How to Help Your Child Adjust to the Next Level of School

By Stephanie Watson @WatsonWriter
August 03, 2021
Student by school lockers --- Image by © Beau Lark/Corbis

Ease the transition by telling your child what to expect, and making the unfamiliar familiar.

The leap from fifth grade to middle school, or from eighth grade to high school, means transitioning to a new building, new teachers, and at least some new students. That much newness can be scary for kids. As a parent, you can ease the transition by telling your child what to expect, and making the unfamiliar familiar.

The move from elementary to middle school

The biggest change from fifth to sixth grade is logistical. Instead of spending the whole day in one class with one teacher, students have to transition from class to class and from teacher to teacher. “Along with different teachers come different expectations, procedures, and teaching styles for kids to navigate,” says Rebecca Branstetter, PhD, a child and adolescent psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area and author of the blog, "Notes from the School Psychologist."

Middle school also marks a transition to a self-directed schedule. Kids have to organize their lockers, know which books and binders to bring to each class, and keep track of multiple homework assignments.

The social environment also changes significantly in middle school. “In elementary school, the teachers often help students manage social situations, whereas in middle school, teachers tend to be more hands-off in facilitating friendships,” Branstetter says. On the plus side, middle school offers wider social circles, and more opportunities for kids to get together with peers who share their interests during after-school clubs and sports.

Transitioning from middle school to high school

In high school, kids face greater academic stresses. “The workload often increases exponentially,” Branstetter says. “There can also be added pressure that grades begin to really “count” for future goals like getting into college.” But while schoolwork ramps up and expectations increase, oversight diminishes as parents and teachers become more hands-off.

Along with school pressures, teens face increasing pressure from their peers. They may struggle to fit into a social hierarchy that includes multiple cliques, and to navigate the previously unknown world of dating and relationships, Branstetter says.

How parents can help

If your child seems anxious about starting at a new school, the best things you can do are “validate and prepare.” “If she is nervous, you can say that it is normal to feel nervous about an unknown situation. Just knowing that other children or teens go through similar anxiety can be comforting,” advises Branstetter.

To help your child prepare, visit the new school together. Take part in a summer orientation or tour to get the lay of the school and give your child a chance to meet his new teachers. Walk the campus to familiarize your child with important locations like his homeroom, locker, the bathrooms, cafeteria, and gym. Bring a copy of your child’s schedule, and map out the route from class to class, so it will already be familiar when the first morning bell rings.

Also prep your young scholar for the increased academic expectations coming her way. Establish some organizational and time management strategies. Meet with teachers and talk them through your child’s learning style. If she needs extra help, hire a summer tutor to get her up to speed.

The transition to a new school can be especially hard for kids with learning or attention difficulties, says Branstetter, whose book, “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder,” offers strategies to help these kids succeed in school. If your child has an Individualized Education Program, make sure it’s in place before school starts.

To ease social fears, enroll your child in summer sports and other programs where he can meet kids from the same school district. Talk about any new issues she might face — like cliques, bullying, or dating. Let her know that you have an “open-door” policy about these issues, Branstetter suggests. “Even if your teenager balks and says she does not want to talk about these issues with you, you will have opened up the door for later conversations if she does want to talk.”

Once school is in session, stay involved. “Some parents make the mistake of backing off too quickly because their teenager seems old enough to be responsible,” Branstetter says. “Frequently check in with your teen about her workload, stress level, and performance.” Then if she does get into trouble, you can quickly jump in and problem solve ways to fix the issue.

For more tips on how to prepare your child for the upcoming school year, visit:


August 03, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN