Transitioning from Elementary School to Middle School

Life is full of milestones, and one of the most overlooked and least understood is the transition from elementary school to middle school.  Elementary school, normally Kindergarten or first grade through fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, is for many young students a safe environment for learning both the basics of academics and social cues necessarily for success later in life.  Elementary school is often a nurturing environment built around the relationships between students and an individual teacher, who covers all of the core academic subjects each school year.  Middle school, on the other hand, is an environment in which students are expected to work much more independently, keep track of a schedule, and move from classroom to classroom, interacting which separate teachers for each different subject.  For many students, the transition from elementary school to middle school can be traumatic.

Luckily, education theorists, psychologists, and social workers around the country and the internet have contemplated the issues at the core of the transition from elementary school to middle school, and many of them have published tips for managing the transition.

  1. A New Building: Many students may have spent as many as six years living and learning in their elementary school building.Even with the current trend of starting middle school in sixth or even fifth grade now instead of seventh, that still means that students in a district like that will have spent five years in their elementary school building.  Many school districts offer summer tours of the middle school building to families of matriculating students.  Families should take advantage of this opportunity.  One of the prime causes of anxiety for students starting middle school is a fear of getting lost in the building and being late for class. Getting to know the building through tours and other visits is a good way to begin to alleviate that fear.
  2. Multiple Teachers: Most elementary school students have a single primary teacher each year, while many classrooms share a teacher’s aide, usually a special education teacher.  While elementary students often take “specials” with specialists in music, art, or STEM, they will spend most of their daily schedule with their primary teacher.  Middle school is where students begin to transfer from classroom to classroom, taking distinct courses with different teachers.  Going from managing one, or possibly two, teacher relationships to managing four to six teacher relationships can be stressful for students beginning middle school.  Parents should strive to attend parent-teacher conferences and other events in order to meet the middle school teachers.  Encourage your child(ren) to come with you to speak with the teachers outside of class.  This humanizes the teachers for students, and may jumpstart a strong student/teacher relationship.
  3. The Social Network: One social scientist called the friendships that kids make in elementary school “the accident of… living in the same neighborhood.” Young children tend to share a few common interests based on the popular cartoons and toys of the day.  The transition to middle school can often breakdown elementary school friendships. This is not a failure on the part of the kids.  Most middle schools combine the incoming classes from several elementary schools. Additionally, school administrators work to mix and match students from different elementary schools based on a variety of factors.  The goal is create balanced class sections so that all of the students have relatively similar experiences in middle school.  Some students feel lost when not surrounded by the exact same group of friends they had over the last few years.  This is, however, an opportunity to make new friends based more on mutual interest and less on the accident of geography.
  4. Culture and fashion: Middle school coincides with the beginnings of physical and emotional changes for most students.Children’s awareness of the world expands during this period.  Often, children begin to make decisions about the types of music, literature, and art they appreciate.  They begin to make choices about clothes and fashion in general.  They begin to pick out their interests.  This can drive a wedge between friends from elementary school as one, for example, discovers she is sporty while the other finds she prefers theater and art.  Luckily, most middle schools have clubs and other after school activities.  This is where students can forge new friendships based on mutual interest.
  5. The Workload: It is usually in middle school that the burden of homework becomes more intense.  Not only do students receive more work to accomplish at home, much of that work has reached a level that mom and dad are no longer able to help during homework time. Adults tend to prioritize their expertise as they go through college, possibly graduate school, and into the workforce.  This focus is essential for professional success, but creates a situation in which mom and dad, as adults, can no longer help with the general knowledge required for homework support.  Not only does the workload increase in complexity, but students must now spend upwards of an averages of 3.2 hours per evening on homework according to a Harris Poll of middle school teachers as reported by EdWeek Magazine.


These factors are among those that make the transition from elementary school to middle school frustrating and difficult for both students and parents.  Understanding these challenges is the first step to building communication between students and parents.  And as always, there is help available, both from the school administration and the community at large.