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The Transition to High School

I was sitting in my office at the school where I taught, when my 3 P.M. appointment arrived for a parent-teacher conference. I’ll admit I was puzzled to see them on my schedule as, while I had taught their son for the previous three years in middle school, he was now in ninth grade. As I greeted the parents, they immediately explained why they were there. “We know you know C.J. well, having taught him for three years, and we thought you might have some insight into what’s wrong with him now,” they began. “He was always such a strong student and now he’s completely falling apart. Help!”

All lives have transitions, but for a child, starting high school can be one of the biggest of them all. The increased academic and social expectations, coupled with the hormone surges and sometimes painful growth spurts, can really knock an otherwise balanced kid off his game. To add to the difficulty, this is also a time when our children are naturally pulling away from us, so it makes it harder to help. They want less time with us, more privacy and less parental guidance. Their friends, rather than their parents, are their primary social influences. But even these friendships can be fraught with complications – unrequited crushes, “mean girls,” bullies, changing friendships. So how can we, as parents, support our teenagers during this crucial transition to high school?

Learn About Your New School

Take advantage of any opportunities to learn about the new school in advance. Attend tours and open houses, have the child do a shadow day, and go to orientation. Alex Mirkowski, a middle school teacher at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel, encourages even her students continuing into high school at the same school to take advantage of such sessions. “High school is just different,” she says, “even if you’re in the same building. We don’t want to make our students nervous, but from day one of ninth grade, the grades count for college applications, so preparation is key.”

Ms. Mirkowski also recommends that students review the student handbook and go over the class schedule, with their parents if necessary, to discuss strategies for getting from class to class and handling their days. Depending on how their middle school was structured, some students at this age still need to think through matters such as how to effectively use a locker and what books and materials to carry at what times of the day.

Make a Plan

Before school starts, make a plan for how the school day is going to go. This includes both getting to/from school and also the evening time. Alex Morse, Head of the Upper School at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, recommends that families and students plan ahead for the likely increase in homework time that will be needed, with at least one work block scheduled before dinner or, even better, before the student leaves school. 

Your teen may need help planning longer term projects and papers. Depending on how rigorous their middle school was, this may be a new skill for many high schoolers. Their brains are not equipped to naturally break larger tasks down into smaller increments. Their teachers should be working on this with them as well, but backing it up at home, especially when they’re actually doing the work, can be very helpful.

Make Sure the Plan Includes Some Fun

Recent high school graduate Brian Duran encourages students to make sure they don’t just concentrate on getting good grades and working hard, but also have fun. “These are some of the best years of your life. It’s your time to make friends, some of whom you may well have for the rest of your life.” He recommends that students use the yearbook and school website as resources to find extracurricular activities that might be of interest. Many of these activities start over the summer which can be a great way to get to know the school and make new friends. Angie Rivas, also a recent high school graduate, agrees. “I would recommend that students get involved in extracurricular activities, not just to help with getting into a good college, but also to expand their social networks.”

Make Use of the Summer

A summer job or volunteer position can help maintain structure in their schedule over the summer. Other options would be working as a camp junior counselor, pet and plant care, yardwork, or babysitting. A summer class through the new school can also be a great way to structure time while getting to know the school. Study skills and/or math classes would be good preparation for the rigors of high school.

Many schools have summer assignments that are due as school starts. Make a plan with your teen to get these done in a relaxed and sensible way. At this age kids still have trouble making long term plans for such assignments. Help your student figure out a schedule that incorporates the school work, jobs or volunteer work, exercise, and free time so that there is not a last minute crisis right before school starts.

Encourage Self-Advocacy

High school is practice for college, when the problems can be bigger and you’re not right there to help. Students should be accountable for their classes, schedule, homework, but you can guide them and help them learn from any mistakes they make early on so that there aren’t as many later when the stakes are higher.  Alex Morse at St. Anselm’s suggests that parents take a step back for the first quarter in terms of how often they check homework and the school’s online assignments and gradebook. “Let the new 9th grader try to manage their work and time on their own at first,” he advises. “If it turns out that they need more assistance, there’s still plenty of time to help them but the student might have a greater appreciation (and tolerance) for parental support after they encounter the challenges of managing school on their own for a bit.”

Plan for the Future, A Little Bit

Many students, and parents, view high school as little more than a way to get into a good college. While high school academics and activities should be considered carefully with college goals in mind, the freshman year can be approached with a little less pressure. Independent college counselor, Becky Claster, sees ninth grade as laying the foundation for a successful high school experience. Don’t cause your teen undue worry, but do talk to them about their longer term goals. Emphasize the importance of doing well in high school to achieve those goals. Talk about what they’re good at and what kinds of college and career choices could work well with those skills.

What If There’s a Problem?

Even as late as high school, some students manifest signs of learning challenges that might have gone unnoticed earlier. If you sense that something more is going on than just typical teen struggles and/or if a teacher raises an alarm, you should absolutely request evaluation from your child’s school. This period can be a time when previously undiagnosed learning difficulties cease to be conquered simply by hard work and intellect. Kids with attention issues can fall apart with the added challenges of high school. If your child attends a non-public institution, you can request such assistance from the public school system.

In sum, high school is a time for your child to make the final steps to becoming the independent learner and person they will need to be before they leave for college. It is a vital and exciting time and with planning and your support hopefully it will all go well.

E.V. Downey is an educational consultant based on Capitol Hill. In addition to helping families navigate the school system, she is also a private tutor specializing in students with dyslexia and ADHD. E.V. is also co-director of Busy Bees Camps and teaches flute at Music on the Hill.  

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