A co-educational private school for Preschool–Grade Eight

Bridging the Gap between Elementary and Middle School

Students playing around.

This blog post was written by the Director of Upper School Emily Seelaus.

Every year, when the clocks spring forward and the weather turns warmer, students naturally think about the summer months, while parents' thoughts tend to turn to the next school year. Often plagued by questions like, “Is my child ready for the next grade?” “What will be the summer reading assignment?” and “Who will they get as their teacher next year?” Parental stress rises as they consider the many unknowns. And nowhere is this more apparent than in those transition years—especially from elementary school to middle school

Middle school has become the great unknown in the American education system, something to fear and survive rather than explore and celebrate. It’s a time of extraordinary growth, intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Suddenly, the person who used to curl up on your lap with a book may reject your affection. The once cautious toddler can turn into an impulsive preteen. And the tantrums of yesteryear might feel more manageable than the mood swings of a middle schooler. As a career middle school educator, I know firsthand the challenges of middle school. And, believe it or not, as the mom of two children on the precipice of this transition, I look forward to the tremendous change and growth their middle school years will bring them.  

Parents can feel helpless when it’s time for their children to navigate unchartered middle school waters. It may feel like your family is walking a tightrope; one wrong vibration and everyone falls off.  So what do we do when our child is facing the jump from elementary school to middle school?  While there is no golden ticket for making it through middle school unscathed, there are a few tricks of the trade I have picked up along the way. These tips are meant to help parents maintain their sanity but also help children maintain their self-confidence. 

  • Be the CEO: Much of what is written about education nowadays focuses on executive functioning skills. But what are executive functioning skills? Simply put, for the middle school years, it’s helping your child maintain the routines you created for them when they were younger. These routines—a bedtime, dinner together, homework before iPad, folding laundry—whatever they are for your family, are just as important now that you have a middle schooler. The difference is that they will try everything possible to change these expectations. They are actively involved in orchestrating a hostile takeover of their life. Don’t let them. They need you to set the expectations for them and maintain the routines, not do the work for them. You can compromise with them—for example, move bedtime to a later time—but the greatest gift you can give them is to be the CEO of their lives. They will function better with you in charge, even if they think they can handle it independently. Your willingness to engage them in a conversation about what is best and setting firm expectations and guidelines will serve them well. Now that you have established that you are firmly in charge of this operation, you can give your tween the room to make some mistakes and learn from them. They can practice their independence in a safe, low-stakes environment.  
  • Do Not Buckle: Remember when your toddler first figured out how to fasten the car seat buckles themselves and, therefore, would never let you help them? If you tried to help, you extended the process by 10 minutes. Instead, you spent hours in parking lots sitting in the front seat reading your phone, waiting for them to buckle successfully (a task you could have accomplished in 30 seconds). Channel that patience for middle school. Every task, every social interaction, every homework assignment, and every sports practice is that car seat buckle. You can see the better way to complete the assignment. You know they need to study more for the math test. You know they don’t need to be 15 minutes early for lacrosse practice. You know that it would be better if they just reached out to that friend and invited them over. Allow them the space to make mistakes and figure them out themselves. You’re not buckling the seatbelt; you’re telling them that there is an expectation that the seatbelt must be buckled before they can move to the next step. But they still have to be the ones to buckle that seat belt. Sit in the front seat and give them the time to buckle their seatbelt. They will figure it out just like they did when they were two.
  • Lead with Love: When people hear that I have worked in middle school for 20-plus years, they often say things like, “Better you than me,” or I” don’t know how you do that.”  Here is the secret: I love middle school students. I revel in the disorganization and the messiness of middle school years. I love that they want to play tag at recess one minute, and the next, they are too cool to say hi to me the next. I love that they ask me for a piece of tape to put up a picture of their sister in their locker, and then they try to hide gum from me in their backpacks. Middle school is messy. Tell your child you love them despite the mess. Every boundary they push, they are asking you, “Do you still love me?” “If I don’t put away my laundry, will you still love me?” “If I fail this math test, will you still love me?” If they know that you will love them always, it empowers them to make good and healthy choices in the long run. And when they make those mistakes, hug them and help them clean up the mess. I have seen it over and over.

It’s important to remember that not all of these tips will always work for everyone. Nor is there a single tip that will prevent all arguments. But, perhaps adopting a few tips and tricks from those who have seen it will help make these years a more positive experience for everyone.

But don’t just take my word for it. There are a number of terrific resources available for parents of middle schoolers.