Reducing Anxiety during the Transition to Middle School

Lisa Konick, PhD
Lisa Konick, PhD
July 8, 2021
Reducing Anxiety during the Transition to Middle School

So your student just completed the endearing elementary school years and is ready to embark upon the journey to middle school. You think they’re excited about this, right? Think again. For many students, the anticipation of middle school brings upon anxiety and dread. The prospect of increased responsibility and more homework demands, coupled with the onset of puberty and fears of social rejection, can be overwhelming. In my work with pre-adolescents (“tweens’), there is a list of common stressors associated with the transition to middle school that can be readily addressed with advance planning and support.

The dreaded locker!

Many students are worried about forgetting their locker combination, having trouble finding their locker, and being unable to access the necessary materials for class. They experience catastrophic thinking about getting into trouble with the teacher or being embarrassed entering the classroom late or unprepared. These fears can be addressed with pre-planning and practice. Parents can purchase a combination lock several weeks in advance and allow the student practice the combination prior to the start of school. Note that some schools assign locks and these may be picked up in advance for the same purpose. Reassurance that students have a “grace period” of 1-2 weeks at the start of the school year to acclimate to their schedule, with no consequences (e.g., late slips) can be somewhat relieving. Remind your student that teachers will be available in the hallways to assist with any difficulties. For students who struggle with fine motor skills, parents may request alternative locks that are easier to open. Requesting a locker located in a less crowded area or on the end unit may help to reduce sensory overstimulation for kids with sensory sensitivities or social anxiety. Inform your student of what to do if their locker is jammed – it happens (e.g., go to the office for assistance).

Changing classrooms

Students are often stressed about the expectation that they must change classrooms each period. They are concerned that they will lose their schedule, get lost in the building, and arrive late for class. This is another source of embarassment. To address this issue, many schools will allow incoming students to enter the building to “walk their schedule” prior to the first day of school. It also may be beneficial for your student to have extra copies of their schedule posted in their locker, on their phone, or in a notebook they carry with them between classes until they are familiar with their daily routine. Among the students that I’ve surveyed, many are familiar with their schedules within two to three days! I share this openly as a strategy for reassurance. Make a bet with your kid on how long it will take for them to memorize their daily route as a way to reduce their stress by making it fun to learn a new routine.

Too much homework

Students tend to be anxious with the notion that they will be overloaded with work in middle school, which will limit their free time. Parents can help to alleviate this fear by discussing a good after-school routine for homework completion. Teach organizational skills early, and practice during the summer by assigning chores and small tasks for your child to increase confidence and a sense of responsibility. Encouraging students to advocate by communicating their needs to the teacher is also a beneficial strategy. Remind your student that they will review known concepts at the beginning of the school year and new learning will occur over the course of time. By then, they will be familiar with their middle school routine. Assure them that teachers are available to offer support.

Big Kids and Mean Teachers

If you’ve ever taken a moment to scan the student composition of a typical middle school, you will note that some students present as very youthful and naive, whereas others are proudly displaying facial hair and standing taller than some of the teachers. It is not surprising that the average fifth grader finds the older kids intimidating. Middle school marks the onset of identity development, and kids want to fit in with their peers. It also marks the onset of puberty, which is a clumsy, uncomfortable period, and many youth are highly sensitive about body image and how they appear to others. They are worried that older peers will tease or bully them, they won’t be cool, or they won’t know anyone in their classes. These concerns extend to passing periods, the lunchroom, and the bus. Students are also concerned that the increased academic demands are associated with strict, unforgiving teachers with high expectations.

Addressing the social aspects of middle school will vary depending on your student. If your student is athletic, they may already know a number of incoming sixth graders through community sports activities. Summer camps and summer activities with other children in the neighborhood are also beneficial ways for students to become familar with other transitioning students. Obtaining class schedules and bus routes in advance will allow your student to identify preferred peers with overlapping schedules. If your student struggles with social anxiety, it may be helpful to notify the school social worker in advance to explore options for facilitating social connections early in the school year. Highlight teachers as sources of support and encouragement, and use positive examples shared by current middle school students you know, if available. Students may be able to meet some of their teachers during the week prior to the start of school. Otherwise, you can review their biographies posted on the school website with your student.

When is anxiety a cause for concern?

Anticipatory anxiety in the weeks preceding the start of middle school is typical. It is often offset by back-to-school shopping and social activities with peers. However, if your child is experiencing physical symptoms, such as stomachaches or nausea, excessive worry and obsessive rumination, or sleep difficulties, they may need additional support. A therapist who specializes in anxiety management can assist you and your child to develop strategies to cope with the stress associated with these life changes. The clinicians at Konick and Associates specialize in stress management and can help. Contact our office to set up an appointment today.

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