George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Development

Easing the Shift From Elementary to Middle School

A few ways teachers can help new middle schoolers—and their families—cope with this big change.
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The biggest shift in K–12 education is the transition from elementary school to middle school. So much is different: campus size, the numbers of students in each class, the accessibility of teachers, how lessons are implemented, student expectations, and the interaction with families.

As a teacher, you want parents invested, but some families need guidance in stepping back a bit. Nevertheless, you know that some students falter or fail when the scaffold of parent or elementary teacher falls away.

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Another significant change? Students go from a single teacher to learning the expectations of multiple teachers for the first time. They’re hustling across campus between classes. They’re changing for PE and wearing deodorant, and stressing about their first school dance, all while trying to figure out how to do well in your class. It’s a tough chapter.

Yet in many times, we as middle school teachers lose sight of how difficult it can be, and if we aren’t sensitive to this jarring shift, some kids are lost by the wayside. For instance, sometimes middle school teachers, in the name of increasing rigor, focus all our attention on content and academics. Yet while it’s vital to raise expectations, we must still employ engaging strategies that lure learners to the content.

Why the Shift?

From kindergarten to elementary school, elementary to middle school, and then to high school: One might ask why the K–12 system needs these shifts at all. I would argue that each stage is developmentally appropriate for that age group’s brain.

In the elementary years, for instance, the brain is occupied making connections between memories and what is being learned now. Students memorize routine knowledge, both academically and socially, but nothing is yet routine enough to free up space for more rigorous concepts. According to the American Psychological Association: “As skills become more automatic, the child does not have to think as hard about what he or she is learning or doing, and brain resources are freed up to be used for complex tasks that require more and more attention and processing.” The elementary years, therefore, are about training for fundamental academic behaviors—and teachers work with students daily, sometimes hourly, to help them prepare.

As a student enters middle school, however, their connections begin to increase and “inferential thinking becomes more emphasized.” Students’ brains spend energy deciding what knowledge will be stored in short- or long-term memory, and decision-making abilities begin to develop. The expectation is that students have the rote stuff down, though as students struggle with the developmental challenges of becoming tweens, that rote stuff can’t be assumed, and teachers must be savvy about both teaching deeper content and communicating that content engagingly.

For many, the transition to becoming a successful middle school student—neurologically and socially—is a gradual one, and being more independent doesn’t happen automatically on the first day (or in the first month) of middle school.

Advice Teachers Can Give Students and Their Families

Training students and families to be more independent doesn’t mean abandoning the scaffolds. Quite the opposite: It means being transparent about what’s to come and offering strategies to help. So here’s some basic advice teachers can give to both students and their families.

For middle school students:

  • Use your agenda. Track assignments from all of your teachers each day. You’ll probably drop the ball otherwise.
  • Be your own advocate. Email teachers yourself with questions about assignments.
  • Redefine yourself. Take this time to try out everything from different styles of clothing to different styles of writing. Start to figure out who you want to be.
  • Get to know your school counselor. Put yourself on adults’ radars in a positive way. They are there to support you.

For families:

  • Stop bringing items to school for the student. Help us teach students responsibility. Don’t bring lunches or forgotten work.
  • Check their agenda daily. Be the other bookend of the accountability equation.
  • Keep technology in a public area at home. Bring devices out of the bedroom. Have students work, and charge devices, in a shared space. And while you’re at it, make sure you know your child’s usernames and passwords.
  • Loosen the reins when they prove they can do it. Step away once your child has proven they can be more independent.

The Role of the School and the Teacher

Both teachers and schools have a role to play here to help students as well:

  • Actively teach study skills. Don’t assume students come to you knowing how to manage their time.
  • Be transparent with assignments and deadlines. Make it easier on families struggling to support students as they learn independence. Don’t keep assignments hidden from families on password-protected agendas. That doesn’t build independent learners—it sets some students up for failure.
  • Provide education for all stakeholders. Provide classes and workshops on topics from cybersafety (for students and parents) to strategies on dealing with a tween’s eye-rolling and other acts of resistance (for parents).
  • Start a support program. The WEB Program (Where Everyone Belongs) is a peer-mentoring program that helps kids transition into middle school.

Middle school students aren’t just smaller high schoolers. Continue to utilize student engagement strategies even while pushing your expectations higher. Remember, middle school is a harsh jolt for some students. While some may appear already prepared to leap into high school, others may be looking back longingly at recess.