Transitioning to middle school is hard. Kids go from being big-shot fifth-graders in a school where they knew everyone, to being pip-squeak sixth-graders in a school where they don't know anyone. They have six teachers instead of one, locker combinations they can't figure out, and nobody to sit with at lunchtime.
"Last year it was braving the bus," recalled Elizabeth Roth, who saw her oldest daughter off to her first year at Traverse City West Middle School last fall. "This year I'm tempted to ride it with her."
"It's such a traumatic time, even for a well-adjusted elementary school student," said Dr. Joyce Stalwart, senior associate dean in The University of Alabama's College of Education. "They are coping with everything from changing classes to physical changes and hormones to increased academic expectations."
Good middle schools will help students and families prepare for all the changes long before they occur. Traverse City East Middle School hosts a "fifth into sixth" parent orientation in the winter of students' fifth-grade year, said Assistant Princpal Steve Urbansk. It's followed by visits to the grade schools by a middle school principal and counselor, student tours of the middle school led by eighth-grade alumni of each of the grade schools, end-of-summer registration, and sixth-grade orientation on the first half-day of school.
All are opportunities to ask questions, learn survival skills and get familiar with new practices and routines like lining up for the cafeteria, getting the bus, finding classes and opening lockers.
During the first week of school, parent volunteers are even on hand to help, Urbansk said.
"It's easing that anxiety, trying to make it comfortable, that transition from a very small community to a large community," he said. "Instead of having 30 kids in that grade (they) have 300."
"It's a whole other world," said Lisa Merkin of Pinecrest, Fla., a mother of five with two children in middle school. "In fifth grade, they're still kind of coddled. But in middle school, if you don't have your homework, the teacher is not going to make a big deal of it. You're just going to get a zero."
There are also organizational challenges: "They need a binder for this and a binder for that. They have four minutes to get to their next class," Merkin said. And then there's the social aspect. In elementary school, they had friends going back to kindergarten. In middle school, Merkin said, "when they walk in the cafeteria, are they sitting by themselves?"
Complicating all of this is a huge change in the parents' role as kids "go from being babies to being teenagers. I remember wanting to be dropped off in the middle of the street so my mom couldn't kiss me goodbye!" Merkin recalled.
But while middle-schoolers sometimes push parents away, at other times, parents need to resist the impulse to step in and rescue them.
Rather than nagging a kid to do the work, arguing about it or intervening with teachers, the start of middle school is a good time to let students experience the real-world consequences of their choices — even if, at first, that means disappointment or failure.
"The only way we learn is through making mistakes, taking risks, trying things and experiencing the consequences," said Leif Gustavson, professor of education at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., a former middle-school teacher himself and father of a middle-school student.
Stallworth agreed: "Try not to solve those problems. Instead, listen to them and encourage and empower them to get through it."
I learned the wisdom of those words from my own children. Soon after my younger son started middle school, he came home one day utterly dejected, saying that he had no friends. Ever the helpful mom, I proposed having a pizza party and inviting all the kids in his homeroom as a way to make friends.
Fortunately my wise older son, already in high school, warned me to stay out of it and let his little brother make his own friends. He was right. Needless to say, within a few weeks, my younger son had more friends than he'd had in elementary school. Staying out of it was definitely the best thing I could have done.
On the other hand, it can also be helpful to talk things out with kids when they're facing challenges, whether academic or social. But rather than offering solutions, parents should ask questions.
"Approach any situation with an open-ended question instead of a directive: 'So what do you think you should do about that?'" said Gustavson, who is also executive director of an after-school writing program for teens called Qui Vive!
And make sure kids understand that the school is there to help them. Encourage them to talk to teachers if they're doing poorly in a subject. Perhaps there is tutoring available, or extra credit work. If they're having difficulty making friends, perhaps there are clubs, teams or other activities where they can meet kids outside of class. Many of my son's new friends came from drama and sports.
Parents also need to create an environment at home — an uncluttered table or desk in a quiet space — where kids can concentrate without distractions like Facebook, texting, video games or TV. That's especially critical for kids who are having a hard time with the new organizational and academic demands of middle school.
Once you make a physical space for the work to be done, said Gustavson, "then you can ask the question, 'What's the plan for your homework? How are you going to approach this?'"
Roth's children both love school and are self-motivated when it comes to learning. That's partly because they've been raised without TV.
"They're creative, they write stories," Roth said.
One additional way to help kids in middle school cope with their new world is by encouraging them to read. Not only will it contribute to their literacy skills, but, says Stallworth, whose background is in English language arts, but young adult literature can also "vicariously help students to solve problems. One of my favorite sub-genres is the problem novel, where the protagonist is figuring out solutions to a problem."
And don't hesitate to ask questions of teachers, administrators and guidance counselors. "If we're real advocates for our kids, we should be interested in how they're learning and why," Gustavson said. "We should feel like we can engage in conversations about learning, why things are designed the way they are and what the goals are."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.