The phone call came in May, just days after my niece had completed the eighth grade. The spunky preteen who had begged to copilot a small plane at age 12 said, “I just don’t want to go to high school.” It took patience and counseling skills to get her to express her fears of demanding academic work, getting lost between classes, and getting teased by older students.
It’s tough to be at the top of the ladder one school year and the bottom the next.
The transition from middle to high school can be one of the most academically and emotionally challenging times in the lives of young adolescents. In addition to the roller coaster ride of emotions, students at this age undergo physical changes and question their self-esteem almost daily. Is it any wonder that the bold, eighth-grade soccer star trembles when thinking about the ninth grade? It’s tough to be at the top of the ladder one school year and at the bottom the next.
Perhaps the most critical social-emotional issues involve making friends and handling peer pressure. Friendships and social networks, carefully and sometimes painfully formed during the middle school years, are often disrupted as students transition to high school. New connections need to be established. In most cases, high schools are larger and more diverse, and students have more choices in course selections, activities, and friendships. Conflicts that surface during the ninth grade often are related to peer group issues, such as dating, drug or alcohol experimentation, missed curfews, and “he said, she said” miscommunication. Freshmen often compete for acquaintances with upperclassmen, which can cause hurt feelings among grade-level peers.
Parents can support their children during these times in several ways:
- Encourage self-confidence and patience as new relationshipsare built. Let your teen know that he or she shouldn’t expect to come home the first day of school with a solid new group of friends.
- Help your child find an extracurricular group either at school or in the community that promotes and provides healthy activities. Finding your son’s or daughter’s passion may take trial and error.
- Discuss group dynamics, or how groups form and change. Ninth-graders are concerned about being accepted or rejected by others. Will I look stupid? Will others like me? Will I embarrass myself? They feel more comfortable when they understand that groups evolve. In the beginning students are polite but formal; then they progress to testing and questioning, and finally to trusting and valuing one another. Girls especially seem to move from group to group until they find peers of similar values.
- Talk about values and make certain that your teen knows and can articulate his or her personal ethics and values. Encourage friendships with people who have similar
- Help your teen learn to deal with conflict by practicing assertiveness and learning when to just walk away.
All students, regardless of achievement level, encounter academic changes during high school (some notice them right away, others later on). Grades become more important. Homework and projects consume more time. Teachers expect good note-taking skills. Tests and exams count for a higher percentage of the final grade. The daily schedule is different. Organizational skills, time management, and communication skills become critical for academic success.
Effective middle school educators have already helped lay the groundwork for these skills. Parents can help by establishing a study area at home (complete with school supplies) and by helping teens maintain a daily routine that includes healthy meals, a good night’s sleep, and physical exercise. Ask the counselor for recommendations about effective study habits, note taking, or skill-building groups that may be provided as a part of the comprehensive school counseling program. Get to know the school staff and encourage your child to meet his or her counselor.
Parents play an important role during this transition and can help in numerous ways. The following time line, starting in the eighth grade, offers suggestions for a successful transition to high school.
Once you have determined which high school your child will attend, learn everything you can about the school.
Meet with the counselor who will be assigned to your child. Ask for a copy of the parent-student handbook and the school profile, which shows demographic, testing, and other data. Review both publications with your child to clarify what is expected of him or her at school.
Work with your child’s eighth-grade teachers to communicate with the instructors at the high school. These conversations across grade levels will help ensure that your child has the skills to take on ninth-grade work. Expand your conversations to include parents of current high school students, too.
Attend workshops or meetings to prepare yourself and your child for the transition. Many high schools and middle schools offer them to prepare families for the big move.
The school will hold a registration period, during which your child probably will complete a detailed four-year plan of coursework. Completing this plan with your child provides an opportunity to discuss the transition to high school, graduation requirements, and preliminary thoughts about plans after high school.
Take your child to an athletic contest, a visual or performing arts presentation, or some other event at the high school. This will help him or her become familiar with the facility, recognize the faces of older students, and perhaps meet staff.
Summer and the Beginning of High School
Sustained parental involvement is an important piece of student success in high school. Take advantage of opportunities to converse with your child. Listen carefully with your full attention and offer unconditional love and support.
Buy a calendar or planner for your child and encourage its use during the summer. Camps, social events, vacations, and other activities should be recorded. This will teach time management skills and will make the scheduling of academic dates and deadlines a less foreign concept in the fall.
Get involved, stay involved, and volunteer. Do whatever you can to connect to the high school. Register for parent e-mail groups facilitated by teachers, counselors, or extracurricular sponsors. Know what is happening in the school. Ask questions and share concerns. Join the PTA, Parent Teacher Student Association, or similar support groups. Read the student newspaper and parent newsletters. Many schools post daily announcements on their Web sitesÑread them.
Both parents and teens grow and change during the high school years. Embrace this change and enjoy the continued growth of your relationship with your adolescent as he or she becomes a young adult.
Frances Patterson, a counselor at Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina, made a smooth transition to counseling at the high school level after nearly 20 years of advising in middle schools.