As a middle school principal, I was frequently asked what kids really needed to be prepared for middle school. In addition to the academic preparation obtained in elementary school, there are a few helpful things parents can do to get their kids ready for middle school.
1. Learn to use combination locks, and learn to open them quickly! Unlike most elementary schools typically middle schools have combination locks on lockers in the hall and locker room. Quickly opening locks allows kids to get the right materials for class, avoids the embarrassment of having to go to the office for help, and provides the important extra time to check in with friends between classes.
2. Pack all the necessary items for all activities. As parents, we are often in the habit of helping our kids remember what is needed for sports, camp, and other activities. Teaching your children to pack everything they need for these activities prepares them to bring everything to each class and for homework at night.
3. Practice starting conversations with people they either don’t know well or don’t know at all. In elementary school, most kids are with their classmates all day and may have been with some of them for many years. and don’t have to practice the skill of making a new acquaintance. In middle school, students will likely switch from group to group in classes, lunch, and activities. Knowing how to make a connection helps the day go better and builds new friendships.
4. Learn to do laundry. Yes, doing laundry helps with the middle school transition. Much happens to the growing changing body in these years and knowing how to do laundry allows children privacy, plus it teaches responsibility and helps parents!
5. Develop healthy sleep patterns. Try having your child go to bed and wake up as close to the same time as possible each day. Teens need an average of 9 1/2 hours of sleep a night and contrary to popular belief, sleeping a great deal on the weekend does not “make up” for what was missed during the week.
6. Create code words for uncomfortable social situations. These code words allow kids to ‘save face’ and avoid other kids becoming upset with them (one of the strongest barriers to asking adults for help.) For example, if your child is going to a party with an end time of 10:00 pm, you might tell him that he has to come home at 9:30 pm. He can then call you and ask “Can I stay longer? I am having a great time!” In this case, ‘great’ is the code word and the use of it tells you that he needs to come home early allowing you to be ‘the bad guy’ and no one overhearing the call will know he is uncomfortable.
7. Develop device-free zones and times. Create spaces and times when no one in the family is plugged in, one of our zones is the kitchen table allowing us time to check in with each other and talk about the events of the day. I asked several hundred students what they wanted adults to know about devices, among their tips was ‘I wish when my parents would not bug me about using my phone while they use theirs all of the time’ one student added ‘when my mom and I go out to dinner and she is on her phone, it makes me feel like she doesn’t want to spend time with me.’Help to reduce anxiety by creating a middle school bias zone. Students shared with me hearing adults say ‘Ugh, middle school was sooo hard’, ‘middle school girls are so mean’, ‘drama!’ and more, such comments made them feel anxious about middle school.
I also hope parents will dismiss the stereotypes encouraging you to back off or ‘let kids go’. Middle school is not a time for parents to move out of their child’s daily life but is a time to find new communication pathways which work for both of you, and have the flexibility to adjust these pathways as needed. Finally, consider who is listening to you. The picture on the left is a few weeks before going into middle school and on the right, a couple of months after completing middle school. The rapid changes are as internally intense as they are physically visible; we need to be the guardrails for our kids to reduce the sense of being out of control. When I look at these pictures, I remind myself that while the guy on the right is the one I am talking with often the guy on the left is the one listening.