The move from elementary to middle school can be an exciting, but also daunting, transition for students and parents. Developmentally, the middle school years (typically between ages 11 and 14) are when early adolescents explore who they are, how they work best and what they are capable of accomplishing. Students who have been at the same school since kindergarten will move from a comfortable known world into what may feel like vast unknown territory. Hopefully, they can see themselves as confident explorers who use their knowledge and tools, like the ability to be flexible and ask for help. Parents can assist children with adapting to the new demands of middle school and help their students learn to enjoy their new school “home.”

Many fifth graders’ first impression of their new middle school is that it is BIG (said with a note of trepidation). Talking with them about other firsts can be helpful. Remind them how they approached their kindergarten orientation or their first day of elementary school and how well they navigate the halls and talk with friends and teachers now. Share your own experiences of how a new school or office building felt like a maze of hallways with strange faces until, after a week or two, things started to fall into place. Reassure them that the bigness of middle school offers opportunities for students to try new things, meet more friends and experience different styles of teaching throughout each day.

Many parents and students worry about the academic demands of middle school, including more teachers, classes and homework assignments. Possibly the most important job for parents is to stay calm and be the voice of positivity. The truth is that middle school teachers have helped children make this transition over and over again and they do understand how to support them in becoming more comfortable and independent as they ease into their new setting. There is really no way to be fully prepared in advance, but rather assured that our children are capable of learning the necessary skills as they need them.

Home should continue to be first and foremost a safe space for family time, and secondly a base of operations for academics and activities. Parents can maintain routines, such as a family dinner when possible and a reasonable bedtime. We can also help protect homework time, encourage use of school resources and a good calendar, and set up a study space that works. A soft seat or high stool? Music or silence? Desk or kitchen table? Students will be figuring out organizational strategies that work best for them and how to prioritize their homework load. For many families, the toughest challenge is maintaining a healthy parent-child relationship and helping without hovering during these years. Supporting students in getting the help they need from their teachers, communicating with the school if things get tough and providing extra help as needed with a tutor or organizational coach can keep students on track rather than feeling overwhelmed.

Important social skills are developed in middle school and sometimes friendships shift and change. While many adults may remember middle school as an awkward time, many lessons are learned that can’t come from a textbook (or even a Chromebook). Lunch, clubs and free time provide chances to join different groups of friends rather than sticking with the same classmates all day long. The professionals who are there to teach and guide students understand that there is more going on for students than memorizing historical dates and grasping math concepts. In middle school, there is a shift from adults solving problems for students to supporting them in learning essential social and problem-solving skills. Teachers, counselors, school psychologists and administrators are ready to listen and help students take care of themselves and their friends. They are encouraged to use their voices and handle social pressures.

Middle school will be a new frontier for each intrepid rising sixth grader. Might they struggle until they adjust to the novelty and different demands? Yes, probably a bit, but the process is more important than the product in many ways. Their ability to face a challenge, try a new strategy, make mistakes, adjust and ultimately do better is the process that will bring results. And not just results such as good grades (parents tend to focus on these), but the greatest gain for our middle schoolers will be the confidence that they can navigate the twists, turns and even bumps down the road and still enjoy the ride.

Kristin Olsen, Ph.D., is a psychologist at The Treatment and Learning Centers in Rockville, MD.