Violins, oboes, and flutes hum the airy tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” while a procession of students file in front of proud parents, relatives, and school staff. The audience sits for a song, keynote speakers, student speeches, acknowledgements, and then the long-awaited awarding of diplomas begins. It is a ceremony of moving up and continuing on, a program of commemoration and celebration. While graduation marks the end of one level of schooling, it is also the beginning of the next.
Whether rising to elementary, middle, high school, or college, normative transition marks a new stage in a student’s life. Each move comes with its own anxieties and challenges but is also an opportunity to learn how to adapt to new surroundings and a new level of independence.
Karen Urbanowski, Boulder mother, family business co-owner, and active school and community volunteer, has ushered her three children through transitions to elementary, middle, and high school. Through all of it, she’s managed to maintain close relationships with her kids, and has learned a lot along the way.
“It doesn’t have to be a struggle,” she says. This year, Urbanowski has rising sixth, eighth, and 10th graders. “It’s different with each kid,” she says. “The parents’ fears are different, as are those of the kids.”
Some students are nervous about making new friends. Some are worried about their schedules. Some are concerned about homework. Some are just trying to fit in. But, according to Urbanowski, there are a few things that can help all kids and parents transition at every stage.
One of the most challenging parts of transitioning to a new level of school is navigating the next level of independence.
Melissa Overboe, assistant principal at Southern Hills Middle School in Boulder, explains that learning independence can be both exciting and demanding.
“Up to this point, students have heavily relied on the guidance and direction from their parents and (typically) one teacher,” she says. “They are moving into a world of organizing a small locker space instead of a desk, learning seven teacher personalities and teaching styles instead of one, returning to the ‘bottom of the food chain,’ navigating the incredible amount of choices they have throughout the day (activities/sports, projects, partners for assignments/projects), and choosing to branch out and meet new friends or stay safe with the ones they are bringing with them.”
Students are given a new set of responsibilities and new freedoms. Both require some guidance.
Urbanowski likens the change to Christmas morning. “They are excited. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m a big kid.’ And then they become the next age,” she laughs.
She says the challenge for children at all ages is “leaving what [they] know so well whether it was for six or three years…and going into the unknown.”
The best way she’s found to encourage independence has been to recognize what the child is going through—both fear and excitement—and have a conversation about it.
“Sometimes a simple two minute conversation where you recognize what they are going through—whether it is the fear of how to open a locker, moving from class to class in only five minutes or who to sit with at lunch—can give your children the confidence they need to figure it out on their own,” Urbanowski says.
Attend Transition Programs
Most elementary, middle, and high schools as well as colleges offer some kind of transition night or orientation. Many also offer a peer support system in which older students are partnered with younger ones to help answer questions and give them a familiar face once school starts.
During transition night at Southern Hills Middle School, incoming students are grouped with peer leaders and given a tour of the school while parents are introduced to the nuances of the next level of their child’s education. Both are introduced to tools that can help them weather the transition.
The presentation for parents begins with a slide that shows a picture of a roller coaster. “Be the bolts,” the slide reads. Then Overboe, along with the principal and a counselor, explain that this ride—the middle school years—is for the children to go on, not the parents. The presentation normalizes the changes middle schoolers experience and provides parents and guardians with the resources and knowledge needed to support their children and keep the “roller coaster” secure while their children take the “ride.”
In addition to attending formal transition programs, it helps to practice little things ahead of time. For all of her children, Urbanowski brought them to middle school before the first day to find their locker and learn how to open it, a task that can be frustrating for many new sixth graders.
Develop a Growth Mindset
Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a leading researcher in motivation, refers to the belief that a person’s effort and dedication to learning is more important to his or her development than intellect. Encourage your child to see each new transition as a learning experience and challenge to master, rather than a test to pass or fail.
“When taking a growth mindset, failures are minor setbacks that we can use to launch us further forward if we take the time to examine them, learn from them, and grow from them,” says Kristi Barrowclough, career development advisor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This is especially important in the transitions to high school and college because so many students get their first F, miss a class, or engage in unhealthy behavior.
“While all of these may be viewed as failures, in the large scheme of life, they are minor setbacks and stepping stones to becoming an adult,” Barrowclough says.
Seek out Mentors
Mentors—trusted adults in a child’s life other than their parents—can help guide students through certain setbacks and experiences.
Urbanowski’s oldest child, while in his last year of elementary school, sought out a counselor on his own. Once Urbanowski learned this, she introduced him to a counselor at the middle school, knowing this would be an important connection. Her middle child, on the other hand, didn’t need the same support.
Urbanowski’s children have also been part of a swim team, and their coaches made it clear early on that they were available to talk not just about swimming but about anything.
There are many types of mentors who can support a child’s growth as they learn to make meaning out of mistakes—teachers, coaches, relatives, other parents, neighbors, or therapists. Some mentors develop from interactions over time, others may be available through school programs.
Communicate Openly and Regularly
No matter what level of school your child is moving into, there are bound to be new topics for discussion—friends, bullying, testing, phones, sex, and vaping, just to name a few.
“You can prepare your kids as much as possible by teaching them to communicate,” Urbanowski says. “I’ve learned to not hold anything back. Parent discussions [with their child] need to be constant, and knowing how to read your kid is key.”
Healthy relationships keep children from turning to the media or older teens for answers when new situations arise. For parents, developing healthy relationships with kids often means discerning when it’s time to start a conversation and when it’s time to listen.
Overboe advises parents should “love and listen,” and know who their kid’s friends are. “Be willing to initiate awkward and embarrassing conversations—if they don’t hear it from you first, they will hear it (most likely incorrectly) from someone their own age.”
Another way parents can learn what is going on in their children’s lives, especially when communication is difficult, is by monitoring their text messages to their friends. Parents can use what they learn to determine when it’s time to broach certain subjects with their kids, and ultimately help them transition to the next stage.
Urbanowski says she has no problem taking her daughter’s phone to read the messages. Overboe corroborates this idea. “You own the phone, so know what’s on it,” Overboe says. “Remember that they are still kids. Know their passwords to all technology and take time to explain why—privacy is learned and earned, not an 11-year-old’s right.”
Urbanowski is now thinking about the transition to college for her oldest. “It’s not too early to start preparing,” she says. “If the parent has all the information, then you can gear it toward your specific kid. You tailor it to their needs.”
School Transition Resources
For elementary students:
- Transition Magician: Strategies for Guiding Young Children in Early Childhood Programs by Nola Larson, Mary Henthorne, and Barbara Plum
For tweens and teens:
- A Smart Girl’s Guide: Friendship Troubles: Dealing with Fights, Being Left Out, and the Whole Popularity Thing by Patti Kelley Criswell, illustrated by Angela Martini
For incoming college students:
- The Freshman Survival Guide: Soulful Advice for Studying, Socializing, and Everything in Between by Nora Bradbury-Haehl and Bill McGarvey
- What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World by Tina Seelig
- The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues you Might Run into in College by Harlan Cohen
- Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World by Rosalind Wiseman
- Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.
- Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World by Rosalind Wiseman
- Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour, Ph.D.
5 Tips for Parents During School Transitions
- Know what to expect from the next age group and from the school.
- Build relationships with the school and the adults in it.
- Know your child’s needs and communicate them; then teach your child how to advocate for him or herself.
- Model what you hope to see from your child.
- Listen more than talk.