Middle School Brings New Set of Challenges

More homework and new friends await those moving up from elementary school

August is proving to be a very busy month for Marian White-Hood. Instead of enjoying the waning days of summer, the principal of Kettering Middle School in Upper Marlboro, Md., has been putting in long hours at school preparing for the arrival of more than 1,200 students in less than three weeks. Half of those students will be new to the school - in fact, they will be new to the whole middle school experience.

"For many of the boys and girls entering seventh grade, the transition from elementary school to middle school will be a particularly challenging time," says Ms. White-Hood, who has been in charge of Kettering for five years. "What we try to do is ease their anxieties through a structured orientation program."

Kettering isn't alone in identifying the importance of having such a program. Middle-school administrators across the country realize that the transition process can be hard on children for a variety of reasons:

* Often, the students are entering a larger school where, for the first time, they are accountable to a different teacher for each subject, with higher academic demands being made on them.

* In the social realm, they have moved from being the oldest children in their school to the youngest, in a setting with different behavioral norms. They also have a different mix of children in their classes and may take on a new group of friends.

* Many students are likely to be experiencing the onset of puberty and a greater awareness of the opposite sex.

"Kids go through more changes between the ages of 10 and 14 than at any other time of their lives, other than the first 18 months," says Sue Swaim, executive director of the National Middle School Association, in Colum- bus, Ohio. "What we're seeing is more schools developing a structured transition program for the students and parents after having seen the success of it in other schools."

Indeed, orientation at many schools begins in the spring - months before school begins. At Kettering, for example, the school's three counselors are dispatched to elementary schools in February to give tests to determine reading and math levels of incoming students. And in March, the principal schedules meetings with all sixth-grade parents at the elementary schools in the district to tell them what is expected of the students. She fields questions from parents who "are sometimes more nervous than the kids."

This time of year, many schools are preparing for a second orientation - for children and parents. For the kids, it's an opportunity to walk through their class schedules and find their lockers. Parents can use the orientation day to get acquainted with the principal, teachers, and counselors.

"The transition period doesn't end in August or September, though," says principal White-Hood. "Getting the students properly adjusted requires constant monitoring throughout the year."

That's something that was instilled in Maria Thornton, whose 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie, completed her first year at Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Va., in June.

Stephanie's experience at middle school was in many ways typical. She was nervous about attending a new school with new teachers and bigger, older kids. Her biggest surprise was that her workload practically doubled. These academic changes, coupled with the physical and emotional changes that 12- and 13-year-olds experience, made Stephanie's transition a little rough.

"One day in the beginning of the last school year, the increase in homework just overwhelmed her and she started crying," says Mrs. Thornton. "But it taught her an extremely important lesson about prioritizing her workload. It took Stephanie awhile to adjust, but by the end of the year she was doing extremely well."

Stephanie believes the preparation she had was good in every area except one: schoolwork. "There's definitely more pressure in middle school. What I learned - within a month - is that the teachers are not going to cut you much slack, especially if you miss a homework assignment."

Peer pressure is another middle-school challenge. To help deal with it, schools have adopted programs such as the antidrug DARE. Kettering Middle School also offers one called GREAT - Gang Resistance Education and Training. "These programs in conflict resolution are responding to the fact that students are confronted with much more independence and peer pressure than in elementary school," says Ms. Swaim. "The programs help build the skills to take on these new responsibilities."

While Thornton says she was initially concerned about drugs, she has seen much more peer pressure put on her daughter about clothes. "The girls tend to judge each other by what clothes they wear," she says. "Stephanie now wears some wild nail polishes, but this is one of the changes I had been prepared for."

For boys, parents may notice greater interest in girls. Deborah Peeples says that her 12-year-old son, Ben, who attends Ellen Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, Va., thought the transition from elementary school to middle school went "surprisingly well" last year. "But I'm still surprised that he now has a girlfriend and is on the phone a lot," she says. "We're in an entirely new area of social development."

* Part 1 appeared on July 21.


Parents can play a significant role in easing a child's transition from elementary to middle school. Suggestions from the National Association of Secondary School Principals include:

* Help your student understand that the expectations regarding study skills, behavior, and personal responsibility will increase. Not knowing the rules is no excuse for not following them. It is each student's responsibility to read the school handbook and know what the rules are.

* Consequences for inappropriate behavior will be more defined as students progress from each level. Help students understand that they are responsible for their actions and behavior, and that there will be consequences when they fail to act appropriately.

* Visit the school with your child. Meet the administrators, counselors, teachers, and staff who will be working with them.

* Help your child find his or her way around the building. As students move from one level to the next, buildings will get larger and may appear somewhat intimidating.

* Know who your child's friends are. As students enter larger populations, they are exposed to many different personalities. Help your child choose friends wisely.

* Encourage your child to get involved in school activities.

* Designate a time for homework and be consistent. Don't accept "I don't have homework" responses from your student. There will always be homework.

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