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What’s Next in Learning?

Ages, Stages, and School Transitions

I remember my first day of middle school. Though I’m loath to admit I can’t remember much of what I learned there, the seriously embarrassing moments stick with me. On that memorable day, I sat in the clinic in fourth period feeling nauseous.

“In the clinic, already?” the nurse asked, skeptical about my illness. I’m sure she thought it was just first-day jitters, and maybe it was, but that didn’t stop me from showing just how sick I really was all over the back of the school bus on the way home. That was pretty much the worst way to start a new stage of life, especially for a shy, reserved kid who worked hard to avoid drawing attention to herself.

Although starting middle school gave me the most anxiety, I endured many more transitions in my school career, and my kids will, too. Except for elementary school, the typical student adjusts to a completely new environment, schedule, and group of peers at least every three or four years! Even when kids stay at the same school, each year brings a new teacher or set of teachers, changing expectations for success, and a different classroom dynamic.

How well kids adjust to these transitions dramatically affects their future school success. Several studies have found that difficulties transitioning in school heighten the potential for alcohol and drug use as well as school truancy. Numerous studies have also shown, however, that parents’ involvement in positive transitions leads to better academic engagement and long-lasting positive attitudes about school in general.

Though by now, students’ first-day jitters have eased, their transitions to a new school year still have an impact. Often school adjustments go smoothly in the beginning when the excitement of the new situation dominates the experience. As fall days tick by, however, many kids struggle. Once the honeymoon phase wears off, kids may experience separation anxiety, complain about homework, or face difficulties navigating new social situations.

Thankfully, local school professionals have shared their insights into how parents can help their kids transition at each stage. Many of the techniques for dealing with difficult transitions work no matter what grade your child is starting. But parent roles shift as kids get older, so I’ve broken up the advice according to age. Because starting middle school can be the most traumatic change (as it was for me!), there’s extra advice devoted to helping sixth-graders cope.


If your child has stayed home until now, starting preschool is the first major academic transition they undergo. How can you make the adjustment easier? Manage your own emotions for starters. “A child can sense if the parent is concerned about them having an accident, crying at drop-off, or not having fun at school,” explains Amanda Edmondson, director of Tuckahoe Montessori School. A parent’s nerves or negative emotions “can result in the child being unsettled themselves.”

For children who do have trouble saying goodbye, Edmondson encourages parents to end drop-off with a hug, a kiss, and a reminder of when you’ll see him again. Remind your child in ways that make sense to her. For instance, explain that you’ll see her again after snack-time or recess. No matter what, avoid hanging around. “It’s so hard to leave your child with tears,” Edmondson says, “but lingering can indirectly validate the child’s nerves.” Most likely, your child will settle down after you have left and he has a chance to get involved in a school activity.

You can also ease kids into preschool by forging a strong home/school connection. “Some students need a lovey or transition item to help them get out of the car and into the building,” explains Edmondson. Last year, when my youngest daughter felt nervous, she liked to take her special stuffed animal to the classroom for our goodbye. After she settled in, I took it back to the car with me. Your child’s teacher might also let her keep the lovey in her bag so she can give it a hug when she feels homesick. I would advise asking the teacher about this strategy before you try it out.


Some of the same practices for preschool help kids handle the kindergarten transition. According to Jan Schreiber, a Henrico County teacher who has taught for twenty-four years, “the most important key to a successful school year is communication.” She encourages parents to open lines of communication early and “set the tone by sending a positive note to the teacher.” Schreiber says the note can be something as simple as My child really enjoys the way you _______ at school. Thank you for all of your hard work. Most importantly, she advises, make clear to the teacher you want to work together as a team. If any problem arises, Schreiber encourages discussing it with the teacher before talking to the principal.

Jan Schreiber

Parents can also ease transitions by fostering independence and thereby encouraging self-esteem. “Being able to accomplish tasks without assistance promotes self-esteem for students,” Schreiber says, “so help your child by practicing zipping the backpack, buttoning the coat, and opening lunch containers.” Kids feel braver about being away from home when they can handle these tasks on their own. That sense of independence can help with drop-off, too. If you typically drive your child to school and he has trouble separating from you during drop-off, have him ride the bus. “This way,” Schreiber says, “the child is saying goodbye to you rather than you leaving the child.”

It sounds simple, but making time to talk with your child will also help. If she struggles to make friends, “Talk to your child about what good friends do, then role play,” Schreiber says. Remember to follow up the next day. For instance, ask specific questions about how the strategies worked: How did it work when you told your friend you liked to play soccer?

