Goodbye, elementary school. Hello, middle school
How NH schools are helping tweens make a successful transition to the middle grades, and how parents can help, too
More than 88% of American elementary school students move on to what is known as middle school, where they will learn to navigate a new building, meet new friends and teachers, and change classes independently.
All of this happens at a time when they are going through their own social and developmental changes, which may heighten their anxiety levels — and their parents’.
In New Hampshire last year, more than 30,000 students were enrolled in grades five through eight in the state’s public schools. While only 1,830 of the state’s 13,253 fifth-grade students moved up from an elementary school to a middle school, 8,693 of the state’s 13,367 sixth-grade students attended school in a separate middle school building, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education.
Whether your child will enter middle school as a fifth- or sixth-grader this fall, most will adapt quickly thanks to the approaches many New Hampshire middle school teachers and administrators take to ensure a smooth transition.
The ‘team’ model
Many middle schools follow a “teaming” structure to build cohesiveness among students and teachers. Your new middle school student will not be wandering the halls alone, nor will they be mixed in with students in upper grades. Instead, they will be on a “team” with the same group of kids and teachers.
At one time, the middle school grades might have been referred to as “junior high.” Today’s middle schools aren’t trying to mirror the high school model, but instead aim to address the unique needs of students in grades five through eight, said Lindsay Dube, dean of students for grades five and six at Dover Middle School.
“A middle school model focuses on the whole child and teaming. Every kid is part of a team that has the same four teachers. Those teachers are expected to be working together and providing a common educational experience for their students,” she said.
Kim Parsons, an English language arts teacher at Gilbert Hood Middle School in Derry with 18 years of teaching experience, said her middle school divides groups of students into specific areas of the building where they all take classes with the same group of students and teachers.
“You have one set of teachers that you deal with and they are more familiar with you and build better relationships with you. We meet up to three times a week and talk about the kids,” she said.
Adam Houghton, principal of Rochester Middle School, said that the team model at his school has been in place since it opened in 1992. With six elementary schools feeding into RMS, the team model takes a larger school environment and shrinks it a more manageable one. Instead of being one kid in a school of 950 students, you are a student on a team of 80 kids, he said.
“We are also developing a ‘house’ program where we put kids on a team for all three years they are here. Three teams fall under one house, and when you join that house, you know this is who will be my math teacher in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade,’ he said.
“Conversely, it allows an eighth- grade teacher to look at incoming sixth-graders and understand who they are socially and emotionally, as well as academically.”
The biggest change for most middle school students is switching classes for different subjects and building relationships with a few different teachers instead of just one, Dube said.
DMS fifth-graders may change classes for English language arts and math, and then for science and social studies, but they share the same two teachers for those two blocks of classes that take place at the beginning and end of the day. They move to their related arts classes (gym, art, band and chorus) in the middle of the day, Dube said.
In the sixth grade, students move between four different teachers and take their related arts classes at the end of the day.
At Gilbert Hood Middle School, sixth-graders change classes every 50 minutes and they don’t have the same class at the same time each day. That means if your middle-schooler isn’t a morning person, he or she won’t suffer in one subject because they have trouble learning at a specific time of day.
Sixth-grade students at Rochester Middle School change classes, but the four classrooms they move to for their main subjects are next to one another. They leave the team area to take their related arts classes and have lunch.
Forgetting a locker combination can cause some middle school students’ anxiety to spiral. In fact, it’s such a common worry that practicing locker combinations is part of the sixth-grade orientation program at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, Parsons said.
“We tell them we know it’s frustrating and new but believe me, by the end of the week you’ll have it,” she said. “I know they dwell on it a lot, but it’s usually not a problem after the first week.”
Incoming middle school students “way over-obsess” about their lockers, Dube said, particularly about getting the combination right. In the end, teachers have a key to help them, if needed. And, teachers aid them in planning when they should visit their lockers.
“The expectation is that every kid comes in and grabs the stuff they need for their first two classes and then they can go back to their locker before related arts,” she said.
In some cases, middle school students for the first time are interacting with peers from different parts of town — or different towns entirely. They will also meet new teachers and be responsible for learning the expectations of each. For example, their first-period English teacher might not be there at the end of the day to remind them that an assignment is due the following morning.
Friendships will evolve and change, and for some students that could open a whole new world. Houghton encourages parents to get their middle school student involved so that they can meet new friends and discover what they enjoy. RMS has several athletic and arts programs that are free and include a late bus that will bring students home after these activities end.
“I find the students who are more involved in these things do better academically and socially. They navigate middle school and school in general much better and make better connections with people in the building.”
Dube agrees that getting your middle-schooler involved in something is essential to helping them feeling like part of a group. At Dover Middle School, fifth- and sixth-graders don’t have the same opportunities to join sports teams as their older counterparts; however, any student can join track or cheerleading.
For a small fee, students can even participate in eight- to 10-week STEAM programs that offer courses such as fly fishing, cooking, and martial arts.
“The programs are right here so that if mom or dad is not out until 4 p.m., they can try different programs and meet others,” she said.
Students also can meet kids outside of their teams every day at lunch and recess. At DMS, students can choose where they want to sit within the fifth grade. That way, if a best friend isn’t on their team, they can still catch up.
Look for a special program
Amber Chandler is not only a middle school teacher with years of experience, but she also has a son entering middle school this fall. She serves as a board member for the Association for Middle Level Education, a membership organization dedicating to helping middle school educators reach every student, grow professionally and create great schools.
