Education: Tackling School Transitions

Brooke Preston

Each new academic year brings questions and nerves from students and parents alike. While every grade-level transition has its own challenges, the milestone leaps to kindergarten, middle school/junior high and high school are certainly bigger and more complex.

As Central Ohio students head back to class, we asked public school administrators, experts and parents to share their best advice and strategies for navigating these transitions and helping students get acclimated.

Starting Kindergarten

Many parents are understandably focused on kindergarten readiness skills. However, the social-emotional component can be equally vital to a student's success. While children with preschool or day care experience may already understand school-day basics, starting kindergarten can create feelings of nervousness in even the most outgoing youngster.

Dr. Daniel Coury, chief of the section of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, cautions parents to avoid the well-meaning pitfall of simply dismissing a child's fears or concerns. “Don't say, ‘Oh you'll be fine,' which can be misinterpreted as, ‘They don't care about my problem.' They first need some evidence that it'll be fine.”

Coury recommends parents discuss and build on a child's past successes. “Remind your child how they may have been worried or concerned when they started preschool [or similar], and it turned out great, so this is going to be great also.” Maintaining the usual family routines also reassures the child that some thingsaren'tchanging.

Sharon Caccimelio, executive director of teaching and learning for Pickerington Local School District, also has worked as a counselor and administrator and raised her own children in the district. She suggests that fostering a solid student-teacher partnership early on is key, since it provides an avenue to share worries, changes or questions as the school year progresses.

Moving to Middle School

Though Sarah Geiger provides advice and support to her children, 11-year-old Lucas and 7-year-old Alaina, the siblings also advise and encourage each another. “Hearing my oldest talk to my youngest about what to expect, my 7-year-old talks to her cousins about the same thing … reminding them that they've done this before—that's been the most heartwarming,” said Geiger, a counselor at Lakeview Junior High School in Pickerington.

Kelly Logan, a counselor at Devonshire Elementary School (part of Columbus City Schools) said that keeping tabs on fundamental health principles can help promote academic success. “For middle and junior high age, parents should be aware of their student's sleeping, eating, screen time and hygiene. Those are all going to majorly impact how they do in school. For instance, if they're not getting enough sleep, they're going to be tired and more anxious.”

Caccimelio advises that as kids grow into older, more responsible middle-schoolers, parents should encourage them to become self-advocates by asking questions or letting adults and peers know what they need. “Being able to say, ‘I don't understand this, can you help me with this?' Sometimes we think [as parents] we're doing all the right things by solving all their problems for them, and we're not. It's OK if you make a mistake, that's how you learn. We don't want kids to struggle so much they're filled with anxiety, but some ‘productive struggle' is good—it's a process.”

Settling In

As Logan's 12-year-old daughter, Sidney, prepared to enter seventh grade at Lakeview this year, Logan was reminded that concerns or details that may seem frivolous to a parent can feel critical to children. For instance, “We've been working on combination locks—that's one of her biggest fears. We practice that so she's ready. I'm much more aware of that as a counselor, after watching kids do that part of the transition. It is very stressful. The locks and the schedules [create] anxiety.”

Once students get into the swing of things, Caccimelio recommends junior high and high school students get involved in clubs and activities, to gain a sense of belonging or niche—even in a large school.

Logan and Sidney have similarly tried to focus on the benefits of the upper grades. “She is very excited about making the transition, because you're becoming closer to being an adult and being treated with respect. She's excited to be with her friends and go to football games, to be involved,” Logan said.

Schools themselves often provide programs to help students, Geiger said. For instance, her school's “Where Everyone Belongs” initiative trains 80 to 100 eighth-graders to be a support system for incoming seventh-graders. “They invite them to team nights and check in with how classes are going, give study tips and really take the seventh-graders under their wings,” she said.

Ultimately, parents should give children some independence and take pride in watching them spread their wings. “It is hard to watch them go off to a new year or new stage, but you know you've given them the skills they need and they are prepared,” Geiger said.