Making the Leap to Middle/High School

In a couple of days, some families will truly turn the corner, saying goodbye forever to elementary school. You’re walking away with fond memories of all those handprint arts and crafts, class parties and homework/projects where you could actually be helpful.  You are abundantly thankful for the nurturing atmosphere, and you might be even happier that you managed to meet and make a few mommy friends along the way.  Ahhh….elementary school.  Bliss.

But then there’s what’s next…middle school.  The sheer thought of its size alone makes you a little squeamish. How will your kid who’s been in such a small, nurturing environment fair in a system so large? How will she adjust to all of that movement? From being the bigger kid on campus to being the smallest one? Have you seen the size of those 8th graders? Thinking, if her middle school experience is anything like mine, we’re in for a wild ride. And let’s not even talk about the difference in workload? Everything about moving to middle school just seems so…scary.  (If it didn’t before, it surely seems that way now, no?)

Take a breath. Take another one.  

What your kids experience in middle school will be different from what they experienced in elementary. That means how you support them in the process will also need to be different. In elementary school, your kids need you to delight in their academic learning, to celebrate the light coming on, to “oh, wow, that’s awesome” every moment so that they learn to value and appreciate the act of learning. In middle school, kids learn how to manage their time, how to navigate social circles, how to fail and how to rebound, how to be organized and make plans. They should learn what kind of people they don’t like to be around, and somewhere along the way, they should learn some academic content as well. It’s a lot to process for a kid who a couple of months earlier left a class of 22 with a sweet, loving teacher in a well-controlled environment.  Middle school is their first introduction into anything that resembles the real world, and your kids need you to be present. They need you to be their coach—realizing it’s their turn to go out and find their place in all of the madness, making sure they have the tools and skills to put their best foot forward while giving them quick, re-directive pointers when they fall. To that end, here are a couple of things you can do to be present without risking being a helicopter parent.

1. Talk to your child about how middle school will be different.  Don’t project your experience on to him, but talk about the things you already know about. Here are a few questions to guide the conversation.  I typically have these kinds of chats over ice cream or while hanging outside to make them seem more off-the-cuff.

  • How are you feeling about going to middle school next year?  
  • How do you think it will be different from X Elementary?
  • You nervous? or What are you most nervous about? (Listen carefully to the answer here, this will be your first opportunity to coach him/her through the first difficulty.)
  • Own your nervousness: You know, I’m a little nervous too. {insert why here}
  • Add something reassuring about how you two will figure it out together.  

This may seem like a no-brainer, but what’s really happening here is you’re sending the message that you are going to continue to talk to your child about school, even through middle school when it’s normal for parents to unknowingly give their kids too much room before they are ready.

2. Set a goal and a game plan. I know this sounds a little hover-ish, but hang with me. Your kid needs to know that he owns his own experiences.  Whether middle school works or not is within his control.  There’s no better way to teach that lesson than to teach that lesson. Here’s your first opportunity to be Mom/Dad the Coach.  Let’s say that your son said he was most nervous about doing well in math. That’s been a tough subject for him and he’s had to work really hard at it even in elementary school.  Here’s an example of how this coaching thing works.

"You know, I was thinking about you being nervous about math.  When I get nervous about something, whether I’m going to do well or not, making a plan helps me figure out exactly what I can do so I won’t be so nervous. Like last week when I was anxious about my project at work, this is what I did to get myself together." Show him a made up or real project plan using the fuzzy grid below but with your own content.  The model below is a sample of what a completed version might look like if your child said he was nervous about math.

You can download a student-friendly (read: way cooler looking) blank version below.

You can complete a similar chart for all kinds of things: organization, making new friends, trying new things, trying out for a sport team, completing a project—anything.  You can and should create new goals whenever there’s a need. The goal here is to get your son or daughter to start making the connection between input and output, correlating when she does well and what of her actions led to that and vice versa.  

No matter what the situation, if you stick to the “What happened? Why do you think that happened? What do you think you should do differently so that does or doesn’t happen again?” you can’t go wrong.  The trick is to lay that foundation as early as possible and to maintain that kind of problem-solving mindset throughout middle school. By 8th grade, it should be second nature. This is the type of engagement your kids need from you as they make the leap to middle school—this is the essence of coaching.  This is middle school.

And if you wish this was around for your teen who's now in high school, don't fret. It's never to late to teach kids how to be successful. Download the Success Game Plan and help your high schooler start the year in the right direction.

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