Next to kindergarten, beginning middle school is one of the most pivotal academic, social, and emotional steps in a student's life.
For pre-teens, it can be a time to develop a sense of identity by exploring different subjects, trying brand-new interests, discovering talents, and building friendships. For parents, it can cement the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence that redefine family roles and relationships.
One of the biggest academic challenges facing middle school students is the move from a highly structured school environment to one of increased independence, self-regulation, and responsibility.
From managing lockers and moving to and from different classrooms, to mastering advanced subject content and organizing assignments independently, the new expectations and greater academic rigor can be stressful for young students.
"Every year, organization is one of the most common challenges that we see with our sixth-grade students," says Jennifer Caletri, PCD's Middle School Director. "Keeping up with long-term assignments or managing multiple subjects with different teachers, all with sometimes varying formats and styles for completing homework is new to them. If you add in other social, music, or sports commitments, it can be easily overwhelming."
Managing Academic Workload
Managing daily homework assignments can also be a struggle for some middle schoolers. Parents can often feel uncertain with how much or how little help they should provide.
Caletri advises most families to complete homework in a central location of the home and to divide it up into manageable blocks, such as 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
"At this age, it's important that they get up, move around, and take breaks from their work," she says. The class schedule for PCD middle school students follows a similar best practice that breaks up classroom learning with sports, music, and snack or lunch breaks. "We've designed their day, so the students aren't sitting for more than two classes at a time."
Practicing the same model at home will keep students from becoming overworked, frustrated or spending too much time on an assignment. "If your student is taking an hour to complete a worksheet that was intended to take no more than 20 minutes, stop working. It may be that they need extra help from the teacher or simply misunderstood the assignment. The incomplete work or a note from home will tell us that we need to give them extra help or time during the school day," says Caletri.
Packing backpacks nightly, managing weekly schedules with a wall calendar, and communicating regularly with teachers are all valuable practices at home to help your student transition to middle school.
Social and Emotional Challenges
Outside of academics, middle school can be a time that presents new social and emotional challenges as young students explore new feelings and friendships.
For middle school students, fitting in and making friends is one of their most important concerns.
"One of the hardest parts of transitioning to middle school was making friends. I live farther away from school and didn't know anyone. It took some time for me to get to know everyone when some kids already had friends or knew people from other schools," said Hanna Eno, a sixth grader at Providence Country Day School.
Sports, extracurricular clubs, field trips or overnight school excursions all provide valuable opportunities for meeting new classmates, learning about peers, and making new friends.
Parents should be aware that emotional and social concerns related to establishing a self-identity, finding a friend group, or managing emotions are all common issues in middle school and will vary for each individual student.
Though moving from elementary to middle school can offer some bumps in the road, Caitlin Schattman, PCD Middle School English Teacher, insists the path to the other side is possible with a community of support. "I've been advising sixth graders for a number of years and I want to convey to students and parents: it will all work out. It might be a stressful few months, but things will smooth out eventually. It doesn't happen magically, we work at it and it takes a lot of people to do it: parents, teachers, advisors, coaches and friends - but things do smooth out."
To ensure academic success, Providence Country Day School recently launched a unique middle school study skills class exclusively for sixth graders. Students learn effective homework strategies, time management, and organizational skills. The class also accounts for individual learning needs and is tailored to help students with upcoming tests or class projects, says Caletri. "Students learn homework tips including how to use a study guide and make flash cards. If they all have a science test coming up, the teacher can create a class focused on how they might get ready for that test."
Beyond the skills class, middle school teachers at PCD also dedicate time in class to helping students developing long-form writing skills and managing their workload by breaking down long-term assignments, updating their homework planner, and building study guides. "I will assign an essay but will ask students each day to work on a different part. For example, we may just work on writing the first paragraph today and another chunk tomorrow," says Schattman. "We'll also save a few minutes at the end of each class to log and check homework planners and ensure they didn't confuse or mix up assignments."
To help students with social and emotional change, PCD partners with local nonprofit Day One to lead workshops, lectures, and an annual poster contest focused on developing healthy relationships.