If separation anxiety remains an issue, “Give your child a sticker to place under his sleeve,” Schreiber advises. “Tell them to touch the sticker whenever they miss their parents for extra reassurance and to know that you are thinking of them.” Read books like The Kissing Hand to remind your child you’ll be thinking of him. And, always remember, Schreiber says, that teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators can help you access any available resources to help your child transition well.

Schreiber has some lasting words of wisdom: “Having taught kindergarten for over twenty years, I can share that I usually have one or two students who need a little extra help at the beginning of the year. I am pleased to say that these students often become the biggest fans of kindergarten!”


As you now know, starting middle school was the most traumatic – and messy – transition for me. It’s not surprising, given the middle school environment is drastically different from elementary school. It involves changing classes frequently and receiving instruction from multiple teachers. Elizabeth Farner, guidance counselor at Robious Middle School, explains that “all students in the hall at once visiting lockers, using restrooms, and getting to class in four minutes is a stark contrast to the silent single-file lines of elementary school.” And if those changes aren’t enough, middle schoolers also undergo overwhelming physical developments and changes in cognitive processes as they enter adolescence.

It was true for kindergarten, and it’s true for middle school: Open lines of communication between teachers and counselors is key. “Parents should encourage their kids to talk to these adults if they have questions or concerns,” Farner says, “but parents should not hesitate to reach out on their own if they are concerned about their child’s transition.”

Elizabeth Farner

Parents have a unique perspective and educators need that input to help. If you have any concerns, Farner suggests reaching out to the teacher right away, rather than waiting for the teacher to contact you. “An email to the teachers or school counselor describing the concern and asking if there is a good time to talk or meet is a good first step.”

And when parent-teacher conference time rolls around, don’t think you’re off the hook now that your child is out of elementary school. Farner encourages parents to set up conferences with teachers and to include your child so he can participate in the discussion. “Discuss what academic holes need to be filled and how to fill them,” she advises. “Also find out what the teachers and counselor suggest your child do to reach academic success.”

Middle school prepares your child for high school, which in turn prepares your child for college. At this stage, it is vital to foster independence. “The goal of parenting and education is not to create straight-A students,” explains Farner, “but, rather, to create contributing members of society and lifelong learners.” She suggests reviewing the assignment book to stay on top of things, but letting them do their homework independently. When your child struggles with a class assignment or social issue, ask her how she thinks she should handle the problem rather than jumping in to fix it.

While encouraging your child’s academic independence, you can also provide support and guidance. For instance, check grades online periodically to make sure everything is going okay. “If you notice missing assignments,” Farner says, “remind your child early – not the last week of the marking period! – to talk to the teacher and rectify the missing grades.”

A veteran parent friend of mine suggests starting out with a side-by-side parent-child review of online grades once a week at the start of middle school. You may quickly discover that even that session is unnecessary.

Also, be sure to help your child set up a place and time to complete homework assignments. “Typically, our students come to middle school well-prepared academically,” Farner explains. “The organization required to balance the expectations of five to six different teachers can sometimes be a challenge, however.” Schedules may be busy with after-school activities, so help your child make time to complete homework and study for tests. Remind them to factor in time each day to prepare for big tests or complete large projects.

This brings us to the part of middle school that often worries parents the most: social interaction. If your child is shy or feels overwhelmed by all the new people, help him get involved and meet new friends through school clubs or sports. Encourage him to listen to the announcements for information about club activities, and check the school website for their calendar of events.

Once your child establishes new friendships, explains Farner, “It is normal for peers to become much more important in middle school than they were in elementary.” Unlike in elementary school, you may not have the chance to get to know these new friends who now play an important role in your child’s life. If possible, invite them over or arrange a meet-up so you can have a chance to get to know them.

“To help your child navigate his new social environment,” Farner says, “talk often about your expectations.” Parents need to remember that their silence is perceived as permission in many instances. Also, keep in mind that middle schoolers face many of the same social challenges we faced decades ago, but they experience the added complications of social media, including feelings of isolation or depression. Loneliness is another effect of social media. It feels bad to look at pictures of people you perceive as friends having fun without you.

Farner says, “If you have any doubts about whether your child is ready for a smart phone or a social media account, just say no, and talk about why your family has chosen to hold off on these things: like saving money, focusing on real-life interactions, or decreasing distractions.” If you do choose to let your kids have a smart phone, help them carve out phone-free time so they can work on homework and get sufficient sleep.


Preparing your child for high school involves some of the same approaches you have already used. Ultimately, you are raising a person who will need to go out into the world and function as an adult, so self-reliance continues to be important. As children get older, the expectations change. Instead of helping your child open a lunch container, you are helping him manage a complicated schedule of schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and a part-time job.

