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How to Navigate Your Child's School Transition

 Take steps to carefully navigate the transition from high school to college with your child.
Take steps to carefully navigate the transition from high school to college with your child.
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NEW YORK CITY — As the academic year comes to a close, parents and students are looking forward to transitioning from one grade to the next. For the fifth-, eighth- and 12th-graders, graduation signifies the end of one phase in their lives, while September marks the beginning of another.

I’ll take you through the different social, emotional and developmental transitions children and teens go through when they finish elementary school and enter middle (or junior high) school; when they transition from middle to high school; and finally high school to college.

Elementary School to Middle School

The middle school movement started in the late 1970s as an acknowledgement that sixth- to eighth-graders were not just older elementary schoolers, yet not quite mature enough for the high school format. Middle school takes into account the unique developmental area that pre-teen and early teenagers occupy.

These years are defined by puberty and the transition from a child to (physically speaking) a more mature adolescent. Therefore, as a parent it's important to keep in mind how the hormonal changes are affecting your child’s behavior, emotions, mood and brain development.

Your once-obedient fifth-grader, now in sixth grade, may begin to push back and behave more erratically. Old friendships, once strong and reliable may start to fade while new ones may be fraught with more “drama.” Your child will begin to care about social status in a way they had not before. This is all perfectly in line with your child’s development, even if it doesn’t feel as easy to manage and communicate with your child as it used to.

Academically, the sixth-grader is no longer in the same classroom for the entire school day. Some kids take this transition easier than others. In sixth grade they may have as many as seven different teachers to navigate during a given day, not including administrators and other school personnel. This presents as both problematic, and as an opportunity for your child to learn how to cope with different personalities, styles and rules.

This is an area where you, as the parent, should keep a watchful eye on the dynamics. When your child reports obvious unprofessionalism, there should be no hesitation in addressing this with the school. However, many times it’s the more subtle interactions that can be the most challenging for students and parents. Letting your child know that they can discuss any difficulty that they are having in school and that you will listen without judgment is the key to staying on top of the dynamic between your child and his or her teachers, in addition to their peers.

Middle to High School

Your child has made it through the emotional and behavioral rigors of middle school. Give yourself a big pat on the back. He or she is now heading to high school and with that transition, you get to take a step back ... sort of.

The approach you take in that first year of high school needs to be similar to how you managed their eighth-grade year. Rely on structure, oversight and patience.

Socially and emotionally, your high school student will see-saw between wanting to be as independent as possible, while still depending on you as their parent to take care of them. This is the hallmark of adolescent development, which noted neurologist and author Daniel Siegel calls “ESSENCE.”

ESSENCE stands for emotional spark (ES), social engagement (SE), novelty seeking (N) and creative exploration (CE).

ES, is simply the brain’s physiological tendency at this age to favor emotion over reason. SE is your teenager’s preference for peer groups over family while N is risk-taking. CE is pushing against the status quo, and seeing the world in idealistic ways.

All of these features can be expressed positively, by being excited about life, making strong, supportive bonds with others, pushing boundaries, and working to make the world a better place. Or, they can be expressed negatively by experiencing moodiness, falling prey to peer pressure in order to gain access to a social group, taking life-threatening risks such as experimenting with drugs, and seeing the world as unfair.

As parents, we can do two things: Create an atmosphere at home that acknowledges and supports the ESSENCE of adolescence, and explore each of the aforementioned features in ourselves.

High School to College

Your child has navigated the academic, social and emotional waters of high school to the point where they are ready for the first step of their adult lives: college.

For those children living away from home, whether it’s in a dorm or a house/apartment, the distance from family can be an opportunity to experience the responsibilities of adulthood, as parents are no longer setting the agenda in terms of studying, curfew, dating, meals, etc.

While this freedom can be liberating, for many kids, the pressures of managing their lives fully for the first time can be overwhelming.

Luckily, you have the summer to begin helping your child make this transition.  Take this time to have your child experiment with doing their own laundry, cooking a few meals, shopping for said meals and setting their own curfews (within reason). This will not only help your child build confidence in attending to these activities of daily living, it will also ease your mind knowing that when they leave for school they have the skills necessary to thrive on their own.

For those students living at home while attending college, it’s important to have a conversation with them around the new boundaries. Discuss curfews, expectations of chores around the home, space arrangements, etc. Again, the summer is the time to do this, as you want to be as clear as possible with your expectations of them, and them of you.

Expect some pushback. Remember, they are still adolescents, and it’s healthy to challenge authority in this way. Look at it as a negotiation, and listen to your child’s perspective about what they feel they can handle, and what they can’t.

Academic years, and phases of school help us as parents to mark the time, seasons and years. All of these transitional periods offer you and your child the experience to grow as human beings on their way to reaching their highest potential.