Picture this…you’re 11-years-old and have been happy as a clam at your elementary school for as long as you can remember. But, your small, safe world is about to be turned upside down with a big move to the middle school down the street! Your mind is FLOODED with questions and worries:
“How do I open my locker? How many teachers will I have? Will I get lost? Where do I sit for lunch? Will my friends be in my classes? Is the homework really hard? Will I fit in? Will I make the sports team? Which instrument should I try in the band? Where do I find the answers I need? Who can I turn to for help?
You begin to feel nervous, overwhelmed, and anxious about what next year will look like and wonder how you will ever figure this all out! At the same time, you feel excited for this new journey to begin!
Elementary and middle school are wildly different no matter where you live. The days of recess, walking in orderly lines from class to class, and having only one or two teachers are long gone. Throw in all the changes associated with puberty and you have the perfect storm for encountering some very tricky situations! In this blog post, we will explore common feelings and worries, my 4-step intervention for preparing students, tips for success, and helpful resources to ensure a smooth transition to middle school.
Why Help Students with the Transition to Middle School?
As you can imagine, leaving behind the comfort of elementary school, on top of managing hormones, schoolwork, activities, and friendships creates quite a stressful time for our newest middle schoolers. A 2019 study found that social and emotional support during the transition to middle school are absolutely critical when it comes to a sense of belonging, academic performance, and attendance (Borman, Rozek, Pyne, and Hanselman). The researchers implemented a brief intervention that normalized and addressed student concerns and worries about fitting in, and found that participants had a 34% decrease in disciplinary referrals, a 12% increase in attendance, and an 18% decrease in failing grades. Traditionally underserved minority students and boys experienced the most significant impact. The results show that even a brief intervention can create a lasting impact and provide students with the tools and positive mindset they need to manage this difficult transition. Similarly, each year, I implemented a 4-step intervention to prepare my students for middle school. I will review my process with you shortly!
Common Feelings and Worries About Middle School:
The transition to middle school can feel like a roller coaster of emotions for our tween friends. It is perfectly normal for students to experience feelings of excitement, overwhelm, anxiety, happiness, sadness, and everything in between on their journey to middle school.
As parents, teachers, and counselors help students navigate this huge step, it is important to keep in mind just how different middle school is from elementary school. Each child is an individual with their own set of worries and fears (as well as sources of excitement and joy!), but common concerns about starting middle school are: making new friends, getting lost, harder classes, more homework, new teachers, peer pressure, and being around bigger kids. And, believe it or not, one of the most common (but easily teachable!) concerns students have is how to use a combination lock! I remember panicking about this myself back in the day, and worrying that I’d be the only one who just wouldn’t get it.
Middle School Transition Programming:
To prepare my students for the transition to middle school, I used a simple but effective 4-step process. This tried-and-true intervention left my students feeling confident, prepared, and READY for the next step!
- Administer the middle school transition pretest
- Teach the middle school transition lesson to each class
- Visit the local middle school for a tour (in-person or virtually)
- Administer the middle school transition posttest
Step 1: Administer the Middle School Transition Pretest
To better understand my students’ thoughts, feelings, questions, and worries about moving to middle school, my first step was to administer a pretest. This data helped me cater my transition activities to my students’ needs, feel more prepared to answer their questions, and gauge the effectiveness of my intervention by administering the same test at the end of the programming!
Step 2: Teach the Middle School Transition Lesson
Once students have taken my pretest and I have reviewed their responses, I traveled to each classroom to teach my Middle School Transition Lesson. This lesson gives students the opportunity to reflect on their thoughts and worries about moving to middle school, to learn about the differences between elementary and middle school, and to learn helpful tips and strategies for success. An amazing video from current middle school students is also included [with permission from Spokane County Schools] that lets students hear all about current middle schoolers’ “fears and favs” about middle school life.
To provide students with the tools they need to wade through the middle school murk, this lesson teaches 5 Tips for Middle School Success. You can read more about each of them below!
- Stay organized:
- Keep track of all assignments, projects, tests, and due dates using an agenda. Your school may provide one at the beginning of the year!
- Organize your locker and keep it clean. Set up shelves to separate books from other items, or to organize your materials by subject. Keep it clean to make sure nothing important (or stinky, LOL!) gets lost in there!
- Color code your folders and notebooks by subject so that you can easily find the supplies that you need for each class.
- Clean out your locker, desk, and backpack once per week. Throw away anything that is cluttering up your space.
- Ask for help:
- Is there anyone a little older, like a sibling, friend, or cousin, you could ask for guidance? Often they know the ropes and can make you feel at ease. If they went to the same school, they might even be able to help you with specific teachers or subjects when you feel stuck.
- Get to know your teachers, counselors, and principal. They are more than willing to help if you ask.
- Reach out to your parent(s) or guardian(s)! Chances are, they can help you through your challenges too.
- Join, join, join:
- Middle school is a perfect time to try new things! Find out what you are good at and what you enjoy. Adopt a new hobby, play a new sport, join the band, or sing in the chorus! Seriously, the sky’s the limit.
- Joining groups, teams, and clubs can help you make new friends and feel a sense of belonging. When you join the same activity, you already have something in common!
- If you are interested in a specific activity that is not offered at your school, it doesn’t hurt to gather some friends together and ask if a teacher is willing to sponsor it!
