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Caught in the Middle: Help Your Kids Transition from Elementary to High School

Slumping grades, poor focus, bad attitude. It's not always your tween's fault. Switching from elementary to junior high school -- just as they're hitting puberty -- is tough on most kids. Learn how to help yours get back on track.

By Gayle Forman

Caught in the Middle

For JoAnna Fernandez, middle school was a total shock to the system. She'd been a smart, sunny kid -- until she started sixth grade in Stafford, Virginia, in 2004. "Going from one class to eight, I was always rushed and anxious I'd be late," she says. "I was only 11, and the eighth-graders seemed so old. I felt intimidated." The next year, when JoAnna; her mom, Kimberley, 47, an administrative assistant; and dad, Carlos, 52, a contracting company vice president, moved to Madison, Alabama, things got worse. Enrolling at Liberty Middle School, JoAnna went into panic mode. A solid B student and math whiz, JoAnna began struggling academically, even in pre-algebra. "My teacher explained things really fast, and I couldn't keep up," she recalls. "Half of what he said went over my head, but I didn't want to ask for help because I thought I'd look like a nerd or a suck-up." Though she managed to ace her exam study guides, when it came to the real thing, "I'd look at the test and my mind would go blank," she says. By the beginning of eighth grade JoAnna was getting D's and failing math. The school notified her parents that unless her performance improved, she was in danger of being held back.

JoAnna had a serious case of what experts call the middle-school slump. The malaise typically strikes sixth-graders and is marked by a dramatic drop in achievement. Self-esteem takes a beating, kids lose focus, and they disengage from learning. The result, according to a study published by the Rand Corporation, is that by the time they graduate, only one-third of eighth-grade students have attained age-appropriate proficiency in arithmetic, science, or reading.

What's Behind the Drop?

Your kids actually may not be to blame. Middle school coincides with the onset of puberty. So just as adolescents are dealing with changing bodies, mood swings, and hormones, they're moving into another strange new world. Classes are larger, more anonymous; kids go from having one teacher to several; peer pressure ratchets up. It's a no-brainer, really: Middle schoolers, especially vulnerable 11- and 12-year-olds, are so stressed, overloaded, and overwhelmed, they just shut down.

"All these changes would be hard for an adult, let alone a kid," says Alyce Barr, principal of the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in New York City. "Basically, we're throwing them in the deep end and yelling, 'Swim!'"

Educators are trying all sorts of strategies to nurture development instead of forcing it on our kids. At the progressive Brooklyn School, the day starts relatively late-8:45 a.m. -- since Barr believes tweens and teens aren't by nature morning people. In Columbia, South Carolina, several middle schools now offer girls- and boys-only classrooms in order to reduce distractions and boost self-esteem. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, are shutting down middle schools altogether and folding their students into friendlier, warmer K-8 schools.

There's also plenty that parents can do. To start with, chill -- for your kids' sake and yours. "Avoid the temptation to throw your hands up in the air when you see those first C's or D's," says Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of the 2004 Rand study. "Let them slide once or twice, and remind your children -- and yourself -- that a couple of bad grades will not doom them." Stay connected, and tell them that learning takes time and effort. But if they're really foundering, get them help.

That's just what Kimberley did. She signed up JoAnna in October 2006 for four hours a week of math tutoring at a private center. "She felt overwhelmed at school because the classes were so large, but at the center she could ask questions without worrying about what people would think," says Kimberley. By spring JoAnna's grades had bounced back to B's. "I'm happy again," says JoAnna, now finishing up her last year at Liberty. "I'm even looking forward to high school."

