Sixth grade graduation in my community is a big deal. At each elementary school, the kids put on a play, sing songs, and even walk across a stage to get a certificate and a handshake from the principal. It’s an event that marks the end of a chapter in their school lives.

For seven years, from kindergarten through sixth grade, they’ve walked through the same halls and lived by the same rules with pretty much the same kids around them. In the final year, they’ve been the “big kids” of the school, assisting as reading buddies for the kindergarteners and serving as role models for all of the younger students. Now it’s on to middle school. Now it’s on to being a preteen.

Early in my career, I taught English in what was then known as junior high. I’d watch those new seventh graders enter each year with their new backpacks and scared faces. They looked sooo young compared to the ninth graders who were the bosses of the school.

They’d often get lost trying to find their classes in a much bigger school. They’d get confused by a rotating schedule of classes. They’d forget how to find their lockers. Since four elementary schools converged in one middle school, they had to reestablish their friend groups and find new people to share a table with in the lunchroom. They had to get used to having four or five or more teachers instead of one or two. And they had to learn how to take homework much, much more seriously. No wonder they looked scared. No wonder the absence rate in the first few weeks was sky high.

Parents can do a great deal to help with the transition. When kids enter a new environment with some sense of what to expect, they are more likely to be successful and less likely to be overwhelmed. Help your child manage by taking some steps before school starts.

Getting Comfortable

  • Visit the new school. Help your child figure out the layout. Some schools are organized with each grade being in a different section of the school. Others are organized by department with the English department in corridor A and the math department in corridor B. Still others are organized by “teams” of teachers working together with a set group of students in a block of classrooms.Find out how the school is organized. Then see if you can get a tour with an older student or school personnel. Walk around until your child has a sense of where to find classes, the library, the gym, and the cafeteria. Remind him that it will look different when there are hundreds of kids crowding the halls.
  • See if your student can meet some of her teachers or the guidance counselor. Often staff are setting up classrooms in the weeks before school starts. Most are happy to take a couple of minutes to shake hands and say hello. Don’t overstay your welcome. These people have a lot to do. But just knowing what a few teachers look like can make your student feel more comfortable.
  • Clothes. Yes, clothes. For a middle schooler, the idea of going to school looking decidedly uncool is terrifying. Help your child think about how he wants to present himself that first day. That doesn’t mean that you need to spend a lot of money on new clothes. It does mean looking together at what your child has and what he needs to feel self-confident. Check out back to school sales. But also remember that “Sal’s Boutique” (the local Salvation Army store), thrift shops, and yard sales can be treasure troves of fashion.
  • Mornings. Ugh. Most middle schools start far earlier than elementary school. Two weeks before school starts, get everyone used to going to bed and getting up earlier. It’s a huge adjustment for some families. But a tired kid isn’t going to do well in school. Set up a healthy sleep routine from the start.


  • If the school has assigned a summer reading list, make sure your student reads the books. She doesn’t want to start behind the start line.
  • Get organized. If the school requires that she have certain materials, make sure she’s got them well before the first day of school. If obtaining such supplies is beyond your budget, contact the guidance office to find out what programs are in place so your child has what she needs.
  • Set up a study corner. If you haven’t done this in the elementary years, or even if you have, it’s doubly important to do this now. There will probably be more academic demands, with more and harder homework. Work with your student to set up a place for doing homework during the middle school years.

Relationships and Values

  • Talk with your child, not at her, about the new peer group. Talk about why it’s wise to hang back a bit during the first few weeks to see who they want to be friends with, who they should maybe stay away from, who is friendly, and who isn’t. Once a student gets identified with a particular group, it’s hard to change it. Encourage her to take the time to decide who she really wants to hang with.
  • Talk about bullying. It happens. It happens far too often and with devastating consequences. Talk about how not to get caught up in participating with the bullies and what to do if he becomes bullied. Talk about the importance of not being a bystander when others get hurt and not allowing herself to be victimized by people who would make her a victim. This can be complicated stuff. If you’re not sure how to handle it, do some research together.
  • Substance abuse. Here are some sobering statistics: 22.3 percent of kids start smoking by age 15. Over 50 percent of kids have tried alcohol by eighth grade and 25 percent have been drunk at least once. More than 60 percent of teens say that drugs are sold, used, or kept at their school. Twenty-five percent have had sex by age 15.Like it or not, your child’s values and your teaching about these issues will be challenged during the middle school years. Being clear about your own values and having calm discussions well ahead of time can help your child develop the strength to make good decisions.
  • Talk about romance. Oh, some kids have toyed with romance as early as sixth grade – or at least talked about it. But most kids don’t start pairing off until middle school. Talk about being respectful of self and of others. Talk about what it means to be loving and in love. Most important, talk about how important it is to explore many different relationships so they can make a good choice for a mate later on in life.

Transitions for Parents and Kids

The transition to the middle school years is often as challenging for parents as it is for the students. We’re saying goodbye to childhood and hello to the beginnings of adolescence. By taking the time to do some thoughtful planning and to have some very important discussions, parents can set the tone for success in the preteen years.