Ten tips When my oldest son started fifth grade, I didn’t give much thought to the changes he would experience when he graduated from elementary to middle school. The last few days of fifth grade, it hit me: the lockers, changing classrooms, more responsibility. Was my son ready? To my relief, he was.
That’s because his fifth-grade teacher prepared him. Before teaching at Meadow View Elementary School in Plainfield, Ellen Bailey taught eighth grade in Cicero and used the experience to the benefit of her students.
But what if your child doesn’t have a Mrs. Bailey for fifth grade? Or even if he does, are there other ways parents can help ease the transition? Debra Schrock, executive director for the Association of Illinois Middle-Level Schools (www.aims.uiuc.edu), thinks so. And you should start at the beginning of fifth grade, Schrock and other experts say, because anxiety and lack of preparation can lead to slipping grades, discipline problems, lower self-esteem and depression.
“There are so many changes that occur during the middle [school] years, and these changes can cause your child to have anxious feelings even if they are not outwardly displaying them,” Schrock says. “Any time you do not prepare your kids for a transition, it will take them longer to get acclimated to the situation.” Here are 10 ways to help your fifth-grader prepare:
1 Communicate. Schrock says parents should talk to their kids about their fears and work together to address them. Fears about using a locker or changing classrooms, she says, can be handled by giving your child a lock to practice with or by walking him through the school. But how do you build communication skills at a time when kids seem to be pulling away? Mawi Asgedom (www.mawispeaks.com), a Chicago-based author and speaker on adolescent and transition issues, says the first step is to build trust. Don’t start with lectures—let the talk come naturally. Asgedom suggests finding activities without much forced talking, such as a movie, game or walk. He urges parents to listen and resist judgment. “If parents are open to their kid’s views and ways of self-expression, their child will not feel judged and will feel that the parent is on their side,” he says.
2 Be involved. Parents’ involvement in school tends to drop at this stage, says Schrock. She says communication between home and school is important. Open houses, parent/teacher conferences and volunteering at school help. “Kids at this age are struggling with independence,” she says. “They think they don’t want you around but deep down they still need you to be there.”
3 Help your child get organized. Bailey says the best way is to teach by example (yes, you have to get organized, too) and then through expectation, practice and incentives. “Some parents are doing too much for their kids at this age. It is very important for a student to learn how to be organized,” she says. Bailey says to start with a child’s personal space, such as his school desk, bedroom, backpack and folders. “Try and keep it fun,” she says. “At school we have a desk fairy that visits my students’ desks a few times a year. If the desk is clean, she leaves a treat and a note. Parents may want to try that.” Having children clean out their backpacks regularly is also key to staying organized, says Aurora mom and teacher Sheila MacIntire. “I teach my boys that everything has a place and everything should be in its place,” she says. “This way, they know where to find it when they need it.”
4 Teach time management. When my son started sixth grade, his idea of time management was: “Mom, I need you to wash this gym uniform. I’m leaving in a half-hour. ... Do you think it will be dry?” Kids today take part in a variety of activities. Give your child a calendar to keep track of meetings, practices, assignment deadlines and other activities. Make sure he writes everything down immediately and refers to the calendar often, MacIntire adds. If your child needs uniforms or supplies, encourage him to make time to gather them. Make it his job to be prepared—not yours.
5 Teach accountability. Bailey says parents must resist the temptation to rescue their child whenever trouble looms. I had a friend whose child continually forgot his homework—and she continually brought it to school. Only after she stopped rescuing him did he stop forgetting. Bailey says lack of responsibility does not mean lack of ability. Many parents coddle their fifth-graders, and that holds them back. “Parents need to allow their children to be accountable for themselves,” she says.
6 Help your child learn from failing. Failing a test doesn’t make your child a failure. Asgedom suggests looking at tests less as a measure of what the student knows than as an indication of what he needs to work on and what strengths he can build on. If parents help kids set goals based on that (see tip No. 7), the young people will learn resilience and realize that no challenge will last forever.
7 Teach goal-setting. Help your child set goals at the start of each quarter. Asgedom says to write them down and review them at the end of the quarter. And make sure they’re realistic. “Don’t expect the student to go from a D to an A” overnight, he says. “Teach them to get there in steps—from a D to a C the first quarter, from a C to a B the next quarter, and finally to an A.” And not all goals should be academic. “A goal could be to learn something new or to try a new activity,” Asgedom says. Asgedom says accomplishing self-set goals empowers kids and develops their self-esteem.
8 Encourage new friendships. Asgedom says putting kids in situations that force them to make new friends on their own—such as scouts, sports, summer camps or park district classes—teaches them social skills and self-esteem. “They will learn how to make friends in a situation where they know no one,” he says—and that’s a helpful skill in a new middle school. Extracurricular activities also teach kids about diversity when they are still accepting and impressionable, says Schrock. “They will be put with kids having different backgrounds and learn that while they are not all the same, they can be friends,” she says.
9 Let your child know he isn’t alone. Al Summers, director of professional development for the National Middle School Association (www.nmsa.org), suggests talking to your child about your own middle school experience or introducing him to a sixth-grader in your neighborhood. Encourage a friendship between the two. Not only will talking to a middle school veteran help ease your child’s fears, but he will also have someone older looking out for him.
10 Get help from the school. Start with your child’s teachers and find out how you can reinforce their efforts. Bailey says she occasionally gets calls from angry parents who think she is picking on their child. “But when we talk and I explain what I am trying to do and they hear the whole story, they become very supportive,” she says. Bailey also suggests watching for open houses and other days when your child can walk through their next school. Bailey says for many students, fifth grade can be a real turning point. “If parents expect responsibility and accountability, their children will live up to the challenge.”
Jean S. Dunning is a writer living in Plainfield and the mother of four children.