The first couple months of a new school year can be exciting, draining, full of hope, and full of fear. This is particularly true when students are leaving behind the familiarity of a K-6 classroom and heading to middle school.
Parents and students alike may feel anxiety about the change, from getting to know multiple teachers, to juggling after-school activities, to confronting complex social situations.
For suggestions, we consulted two teachers, a guidance counselor and a pediatrician—all well-versed in early teen wellbeing. These experts offer ideas to help alleviate concerns, clarify expectations, and ensure a healthy transition back to school.
“The first day of school is always stressful,” says Matina Sterio, who teaches seventh-grade Spanish at Gillette Road Middle School in Cicero. But as they get off the buses and rush to find their rooms, students will see school staff standing at each doorway, greeting them with smiles, she says. “First contact is very important.”
Most teachers will provide handouts on the first day, detailing classroom guidelines so both the students and their parents know what to expect throughout the year. Sterio advises parents to be involved, both academically and socially. Meet the teachers at the open house, and get to know their kids’ friends as well as the friends’ parents.
“Check in with their work regularly, but also give them the responsibility to get organized and become independent. Middle school is the time to start good habits with routines and managing time,” she says. “With the addition of extracurricular activities and sports, it can get tricky to fit it all in a day.”
“Physical education is a building block and foundation for students to start focusing on a healthy lifestyle,” says Jeff Ross, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade physical education at Chestnut Hill Middle School in Liverpool. At the start of each school year, Ross wants his students not only to feel comfortable in his class, but also to learn their potential for success through positive thinking and team spirit.
“My goal for my students is to be great to everyone, and in return, you will feel good about yourself. Treat everyone with respect and never, ever make fun of anyone. Help people that need help,” he says. “When you have goals like this, the students take ownership in behaving the way people want to be treated. I truly believe we do not stress this enough in school or in life.”
Ross lists his top three reasons why participating in team sports at this level is important. First, it teaches the kids to be unselfish: It’s about the team, not the individual. Second, it teaches them about balancing school, sports, and social life, which involves discipline and sacrifice. Third, it teaches responsibility and develops a good work ethic.
“It’s hard to be a student-athlete,” he says. “If you can balance these elements, it gets you prepared for life.”
When pediatrician Steven Nicolais’ oldest son came home from his first day of middle school, their conversation went something like this:
“What was your favorite thing about middle school?’
“Oh, that’s great! So what was the worst thing that happened today?”
“I couldn’t open my locker!”
“I think that says it all in that age group,” says Nicolais, who is in practice with Pediatric Associates LLP and who shares this story with many of his patients today. “That is a big fear for a lot of kids: ‘Oh my gosh, I gotta deal with a locker.’ And as an adult, you look at that and say that’s such a small little thing, but it’s a big thing to them.”
Kids are roiled by so many changes during the middle school years, not the least of them physiological. “They’re dealing with their bodies changing and their relationships changing, and they’re going from little kids to young adults. It produces so much uncertainty in their lives,” says Nicolais. “Everybody is questioning themselves.” Parents should “let them know that we had those same worries, and their friends have those same worries. They’re no different than anybody else.”
Adults can help their kids cope by encouraging them in developing healthy habits such as getting enough rest and eating well. Nicolais says he believes many of students’ ailments, such as headaches and stomachaches, stem from a lack of sleep. Parents can help their kids adjust to the new school routine again by setting earlier bedtimes. For example, if their child goes to bed at 10 p.m. during the summer, set it 30 minutes earlier for the first week, then gradually adjust the schedule until you reach the desired time for bed. Ideally, this should begin some time before school starts, but it can be implemented at any time.
When getting up and out early, many kids aren’t hungry for breakfast and will skip the meal altogether. Nicolais suggests throwing a snack in their backpack such as a granola bar so they can eat it between classes and before lunch. This works for after-school activities, too, so they don’t reach for the candy bars and chips.
Families should also aim to protect their time together. “Dinnertime is really important,” he says. It gives the parents and kids an opportunity to catch up on the day’s events and what’s going on in their kids’ lives. “Sometimes middle school can put a strain on that with athletics and band activities, that take you away from home during the dinner hour, but try.”
Stress and anxiety
As a school counselor at Chestnut Hill Middle School, David Marvar works with students on a variety of issues, whether academics, unproductive behavior, friendships or family matters.
Marvar observes signs of stress in many forms, but typically they involve students avoiding work associated with the class that’s causing the anxiety.
“I don’t believe kids do this purposely, but rather I think they become overwhelmed and they don’t always know how to dig themselves out,” Marvar says.
Another sign of anxiety is wanting to avoid school altogether, by expressing to their parents or school staff they feel sick. Marvar encourages parents to be aware of this behavior pattern, rule out any physical illness, then talk to their child ASAP to identify any possible underlying issues.
Marvar also advises calling the school for support. “We can often give very good insight into what we are seeing here, and then we can work together with the parent to help resolve the situation,” he says.
For relieving stress and finding ways to relax outside of school, Marvar suggests families take time to do activities together, and foster healthy interests that enrich their lives like exercise, music and art.
“Have a schedule for homework, but also time for fun and to de-stress,” he says. “Most importantly, let them be kids.”
Tami Scott is an award-winning writer who lives in Liverpool.