- Be aware of peer pressure and choose your friends wisely:
- We all want to be liked and to make friends, and it can be difficult to say no to our peers. But, peer pressure is a dangerous thing that can cause us to make choices that we aren’t proud of. If you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or just not right about something…don’t do it! Stand your ground.
- Think about what values are important to you. What do you want to be known for? Reflect on if your choices are aligned with your values.
- Look for positive role models. Who do you look up to? What kinds of choices do they make?
- Practice saying no and walking away. You can find a safe friend or adult to help if you need.
- Think about…is this peer someone that I want to be my friend, anyway? The answer is most likely “no.” So, don’t worry about trying to please or impress them! Find genuine, caring friends who like you for who you are.
- Set S.M.A.R.T Goals:
- S.M.A.R.T Goals are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.
- Setting goals can provide clarity, direction, and motivation for children facing significant life changes. When we set goals, we feel more in control of our future and can stay focused on what we want most in this experience.
- Students can make a list of 2-3 S.M.A.R.T goals for middle school about anything that motivates and excites them, such as making certain grades, finding new friends, staying organized, or trying new activities. By reflecting regularly on their goals, students can make choices on a daily basis that help them get one step closer to achieving them. A little progress each day can add up to big results!
Step 3: Visit Your School of Zone (In-Person or Virtually!)
One of the most valuable parts of my middle school transition programming was taking our entire grade level of students to visit their middle school of zone. I collaborated with the middle school counselors a couple of months in advance to plan a fun-and-learning-filled day for our students. We started our tour day with a mini pep rally in the gym that introduced our students to the 5th grade teachers, administrators, and counselors. Then, the excitement began! Current 5th graders did a little standard school attire fashion show to teach students about our district-mandated school uniforms. The 5th grade band played a few songs for us and we even enjoyed a couple of scenes from the school musical! Next, we divided up into smaller groups and a current 5th grade student took us on a tour of the building. My students loved having their own personal tour guide to answer their questions and were especially excited about seeing the brand new, state-of-the-art library at our local middle school! We made sure to spend extra time in the 5th grade wing and let students sit inside a classroom for a bit to hear from a 5th grade teacher about expectations, rules, and norms in middle school life.
This year, with the pandemic, in-person tours were unfortunately not a possibility. But, so many counselors really stepped up to the plate and coordinated amazing virtual events! Pre-recorded building tours, interviews with current students and faculty members, and photos can go a LONG way to reassure students and help them feel more comfortable with the transition, even in a COVID-19 world.
Step 4: Administer the Middle School Transition Posttest
After participating in my lesson and visiting our local middle school, I administered the middle school transition posttest to students. I used the same questions as the pretest which helped me understand both the effectiveness of my programming, as well as where my students stood now in their journey to middle school. If students still had lingering questions or concerns, I could either address them privately with that student or in our next classroom guidance lesson with the whole group. I also liked to create and send home an FAQ sheet that listed common questions students had and my best answers to them.
Helpful Book Suggestions:
I’d like to close this post with 3 suggestions for books that can help children and their parents ensure a smooth transition to middle school life.
A Book for Girls:
“A Smart Girls’ Guide: Middle School: Everything You Need to Know About Juggling More Homework, More Teachers, and More Friends!”
[Amazon Affiliate Link]
By: Julie Williams Montalbano
American Girl™ is a company I have trusted since I was a little girl, and this book is just as wonderful as I expected! It is jam-packed with helpful tips and fun quizzes! It covers topics such as classes, lockers, homework, making friends, and getting involved in after-school activities. It even includes letters from other girls worried about starting middle school and advice from those who have already been there. This book is written with the tween girl in mind and would be a great pick for any girl preparing to start middle school!
A Book for Parents:
“Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help”
[Amazon Affiliate Link]
By: Phyllis A. Fagell
The author, Phyllis Fagell, is a professional counselor who teaches parents how to use the middle school years as a way to train and equip their children with the skills they’ll need to succeed both in middle school and beyond. The book addresses how to teach children to make good friend choices, deal with conflict, regulate their emotions when hormones are at an all-time high, advocate for themselves, and more. The author combines her expertise with stories and advice from other professionals such as psychologists, doctors, parents, educators, school professionals, and middle schoolers themselves. This is a great, comprehensive guide that would be helpful to any parent of a rising or current middle schooler!
A Book for All Middle School Students:
(Amazon Affiliate Link)
By: Marrae Kimball
This book is perfect for all middle schoolers to read independently! Students will explore the differences between elementary and middle school, helpful tips on managing the transition, and common fears and worries we all experience. It encourages students to “dream big,” stay organized, make new friends, create positive habits and routines, and find the good in life’s circumstances. The author’s interviews with current middle schoolers offer an inside look into students’ biggest fears, best advice, and parts of middle school that they like best. This relatable and relevant book will leave students feeling more prepared and excited about the big journey ahead!
Yes, the middle school years are difficult…and awkward…and maybe even the most trying time in our school career. But, they also offer an amazing opportunity to learn a ton about ourselves; explore our likes, dislikes, and strengths; and gain our footing as a young teen. With some simple but effective interventions, students can have the tools and supports they need to manage this transition and set them on the right track for middle school and beyond! I hope that this post offered you some direction and tangible steps to help students through this new phase.
What are some of the concerns your students have about going to middle school? What is your best advice for them? I would love to hear from you!
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