Transitioning to Middle School and High School

School Age

New school, new schedule, new people, new anxiety. Going from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school is a major transition for your children. Suddenly, there’s a whole new set of challenges, from waking up at a different time to meeting new kids from other schools to new freedom and responsibility. Plus, they go from being the oldest at school to being the youngest.

Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do as a parent to prepare your child for the big move. We asked our experts to give you insights on what to do before and throughout their new school experiences.

Transitioning to middle school

The transition from elementary school to middle school can be tough. Suddenly your kids have multiple teachers in multiple subjects in multiple classrooms, and there may be kids from other feeder schools they’ve never seen before. They have to carry all those books. And, of course, there’s a lot of new hormones at play, too. It can be a lot to handle.

According to Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN, licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life, little things like finding a classroom or remembering the locker combination aren’t little at all. “They’re afraid they won’t be able to open their locker, or that all their things will fall out and everybody will know. To a rising middle schooler, it’s a really big deal.”

Jody Baumstein, LCSW, also a licensed therapist with Strong4Life, says you should do whatever you can to help prepare them:

  • Buy a lock and practice how to use it.
  • Go to the middle school and take a tour.
  • Check out the school’s website with your child.
  • Make a map of the school to attach it to the inside of a binder.
  • Practice waking up at the time they’ll need to get up for school.

Anything you can do to build familiarity and confidence before the first day will make a big difference.

Transitioning to high school

Just when your child has gotten used to the challenges and routines of middle school, it’s time to switch again. You’ll find a lot of the same, common challenges and fears as kids move into high school. Fear of getting lost. Fear of not having a good lunch group or having to deal with peer pressure. Your child may even need to wake up at a different time again.

High school also continues to create new academic pressures. Group projects and speaking in front of the whole class may be new experiences for your child. And, like in middle school, athletics ramp up again. According to Harlow-Parker, “It might be the first time they’re playing a competitive-level sport. So, there are tryouts associated with that. Will I make JV? Will I make the freshman team?”

Help your child set realistic expectations for his academic and athletic goals. Let him know he doesn’t have to be an A student or a star athlete to get into a good college or to have a happy, successful adult life.

Along with a tour of the school and a week or so practicing the new wake-up time, help your child get a general idea of his class schedule and encourage him to socialize with his “friend group” as much as possible. All of that will help build confidence through the transition.

Developing better habits throughout high school

With so much more homework and after-school activities, your kids will be crunched for time like never before. So it’s important to help them develop better habits to be ready for it all. And that starts with sleep. According to Kathleen Hill, LPC, licensed therapist with Strong4Life, there’s a shift in a teen’s circadian clock that makes it “naturally harder for them to fall asleep and wake up earlier.” This is why Hill recommends enforcing a nighttime routine:

  • Tell her to turn off her phone (and other screens) an hour before bed.
  • Have her take a shower. Read a book.
  • Get her to be in her room by a certain time to increase the chance she’ll fall sleep earlier.
  • Encourage her to go to bed at the same time on weekends and on school breaks.

If your child is still up until 2 a.m. texting her friends, take her phone away at night—even if she says her friends are still on social media. You’re the parent. Remind her that a phone is a privilege, not a right, and reassure her that she’ll have it back in the morning before she heads to school.

Creating downtime and unstructured time

Transitioning to middle school or high school typically means additional activities and more homework. Teens, like adults, need downtime (time without any structured activities or electronics) to let their minds rest and to help give them perspective. They also need regular family time. If this simply isn’t possible, they may be overcommitted. Sometimes kids are in school all day, have 2 or 3 activities after school, then come home to dinner and another 3 hours of homework. That doesn’t even leave enough time to sleep! So, it’s important to be aware of their schedules and to feel comfortable setting limits—even if that means only allowing a couple of activities per week. You can also try to build downtime into the family routine, like a family game or a walk before or after dinner.

This new journey can be scary for both you and your child, but remember that following healthy habits, establishing good routines and staying close with your teens will be foundational for their adjustment into their next stage in life.

If your child is having a more difficult time with the changes, or if you think she could benefit from seeing a mental health professional, don’t hesitate to get help. You don’t have to wait until something is going terribly wrong to get professional help.