Getting stuck in the middle

November 4, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Avoid headaches in the transition from elementary to middle school

Pimples can be tough enough, but the uncomfortable physiological changes on the horizon cannot compare to the other horror ahead: middle school.

Despite the monumental nature of the transition from elementary school to middle school, experts said the experience does not need to cause tears to fall or stomachs to tie up in knots.

“This is a challenging transition regardless of how well-adjusted your child is,” Pacific Cascade Middle School counselor Sonja Petersen said. “This is going to be a challenge for all kids.”

Challenging, yes, but not in the way grown-ups might expect.

The most common question Issaquah School District Associate Superintendent Ron Thiele hears from fifth-graders poised to make the transition: “What’s it going to be like to dress down for P.E. class?”

Other common concerns: becoming lost on campus, steering through lunch, slogging through a recess-free school day and — most terrifying of all — facing the threat of a swirly from a surly eighth-grader.

“Big brothers are notorious for telling you that kids are going to get swirlies and things like that,” Thiele said.

The fears subside, he said, after a handful of days as a middle schooler, in part because the district takes steps to prep fifth-graders for the leap.

“What I’ve always told parents is, within the first few weeks, your elementary child will be a middle schooler, and truly, it’s usually within the first few days,” he added.

Thiele, a former middle school teacher and administrator, said students start to feel more confident as they meet teachers and students, and become more accustomed to middle school life.

“I always used to tell my staff, ‘Smile a lot in the beginning and be helpful,’” he said.

But stress can build as students shift from a single classroom and a familiar teacher in fifth grade to a trek from middle school classroom to classroom throughout the day.

“I think a lot of the stress of starting middle school for kids is around, ‘How do I do all of this? I’ve got six different classes and different things.’” Petersen continued. “So, kind of be able to boil it down at the end of the day and say, ‘OK, let’s take a deep breath and look at what happened in this class and what happened in that class.’”

The key to success is to follow some basic steps to help students make the change.

Petersen emphasizes organization as the trick to keep sixth-graders on track and not hyperventilating from the sudden increase in homework and extracurricular activities. Structure is important, as children learn to set aside time to tackle tougher assignments.

“Middle school students really need a lot of guidance when it comes to organization,” she said. “I think we’d like them to just say, ‘Here’s your planner. Go use it,’ but they really need to learn how to do it, and they need to learn how to build that habit. It takes time.”

The other trick to maintaining sanity: patience, patience, patience. Petersen said parents must remember to lighten up, too.

“None of the teachers expect that parents are going to be able to help their students with all of their homework, but helping them to be organized,” she continued.

The transition has also attracted attention from education leaders.

Thiele, other district administrators and parents huddled in 2007 to examine the middle school experience and help students make the leap from small elementary classrooms to spread-out middle school campuses.

Thiele said the crucial elementary-to-middle school transition required special attention because of the physiological and structural changes — such as a busier school day — affecting students. So, teachers and administrators emphasize organization and preparedness, plus patience for parents.

In doing so, the district has charted a path for parents and students similar to the guidelines recommended by groups as varied as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Education Association, National Middle School Association and children’s book publisher Scholastic.

The results appeared to be successful on Aug. 31 — the day hundreds of former fifth-graders descended onto middle school campuses in the Issaquah district.

“I was at every one of our middle schools on the first day of school this year, and I did not see a single tear,” Thiele said. “That’s usually a good measure.”

Remember: In only three years, students transition from middle school to the cliques and classrooms of high school.

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