Now the coordinator for alternative education and interventions for the Frontier Central School District in Hamburg, N.Y, she began her career at Portsmouth High School in the 1990s. Since then, she’s been recognized as the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year and is the author of The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8.
Recognizing the need for programs that help students succeed in leaping from elementary school to middle school, Chandler began a voluntary pilot program called “Transitions.” Parents can send their incoming sixth-graders to a week-long, half-day program to get to know the middle school building through scavenger hunts, learning how to fill out passes, and trying their locker combinations, among other activities. Best of all, they get to meet their fellow students before school starts.
“It’s a program that’s close to my heart. I have a daughter going into the ninth grade and she was thoroughly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people (in middle school). In her classes, she wasn’t with the same kids she went to elementary school with and ended up in a cohort of kids from other elementary schools,” Chandler said.
“In elementary school it’s socially engineered so that no one is left out. In middle school, you walk into a cafeteria and pick out a seat. Even to adults, that’s overwhelming. Transitions brings kids together from the different buildings, gives them a strategy for the first day of school, and brings their nerves down a lot.”
Maturity levels differ among incoming middle school students, she said, so parents should be prepared for varying responses to the new freedoms their children are afforded.
For some the structure of elementary school is very comfortable, and middle school can feel overwhelming sometimes. Conversely, middle school kids are exposed to different subjects, like home economics, woodworking, and other electives — giving them a chance to grow and practice brand new skills.
Middle school is often a fresh opportunity for some kids, Dube said. Parents can remind them that it’s a chance for a positive new beginning.
“Some kids already feel stereotyped. Meeting a whole new bunch of students, you get a fresh chance to reinvent yourself,” she said.
Check with your child’s middle school to see if they offer a similar program.
Tips for parents
- Stress communication at home and at school. Educators all agree that it’s important for parents to frequently touch base with their children about how things are going, particularly early in the school year. If parents have any concerns, they are encouraged to check in with the school guidance office or their student’s teacher. Parents should not be afraid to have those conversations, Houghton said, adding that addressing problems about a student’s anxiety about fitting in or challenges with the academic aspects of middle school early on often deescalates issues before they become a real problem.
In middle school, students will need to also learn how to advocate for themselves and talk to adults in their building, Chandler said. Parents can help them become better communicators by encouraging them to be their own best advocates.
“I’ve had boys who don’t speak to me until three-quarters through the year. I could have skipped giving them a paper, and they didn’t tell me,” she said.
- Use the parent portal and other digital resources. Most schools use a parent portal, which allows you to log on and view a child’s grades and assignments. Parents need not check in every day, Dube said, but they can use it to get a good perspective on how their child is doing well before missing assignments and poor grades become a problem.
Parents should also be aware of resources available to their children, such as study sites that teachers may have available to help support classwork, Chandler said.
- Set boundaries on phone and social media use. Students have their own phones at younger ages now. They can be tempted to use them when they shouldn’t — and use them inappropriately. It also can be difficult for some kids to not have a phone when their friends do. Parents should talk to their kids about social media and stress that what you post online does not ever really go away, Dube said.
“It’s a state law… if social media (outside of school) is having an adverse effect in the building, a student is held responsible for it. So, if you are making fun of someone on Facebook Messenger, and a student comes into school upset because of it, it becomes a school issue and you can be punished for that in school now,” she said.
Phone use should be avoided as often as possible, Houghton said. Social media can amplify conflict, he said, at a level of discussion that most young students aren’t ready to handle. In addition, parents should be mindful of when and how often they text or communicate to their child via the phone, too.
“It’s a problem, in my opinion,” Parsons said. “There are consequences if they have them on. There are privacy issues if they are caught taking photos. They don’t need it. A parent can call the school and there is a phone in every classroom.”
- Sleep is still important. Many parents stop monitoring bedtimes once the middle school years hit, which can be a problem, Chandler said. Many kids stay up too late playing video games or engaging with friends on social media. A good night’s sleep is important, particularly because some middle school start times begin earlier than elementary school. An exhausted student won’t perform as well as a well-rested one, she said.
- Be aware of your child’s stress level. Just because your child received straight A’s in elementary school and seems to be doing well academically in middle school doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t still feel pressure to achieve. Chandler said she sees top students burning out all the time because they are recruited into everything — student council, honor societies, and other activities.
“You can’t tell them to prioritize because they don’t know what they want,” she said. “There is pressure to please the adults in their lives, so it’s important to remember that they are still young developmentally.”
To help reduce this type of stress, parents can help their child pick and choose activities and should emphasize to their children that you can’t do everything, and that perfection is not expected in every facet of their lives.
- Let your kids know they are not alone. Every new middle-schooler is navigating through the same waters, no matter how confident they may appear to be, Parsons said. While they think it’s all about them, the person sitting next to them is new to the experience, too.
“We are all a community, we are all in this together, and we will figure it out,” Parson tells her students.
Teachers are ready to support them from day one, too, Dube said. Before school starts, DMS teachers have met with elementary school teachers to try to get an assessment on what students might need.
Chandler reminds parents that kids are amazingly resilient, and many times are underestimated with the amount they are capable of — both emotionally and academically.
“Kids today are far kinder and far better at understanding kids with disabilities,” she said. “They are very sophisticated about topics related to sexuality, race and inclusion, things that weren’t even in our heads at their ages.”
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks has worked as a journalist and in marketing roles throughout the Granite State. She now regularly writes for New-England based higher education, business, and technology organizations.