"I'm nervous about forgetting my locker combination." "I'm worried about getting lost." "I'm nervous about keeping track of my schedule and having more homework." "What if my child no longer hugs me as she steps off the bus?"
Middle School. These two words instill fear in parents and pre-teens alike. From the fears I have heard over the years, one would think parents are sending their children off to college, or worse yet, off to the lion's den! Parents have cried in my classroom and written me anxiety-laden emails, and students have arrived on the first day with a look of terror. Many anxieties about middle school stem from parents' own experiences. Honestly, I have some mortifying middle school memories, don't you? Or, rumors and misinformation are generated through hearsay. So how do we, as educators, help parents and students embrace the new territory of middle school and change their anxiety into excitement?
At McDonogh School, a private K-12 preparatory school, middle school begins in fifth grade. Especially because students are so young, our philosophy establishes fifth grade as a transition year, meant for learning and failures alike. Over the years, our team has developed a multifaceted plan to address anxieties that arise in preparation for middle school. Communication and relationship-building have proven to be the key components of our transition plan's success. We have learned that a proactive and communicative approach eliminates potential challenges throughout the year, and we developed many time-tested strategies that work wonders in transitioning families to our program.
At the helm of our transition plan is a laser focus on incoming students. We want to ensure students are comfortable and confident in the new environment. If students are excited about the new challenges of middle school, parents will follow suit. To that end, we schedule several spring experiences to initiate fourth grade students to our middle school. Our head of middle school and the associate head visit fourth grade homerooms to introduce themselves and answer student questions about the transition.
Our team also devotes a half day for fourth graders to visit the middle school, meeting teachers while exploring our building. Teachers provide small groups with a brief tour and question-answer sessions. Afterwards, we hold a picnic lunch and recess designed to connect current fifth graders with incoming fourth graders. Students offer advice, suggestions, and answer questions from a student perspective. More than informative, these experiences generate excitement about the upcoming school year.
Middle School Information Night
To connect and establish rapport with parents, we designed an April middle school information night for rising fifth grade parents. The evening program is meant to help parents feel more comfortable with the transition by meeting teachers and touring classrooms. Our hope was to establish a fairly intimate setting with opportunities for connection and discussion about the transition. Core team members, learning specialists, and arts and foreign language teachers attend. We believe in including as many teachers as possible without being overwhelming or making the program unwieldy.
After an introduction from our head of middle school in the auditorium, parents travel in small groups through an hour rotation of "classes" for more intimate conversations. Our purpose is to address transition topics such as technology use, parent communication methods, and our advisor program. In this setting, parents hear our individual philosophies, experience our classrooms, and get a sense of teacher personalities. Teachers share personal histories, parenting experiences, and humorous middle school anecdotes to put parents at ease. I can always tell which parents have the most anxiety as they never laugh at my middle school student jokes! Allowing time for questions eases anxiety over specific concerns and creates a personal connection. Having parents move from classroom to classroom offers an informal tour of our building. Afterwards, I have had many parents express, "I wish I was in middle school again! This sounds exciting!" This is a testimony to the mood created during our presentations.
We also developed written information for parents addressing concerns not only about the middle school program but the changing nature of their child. A colleague and I crafted a handbook to guide parents through the summer-of-waiting, as well as the transition year itself. We took a light-hearted approach, rather than the typical formal handbook, in an attempt to tone down the conversation and decrease anxiety. And we designed the handbook around parenting rather than around our policies and procedures. A significant part of the booklet addresses the ever-changing middle school child. Other topics include school communication, homework and grading philosophies, as well as a list of helpful written resources specifically for middle school parents. We set ourselves up as "the experts" on the middle school child in this booklet to encourage parents to seek our advice throughout the year. Typically, we distribute this handbook during the information night for an easy summer reference.
First Day of School
We approach the first day of school with a relaxed attitude. What's the rush? We have all year! So due to the stress of the transition, our team holds the first day of school strictly in advisors' classrooms rather than frantically running through a normal schedule. During our day we concentrate on answering any and all "burning" questions about middle school, touring the school pointing out bathroom and water fountain locations, explaining how our daily schedule works and introducing students to their personal schedule of classes, explaining dining hall procedures, and teaching how to open a combination lock. Honestly, teaching the combination lock generates more stress and tears than anything I do all year! We also ask students to write their fears, expectations, and excitements over the transition in an advisory journal, which we revisit later in the year for a good laugh. Our all-school assemblies, lunch, and plenty of recess time break up our introductory activities. Students leave school with a healthy dose of excitement and self-confidence.
As we begin the school year, our team believes consistency across disciplines is crucial. To that end, we developed simple yet effective policies for easing the transition and establishing routine for the first month of school. First, teachers agree not to send reports regarding incomplete homework. Students are under a tremendous amount of stress attempting to remember their way around, locker combinations, and schedules. What is the harm in allowing a few freebies in the beginning? Secondly, dress code and minor behavior violations are addressed with simple reminders as students adjust to the new expectations. We do emphasize the importance of adherence in the coming months when consequences will apply. As well, our team does not test students during the first three weeks of school. Students need time to adjust to new expectations without the pressure of performance. When we do begin to test, our team has a consistent classroom management philosophy to initiate students into our program. Students have less anxiety (and fewer questions!) when routine and expectations are clear. We review and revise these policies each year based on their success and the needs of the students.
Another helpful tool has been monthly letters crafted around our transition. Once students arrive in middle school, many stop sharing information of their daily life with parents. A letter highlighting grade-level experiences can provide parents not only with information but possible conversation topics at home. Instead of a generic newsletter, we write a personal-type letter and send only to parents of the transition grade. Our first letter, sent at the end of September, includes information on organization, technology use, and highlights upcoming field trips. Additional letters can include study methods, curriculum topics, or grading policies. After the first semester, we send fewer communications as students have adjusted to our expectations and routines.
Over the years, communicating with our elementary teachers has been crucial to crafting an effective transition. Part of our plan includes an annual half-day collaboration meeting for fifth and fourth grade teachers. Fourth grade teachers share student learning plans, academic challenges, and social issues. We also discuss current curriculum, skills, and technology use. Sharing impressions or academic needs is helpful for the transition team and builds camaraderie. Due to these meetings, advisors often reconnect with the fourth homeroom teachers seeking advice as the year progresses. Through such conversations, we have developed a network of professionals who work with a consistent philosophy to support one another and students through the transition.
In my experience, when a parent holds anxiety or concerns about middle school, the child is fearful and harbors self-doubt over the abilities to handle new expectations. Reciprocally, when the children are excited about new challenges, parents' fears disperse. By demonstrating a commitment to communication and personal connection, we generate excitement and encourage families to embrace the challenges ahead. With our guidance, families can hopefully alter their fearful image of middle school from the lion's den to a breeding ground ripe for their child's growth and independence.
Jennifer Smith leads the fifth grade team and teaches social studies at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, Maryland.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2018.