade students preparing to enter middle school. What sorts of questions are forming in their minds? What fears make their hearts race and palms sweat? Plenty! The student may be asking: What is middle school like? Will I get lost? Will I be challenged? Will classes be fun and interesting? Will I like my teachers? Will they like me? Will I make friends? Why do I need a locker? Will I get trampled when I move through the hallways? What do I wear? What happens if I can’t open my locker and am late to class? These are common questions and concerns for rising sixth graders.

There are a number of things middle schools can do to prepare for and deliver outstanding services to students.

Fifth graders live in a small cocoon called elementary school, a place they have called home since Kindergarten. Their elementary school has become a place of familiarity, comfort, and consistency where they have spent each year with the same teacher for every subject. Furthermore, their elementary school journey has been in the same building with the same friends and the same routines. So, who can blame them when the thought of moving to a new environment—middle school—causes stress?

Parents of fifth graders have similar concerns with this transition. They ask: How will my child handle being with older students? How will he or she adjust to a new environment? What can I do to make sure my son or daughter is successful? How will my child handle the responsibility of organizing homework in four core subjects plus electives? How do I make sure my child receives a challenging curriculum? All these questions are legitimate for any parent.

So, what will the first day of middle school be like for your child? The answer depends on how well

  • your child adjusts to change,
  • you as a parent prepare your child for new challenges and responsibilities, and
  • the middle school is organized to meet the needs of these young students.

Most middle schools are organized by teams of teachers. Usually, four teachers represent a team with each one teaching a separate discipline—language arts, math, social studies, and science. Some middle schools have two-teacher teams with one teaching math and science and the other language arts and social studies. Students typically begin the school day going to their lockers, organizing their books and materials, and attending homeroom. After announcements and attendance, students head to their first class of the day. Depending on the type of schedule, students can attend anywhere from four to seven classes per day.

There are a number of things middle schools can do to prepare for and deliver outstanding services to students. For example, some middle schools invite rising sixth graders to attend orientation during the summer. These orientations allow students the opportunity to meet their teachers and administrators, familiarize themselves with the building, and meet their new classmates. Another practice that some middle schools adopt is the physical separation of sixth graders from their upperclassman. For example, sixth grade classes may be held in the same hall or wing of the building (away from seventh and eighth graders) or sixth graders may eat lunch at a different time than the older students. The social, emotional, and physical differences between younger and older middle school students can be surprising. New sixth graders may still look like elementary school students, while many eighth graders and some seventh graders look more like high school students. Such physical differences can be intimidating.

There are also a number of things parents can do to help prepare their child for middle school. Each child is different when adapting to this change. However, all parents should discuss the positive aspects of moving to middle school including the ability to make new friends, attend a new school building, meet new teachers, learn more challenging curriculum, and participate in clubs, athletics, and enrichment activities. To better facilitate the transition, parents should meet with their child’s fifth-grade teacher to discuss recommendations for class placement in middle school. Teacher recommendations are strongly considered by middle school administrators when placing students in advanced or honors classes.

Rising sixth graders are encouraged to visit the middle school they will be attending with their parents during and after a regular school day. This provides an opportunity for the students and their parents to get a feel for the climate of the school. In addition, most middle schools have numerous after-school events worth observing such as athletics, band and chorus performances, parent/teacher meetings, school governance meetings, and science fairs. Parents and students should also attend the school’s open house at the beginning of the school year. Information about student schedules, teachers, policies and procedures, parent involvement and volunteering, gifted and special education services, and transportation are typically provided at this time. Potluck dinners are another way for students and their families to sit down and chat with the teachers and other parents. This is an easy way to get to know your child’s peers and their parents.

After receiving your child’s schedule it is important to meet face-to-face with all the teachers with whom your child has been assigned. Scheduling a formal meeting with the teacher from each discipline can be helpful in building communication and developing an educational plan that meets the learning needs of your child. Even in middle school, parents must remain strong advocates for their child in regard to grades, course selection, nutrition, academic challenge, and service delivery. If for any reason communication with your child’s teachers does not produce favorable outcomes, make an appointment with the school principal to discuss your concerns. Lastly, talk with your child every evening at dinner about his or her school day, homework, request and discuss any notes from the teacher, and consistently review his or her planner for information regarding long term course projects.

A principal’s job is to make sure every student receives a or top-notch program from a superstar teacher. A top-notch program involves the ability to provide clear answers to questions about student learning and timely actions in response to these questions. A superstar teacher is one who loves kids, is a content expert in the subject they teach, is a team player, and gives their full energy and time to ensuring that all students learn. A principal’s job is to make sure that every student comes to school regularly, receives the very best program from a superstar teacher, has fun, and learns. One of the best things about being a middle school principal is watching an unsure, eleven-year-old enter the building on the first day of school and leave for high school after eighth grade with a solid education; a sense of humor; and an active, inquisitive mind. It is always sad to see students leave for high school, but there isn’t much time to reminisce as a new group of sixth graders are coming!

The move to middle school is a challenge. However, it is not invincible. There are myriad of ways to ensure your child’s success in their transition from elementary school. The fun is just beginning.

Richard A. Kozak, MSA

Richard Kozak is a principal at Stanford Middle School in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He has been a middle school administrator for the last ten years.

This article was originally published in Gifted Today and is used with permission.