Little Fish, Big Pond

Each graduation—from elementary to middle, from middle to high and from high school to college—is a cause for celebration accompanied by a bit of trepidation and anxiety as your child moves from a place of familiarity to the unknown. We share information to help you and your child make the transitions as smoothly as possible.

By Angela E. Thomas

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Each step in the maturation process is a thrill and an adjustment. After all, even the most well-adjusted and the highest achievers will go from being a big fish in the little pond to a little fish in a big, unfamiliar and sometimes scary pond. 

Sending your baby off to pre-K or kindergarten, in many cases, involves prying him off your leg and not looking back as you hear his cries, or trying soothe your hurt feelings as he happily leaves your grasp. Here are several things you can do to prepare him for elementary school: 

• Set up and maintain routine times for meals, study time, playtime and bedtime. 

• Teach your child how to constructively handle his negative emotions, such as anger, disappointment and frustration.

• Make sure he knows how to take turns, share and respect others’ boundaries. 

• Set rules and boundaries and appropriate consequences for breaking them. 

• Regularly talk with your child; ask questions that require elaboration. This will help establish communication and trust, which will become critical as he matures. 

Preparing your child to enter elementary school and prepare for middle school are the easiest of the transitions. Getting him ready to enter and transition from middle school are the most difficult periods.

Moving from elementary school to middle school—sixth, seventh and eighth grades, ages 12 to 15—is a pretty big deal. 

“This transition is, perhaps, the biggest, and the one parents dread the most. Children are going through a lot of changes,” said Patricia Erwin, counselor at Pulaski Heights Middle School in Little Rock. “One of the most significant changes is in their peer groups. While children are in elementary school, their parents and families were the most influential in their lives. However, in middle school the children become more peer oriented, both socially and emotionally.” 

Erwin has worked in education for 32 years and previously served in elementary schools. 

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She said children’s friendship groups change; when children are younger, proximity plays a big part, meaning they’ll typically befriend those they see most often. In middle school, they tend to expand and branch out, and these new friendships may be based on common interests, physicality and social status, etc. 

“Twelve to 15-year-olds experience a lot of change psychically and this impacts their feelings about other things. They may also experience anxiety because they’re developing faster or slower than their peers. They are still trying to figure out who they are and trying to be accepted. And when they’re not accepted by a person or group they admire, it can be hard. Some children are strong and resilient, but many are insecure about that,” Erwin said. 

Parents, you should also prepare yourselves: your child will test the boundaries. This is a part of establishing independence. 

“Of course, we want our children to become independent, but this can be a painful process,” she added. They’re not adults, but they’re no longer babies. So, there are times when you’ll need to let them figure it out. There will be other times, Erwin said, that you’ll want to intervene. 

“For instance, social media is a big issue because what’s going on online bleeds into school.” Parents should monitor their children’s’ online presence and address issues at home.

“If something inappropriate is going on and/or if something odd is being texted, let your child’s counselor know. We are there to listen and be supportive,” she added. 

The move to middle school also brings changes in environment—not only are the children moving to an unfamiliar, larger building, they’ll go from working with one or two teachers to as many as eight teachers. This means adjusting to shorter classes, a faster pace, different classmates, various classroom rules, and different teachers’ personalities and expectations (talk about stress!). 

Erwin suggests parents assist their children with two key practical skills: time management and organization. 

“This is a big issue. Parents should teach their children how to ask for specific instructions, deadlines and due dates and how to use a planner or agenda book to keep up with assignments, test dates, etc. Don’t assume that your child knows how to use his agenda.”

You’ll also want to schedule time to complete homework and study for tests. Additionally, Erwin suggests you and your child meet with his counselor to ensure he is taking the correct classes—whether he’s college bound or planning to pursue a vocation after high school. 

“Make certain your child knows that everything from here on counts. Students take tests to assess their interests and strengths to help them choose a career path. Of course, this choice isn’t set in stone, but it’s good to start thinking about the long term,” she said.  

Middle school is also when most children experience the biggest hormonal and physical changes. While many Arkansas schools include sex education as a part of the fifth-grade curriculum, you may want to address this issue more thoroughly. Often children learn about the mechanics of reproduction from their peers, which, as you may know from experience, can be erroneous and frightening. Erwin suggests you approach the topic using your judgment and based on your child’s maturity level.

The transition from middle school to high school can be trying. However, Erwin’s advice is to teach your child how to manage his time as well as how to become organized, and meeting with his counselor to schedule classes to prepare him for college or vocational training is essential as his workload will increase during these last four years.  

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You’ll also want to visit the high school your child will attend during his eighth-grade year. 

Erwin said, “Our high schools offer potential students the opportunity to shadow current students. This is a great way for your child to get a preview of a typical high school day and to get a tour of the school.”  

In addition to enrolling in classes that will prepare your child for his next step, you may want to consider choosing a school with an emphasis in his interests. For instance, if he is interested in the arts, or science and technology, you may choose a high school that focuses on these areas. 

Lastly, make sure your child is prepared to take responsibility for meeting deadlines for assignments and school projects. For instance, my son was especially forgetful. I made countless trips to his middle school to bring homework, lunches, projects, coats, etc. I even faxed homework assignments to the office! When he entered 10th grade, I instituted a new rule: he had three chances per school year to ask me to bring something or fax something to the school. By his senior year, he’d become less forgetful as the consequences had become quite painful. 

One thing Erwin stressed for students’ entire school career: parental involvement. Remain involved in your child’s life and in his school. Volunteer, and be certain his teachers and counselors know you care and that you’re just a phone call away. 

Information from National Education Association, nea.org.