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Virginia Journal of Education


by Dave Shepard

Whenever we make a major life change as adults, such as changing jobs, changing locations or changing our relationship status, we use our maturity to manage the challenges that accompany that change. But when adolescents have change in their lives, it can, for a number of factors, become a very traumatic event. Children changing teachers, changing schools, changing levels or changing daily schedules can be negatively affected if they do not have the necessary maturity, social skills or knowledge base-which many don't. The difficulties seem most pronounced when students enter early adolescence, about the time they move to middle school. It's a major transition: Changing to a middle school or junior high school, whether the entry level is grade five, six, seven or eight, brings apprehension and anxiety to almost every student to some degree. Exceptional middle schools understand this challenge and try to plan ways to help ease students' anxiety.

These concerns are not new: In 2002 the National Middle School Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals jointly issued a position paper ("Supporting Students in Their Transition to Middle School") urging all schools to address this issue. It encouraged schools to expand beyond the traditional spring visits to the elementary school by the guidance counselors and the spring orientation meeting for parents at the middle school. The two organizations suggested that schools develop, with the help of parents and students, a comprehensive plan that helps minimize the fears, anxieties and discomfort that incoming students traditionally feel. I'd like to share some ideas that may be useful to schools as they develop such plans.

The following suggestions have been grouped into four categories: Opportunities to Experience Middle School; Communications, Expectations and Education; The First Week of School; and Tips for Parents and Students.

Opportunities to Experience Middle School
It stands to reason that students will be more comfortable when they know the teachers and the school building, and have a "feel" for what they will find when they begin attending the new school. These ideas might fit into your school plan:

. Expand the receiving school's visiting team. When you schedule the spring visit to the elementary school expand the team to include, in addition to the guidance counselors, the principal, some entry-level teachers and the secretary. Students need to know all of these faces and feel comfortable talking to them. Having the teacher warmly welcome the students and the secretary explain the policy on absences may be less threatening than having an administrator do so. Also, principals in some middle schools make it a point to attend the promotion exercises of feeder elementary schools and participate when asked.

. Shrink the feeder school's visiting team. Many middle schools have a walk-through day where large groups of students visit for a short orientation tour. The impact of this activity is increased if schools plan a "Move Up Day" for groups of only 15-20 students at a time. These groups come to the middle school and are paired with a current student who goes with them to either morning or afternoon classes.

. Trade places. If schools can arrange a "Move Up Day," they might also try a "Teacher Exchange Day." On this day three or four teachers just change places for all or part of the day. Elementary teachers trade places with middle level teachers. The elementary students will discover that all middle school teachers do not yell, scream and bite the heads off of students and the elementary teachers will get to see the familiar faces they taught last year.

. Show "signs" of welcome. Posting a "Welcome to Middle School" notice on the school marquee during the summer that encourages incoming students to drop in may find some curious takers. If a family does stop by, show them around and do everything you can to make them feel comfortable. The child may feel better if he or she just gets to walk around.

. Use a kinder, gentler vocabulary. Encourage all elementary school teachers to stop making statements that use the middle school as a threat. The words of teachers stay with students. Statements such as "They won't let you get away with that next year!", "You better grow up now because next year will be too late", "They won't have time in middle school to go back and teach you this stuff again" and "In middle school things will be a lot harder!" only increase the anxiety students already feel.

. Give some students a running start. Many middle schools now use "Early Start" or "Building Bridges" programs for students they know may face academic challenges in the fall. These programs are voluntary, may be by invitation only, secure parental support and start five to 10 days before the official beginning of school. Paid teachers spend from three to four hours in the mornings with the students reviewing material and preparing them for middle school.

Communication, Expectations and Education
Here are some ideas designed to address the feeling that many transitioning students express: "I just don't know what to do."

. Make the message personal. Try making the "summer letter" more personal. You could include short bios of the entry-level teachers and maybe photos if possible. If the school is organized by interdisciplinary teams, have them write parts of the letter. List the teachers' school e-mail addresses and encourage incoming students to write. Put in a section telling about the "cool stuff" that students will be doing in the fall. Suggest that students read during the summer and provide a recommended reading list.

. Spell it out. Also in the summer letter explain the team, as well as the school policies on tardiness, homework, absences and appropriate dress. Encourage teams to make one list of needed materials for the fall and save parents the hassle and expense of five different lists that come from five different teachers.

. Keep it simple and upbeat. When sharing rules and expectations, keep the first set very simple. Five rules that outline in general terms expectations for incoming students are more powerful than 25 things they "better not do." Always state the rules in a positive manner ("All students will." instead of "All students will not...") and be sure to share both the consequences and rewards associated with the rules. Along these same lines remember to teach the new students how you expect them to act. Harry Wong's book, The First Days of School, urges teachers to plan and practice behavioral expectations.