High school kids have much more freedom than they have had in their earlier school experiences. Robyn Walsh is school counseling coordinator for Monacan High School. She says freedom can be “good or bad, depending on the student.” For some students, independence can be positive, but for others, autonomy creates some challenges. “Teachers do not hand-hold as much,” explains Walsh, “and the classroom expectations can be more rigorous.” Walsh encourages parents to cultivate that new independence in a way that works for each child. She also advises parents to let children make mistakes while also holding them accountable.

To cope with the challenge of newfound independence, Walsh suggests that students develop schedules: “I tell students to make sure they schedule homework time during their afternoons to keep up with a more rigorous workload. They also need to write down their assignments in a planner…so many are used to accessing their work online, but they often forget about it.”

Another important piece of advice: Relocate cell phones while students work on homework so they can focus on their work instead of getting distracted by the drama of technology and social media. “Last, but not least,” Walsh says, “make sure they get a good night’s sleep!” Though they may not be happy about it, students need to keep cell phones out of their bedrooms.

Parents can also ease the transition to high school by helping students acclimate to the new social situation. For teens, getting involved in clubs or sports provides a great chance to meet people and “can also make a big school seem so much smaller,” Walsh says. If the right club doesn’t exist, teens can work with administrators to start a new one.

Walsh also advises parents to help their children identify adults in the building – coaches, teachers, counselors, or administrators – they can go to with questions or problems. “That person will be with them all four years,” explains Walsh, “and can be a great resource!” Besides, learning how to talk to adults during high school will help teens tremendously once they start college.


If your child went off to college a month or so ago – and especially if he is now far away – your role in the school transition has shifted dramatically. At this point, you can’t do much to help beyond maybe bringing the next season’s clothes when you visit for parent’s weekend.

When her daughter started college last year, Richmond mom Sue Weber experienced a steep learning curve. “One of the most difficult challenges for me during my daughter’s transition to college was recognizing that she was now entering a new chapter in her life,” Weber explains. Weber has a keen awareness that, in some ways, she plays a less dominant role in this new chapter of her daughter’s life. Deciding whether to talk on a particular day fell into her daughter’s purview rather than hers. “Daily phone calls initiated from our end were not always excitedly received,” Weber says, so they let her decide when to touch base.

Weber found that although she wanted to make the college transition seamless for her daughter, her daughter ultimately had to experience it for herself. Before she left, Weber and her daughter talked about the inevitability of failure and the need to adapt. She and her husband acknowledged they needed to let go somewhat. “We quickly came to terms with the reality that for our daughter to be adequately prepared for real life, it was important for her to experience both the struggles and the excitement that accompany starting her new chapter.”

While Weber and her husband understood the need to back off, they missed their daughter and had to cope with their own feelings of sadness. Weber found that for her, talking to friends and family who had already been through the same process reaffirmed that the transition to college is a normal process.

“Additionally,” Weber says, “care packages, phone calls, and visits home were all things to look forward to and got us through that difficult first-semester adjustment.”


If your child is starting at a new school during a non-typical transition year (coming to a high school as a sophomore for example), she will face the challenges of meeting potential new friends and learning the layout on her own. Robin Oliff, director of admissions at The Steward School, encourages parents and students to participate in any activity the school offers to get to know the school and connect to the community. “Get connected yourself to help kids get connected,” she advises parents, urging them to volunteer in the school and get to know other families, even though that may seem intimidating.

Robin Oliff

Although students may want to delay getting involved in school clubs and sports until they have adjusted to a new school, Oliff says that can be a mistake, particularly for older kids. Group activities provide invaluable ways for students to build connections.

At the same time, Oliff says, “Anticipate that it takes a lot out of kids to make these adjustments, and try not to make too many other changes outside of school.” Lastly, if you have concerns about your child’s adjustment, talk to the school. Oliff reiterates that kids may not show how they’re feeling at school, so teachers may not be aware when students need help.

Ultimately, staying connected to your children – no matter their ages – seems like the best way to help them navigate school transitions. In the spirit of communication, I asked my oldest daughter – who just started her second year of middle school – what advice she would give sixth graders. Her response? “Don’t get too caught up thinking about what a big deal middle school is. Remember all the transitions you’ve already been through, and just try to enjoy it.” Sounds like the advice my 11-year-old self needed to hear!

Catherine Brown writes about parenting, education, the arts, aging, and health and wellness. She recently published “Hope for Recovery: Stories of Healing from Eating Disorders,” and is collecting essays for a book on body image. You can find her at, on Facebook, and on Twitter at @catbrown_writer.
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