Lost in Transition

The tween entering middle school is morphing on every level -- physically, emotionally, cognitively. "Most girls reach puberty by age 12, and the first signs -- weight gain and pimples -- are often unwelcome," says Juvonen. "Whereas for boys, the changes -- deeper voices, muscles, facial hair -- are more desired attributes." Both, however, have a tough time navigating the social pitfalls of adolescence. Boys feel pressured to establish themselves as powerful and popular, yet many also end up feeling isolated. Girls get competitive in a different way. "When one develops breasts sooner than her friend, fissures emerge," says Rosalind Wiseman, teen expert and Family Circle contributing editor. "Will she flaunt her new body or become boy crazy? Will the other one mimic her friend or feel alienated? These differences can upend long-standing relationships."

Cognitively, adolescents are making great leaps forward. "They're stretching their reasoning skills and are capable of more nuanced thought and self-reflection," says Juvonen. Ironically, this also explains why they're so emotionally volatile about their peers. Everyday worries get blown up into anxiety-provoking incidents, and it becomes even more difficult to concentrate on learning.

When Tess Henry, 13, started seventh grade in New York City, she was separated from two longtime friends, and they drifted apart. She began hanging out with a new classmate. "She'd be nice one day, a real mean girl the next," says Tess. "No one ever treated me like that before." Her grades suffered, she stopped doing homework and some days refused to attend class. Her parents asked a school counselor for help, and Tess soon parted ways with her so-called pal. Now in eighth grade, she's rebounded and is back together with her old buddies. "They're good friends, plus they're really smart, so I want to keep up with them," she says.

Help Your Kids Stay Focused

You can help your kids stay focused on school by doing the following:

Course Correction

For almost three decades the trend across the United States has been to move sixth-graders from elementary to middle schools, which would be a better fit for them academically and socially. Or so the experts thought. Results from the national No Child Left Behind tests indicate that while elementary school students typically progress in math and reading, those gains disappear in middle school. And a study by Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that sixth-graders in elementary school performed better on end-of-year exams than their middle-school counterparts.

Findings like these have prompted a growing chorus of critics to blame the slump on the sixth-to-eighth-grade schools themselves. Middle school is sometimes referred to as an educational Bermuda Triangle, in part because only about one-quarter of teachers there are certified to teach middle grades. Many instructors are trained as elementary-school generalists or high-school subject specialists, and according to Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., an alarmingly high number hadn't even minored in their subjects. The result, critics say, is too much emphasis on rote memorization rather than on critical, creative thinking.

But even with the best teachers, many adolescents can't handle the juggling act of so many classes, assignments, and projects. That's why, in addition to math tutoring, JoAnna Fernandez took a learning skills course, where she picked up practical tips like making up songs to help remember facts and reading textbook chapters in advance so she'd be familiar with the material when the teacher lectured on it. "It helped me get my confidence back," she says. Principal Alyce Barr tells mothers and fathers to assume their middle schoolers "aren't strong on organization and will need structure and support from their parents."

How to Avoid Problems Early On

It's a Jungle Out There

Ines Rivera's 11-year-old daughter, Bryanna, was only a few weeks into sixth grade in Astoria, New York, in 2006, but already was being teased mercilessly about her retro-Goth clothes. "She was miserable, but all I could do was listen and be sympathetic," recalls Ines. When one of the girls threatened Bryanna, saying she would "smack the taste off her mouth," Ines intervened. She told the principal, who called the bully's mother. Much to her and Bryanna's relief, the taunting soon stopped.

The toughest part of middle school isn't in the classroom but the cafeteria, ball fields, and parking lots, where brutal social dynamics play out. It's not the age that breeds social cruelty, but the chaotic, pressure-cooker world of middle school itself, says Juvonen. "Students can't master the larger environment," she says, "so they focus their energies on ordering their social networks -- and bullies usually come out on top." Research from Duke University has shown that sixth-graders are especially susceptible to deviant peer influences from older students, which explains why kids typically begin experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sex around age 12. "Up to third or fourth grade, children are looking for adult approval," says Barr. "After that, it's all about impressing their peers." All the more reason for parents to keep close tabs on their kids and try to protect them from harm.

Help Them Navigate the Social Scene

Copyright © 2008 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the April 1st, 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.