. Color it in. The last idea in this section is simple yet very effective. When all the information papers are sent home on the first few days of school, make sure that the ones requiring a parent signature are copied on colored paper. When the stack is taken home, the colored paper stands out and reminds the student that it must be returned signed. Parents seem to like this reminder also. This idea will improve the rate of return and help students "do it right."

The First Week
For incoming students, no matter what they think they know, the first week is always the most difficult. Try these ideas for making the first few days run more smoothly:

. Map it out. Perhaps the biggest fear that students have in a new school is getting lost and not being able to get to class on time. As part of your school transition plan, address this by posting clear directions to the places they need to go to. Directional arrows, temporary colored signs and extra labels on the restrooms will help them do the right thing. Put up a welcoming bulletin board at the main entrance and a special welcome in the hallway where the new students are housed. One middle school put stars on the ceilings of hallway and told students to follow the gold stars to the library, the blue stars to the office, and the red stars to the gym. The system was a hit with students, but had a downside. As the students walked to class and kept their eyes on the ceiling, they constantly bumped into each other.

. Unlock success. For many students, learning to open a combination lock can be a major undertaking. Some school transition plans address this by taking locks to their feeder elementary schools and having students practice before they arrive. Having old locks that can be loaned out over the summer can also help students. If new locks can be sold early, students would be able to practice during the summer. If your school has built-in locks, set aside two or three lockers near the office and whenever a student drops by during the summer invite them to practice on one of them.

. Ease them in. Plan the first week's schedule for incoming students carefully, keeping in mind that they may be used to having only one or two teachers all day and have never changed classes. Having students go directly to their homeroom or advisory class seems to work better than having all students go to the gym and marching out with their teacher. This method reduces the catcalls and teasing from older students.

. Slow and sure. For new students it is important not to rush things. One middle school keeps first-year students with their homeroom teacher the entire first day. The teacher carefully goes over all forms, conducts guided tours, gets to know the students, and answers questions. At same school, second-year students spend half the first day with the same teachers and third-year students are on a regular schedule due to their familiarity with the process. On the second day, first-year students spend half the day with their homeroom teacher while everyone else resumes a regular schedule. The third day of the week the first-year students go to all their classes.

Tips for Parents and Students
The following suggestions are primarily for parents who haven't had a child in middle school and so may know nothing about middle schools. Schools that plan to help parents also help themselves.

. Put in on the shelf. Set aside a shelf in the school library with books and pamphlets that describe middle level students and their behaviors. Advertise this resource to parents and encourage its use.

. Offer "help." Provide parents with a copy (or make copies available to them) of the booklet H.E.L.P. by Judith Baenen that is distributed by the National Middle School Association. H.E.L.P. stands for How to Enjoy Living with a Preadolescent and is a treasure trove of valuable advice for all parents, particularly those that are experiencing their first child in middle school.

. Get it together. Suggest to parents they discuss with their child the importance of staying organized. Advise parents to regularly dump their child's backpack and examine the contents. Schools that provide literature to parents regarding this area can count on more organized students.

. Help keep parents focused. As middle level students struggle for their own independence, they might lead their parents to believe that their job of parenting is done. This is totally untrue. Advise parents to remain constantly aware of their child's friends, work habits, whereabouts and Internet use. Parents need to know that whenever their child uses the phrase "everybody at school" before any of the following phrases.has one.does it.wears going.etc., that everybody almost always refers to their four best friends.

. Find a friend. And a final tip for every student in transition: During the first week of school, find one teacher or one adult in your building and make friends with that person. Having a person to talk to and confide in can be the most powerful tool in a young students' arsenal.

I hope these ideas have been useful to you and your school as you seek to help middle school students navigate what can be a stressful period in their young lives.

Shepard manages his own education consulting firm, The Middle Matters and More, in Lexington, KY. With more than 30 years of experience with middle and high school students, he has presented at numerous state and national conferences, and also offers local training. He can be reached at or by calling toll-free (866) 500-7970.



Why We Do It

What follows is the text of a poster, entitled "This I Believe," created for educators who work in middle schools by the National Middle School Association. Copies of the poster can be ordered at .

This I Believe
I have chosen to be a middle level educator, for I recognize that the years of early adolescence are pivotal and abound with individual potential and opportunity. Therefore, I will care for these students personally, listen to their voices, respect their concerns, and engage them in meaningful educational experiences that will prepare them for a promising future.

I believe that every young adolescent...

. has the capacity to learn, grow and develop into a knowledgeable, reflective, caring, ethical and contributing citizen.

. must have access to the very best programs and practices a school can offer.

. must be engaged in learning that is relevant, challenging, integrative and exploratory.

. thrives academically, socially and emotionally in a democratic learning environment where trust and respect are paramount and where family and community are actively involved.

. faces significant life choices and needs support in making wise and healthy decisions.

. deserves educators who are prepared to work with this age group, and who are themselves lifelong learners and committed to their own ongoing professional development and growth.

Therefore, I proudly dedicate myself to becoming the best middle level educator I can be and an active advocate for all young adolescents.


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