A Middle School principal recently told me that awkwardness and anxiousness define the middle school years. My first job in education was as a middle school aide. So, I had front seats for the daily Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, hormone-fueled drama in the cafeteria and hallways. These tweens and young teens are stuck in between a desire for more freedom and a fear of more responsibility, a pull to grow up and a longing to still connect, and a wish to be special and a need to fit in.
Now my own eldest child is heading off to the world of bell schedules, lockers, and social intrigue. Here’s what we’re doing to prepare her for middle school.
Preview the new school: At my daughter’s Middle School orientation, an eighth grader confided that he couldn’t open his locker for a month. Guess what? No one kicked him out of middle school, he did not become a social pariah, and the world did not end. The guidance counselors helped him out and he eventually learned how to do it himself.
Most districts give elementary kids a sneak peak at the middle school or junior high school. Even if yours does not, you might be able to bring your child in before school starts to get a feeling for the place. Older students may be willing to play the role of wise and experienced mentor and answer any questions your child has. You can also visit the school’s website to learn more about the day’s schedule, learn the names of staff, and get excited about clubs. Help your child review the expectations at the new school.
Get organized: I was one of those kids who would have forgotten her head if it was not attached. At least, that is what my mom used to always say. Fortunately, she taught me to leave myself strategic sticky note reminders–a trick I used through my early thirties until my smartphone replaced this analog system.
Middle school is the time when executive function skills like time-management and organization really come into play. Students will be juggling homework assignments and expectations for multiple classes and different teachers. Use summer fun as a way to teach kids how to make “To-Do” lists and schedule the day’s activities. If your child uses a smartphone or tablet, now is a good time to help her explore the calendar app. Help your child establish a study space at home. Even if she ends up reading on the couch and doing math in the tree house, having a designated spot will help her organize her supplies.
Encourage freedom…and responsibility: Give your children more choice in a few areas of their lives. This will be different for each family and might include going to a movie with friends, choosing a new hairstyle, or having a key to the house. Be clear that each new freedom also comes with greater responsibility to budget wisely, contribute to keeping family home clean and tidy, and check in regularly with parents.
Take a step away: Remember watching your kid take her first few steps only to face plant? It is hard to watch your child struggle. Just like you did not want to be wiping his nose forever, though, you do not want to be writing excuse notes to his boss.
Teach children how to stand up for themselves and others, communicate respectfully with adults, and take responsibility for their own actions. Then–and this is the hard part–step back and let them do it. If you gradually shift responsibility to your child, he’ll be ready for it. Be there for moral support but let them implement solutions on their own. If they get used to solving small problems on their own, they’ll be prepared to tackle the big issues later.
Set the ground rules: This is a time when many kids are testing limits. They are ready for more freedom and responsibility but they still need the safety of parental boundaries.
Anticipate where you are willing to compromise (roaming the carnival with a friend? staying up later on weekends? dyeing hair?) and what is non-negotiable. If your kid catches you off guard with a scenario you have not considered, tell him you need some time to decide. It is important that your child feels heard but that he also can trust that a final decision from the parents is final. One day, he might even be grateful that he can blame mom and dad when he turns down a drink or refuses to break into the neighborhood pool after hours.
Prepare for mature topics: It is never too early to start important conversations with our children. The first time I was offered alcohol at a party was in middle school. Middle school students generally have more interaction with students from older grades. In some districts, smaller elementary schools are feeding into a larger middle school. Children will also be going through puberty at different rates. Teens who engage in adult behaviors before they are emotionally ready run a variety of immediate and long-term risks, including depression and drug and alcohol addiction.
Rather than react to problems as they happen, proactively discuss mature topics, including drugs and alcohol, bullying, sex, relationship violence, and mental health, so that you can choose the time and place to share your values with your children.
Take time to relax and connect: All of this change can be stressful and exhausting! Make sure your new middle school student has time to unwind, blow off steam, and be with family.
She may act like she does not know you at drop-off time but deep down she really wants some quality time. People of all ages need to know they belong and are loved unconditionally. All of this will also build the trust for those big moments when she really needs you on her side.
Don’t forget to play and laugh: Middle school students are still kids! Encourage them to play and have fun in the safe space of your family. Show them that even adults can be goofy and silly sometimes.