Even in a normal year, the move up to middle school can be jarring for kids and parents. But this year, the pandemic is upending every aspect of school. Here's how you can still feel prepared as a family.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
July 30, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of new challenges for kids when it comes to returning to school in 2020. Some will start the year remotely. Others will rotate between in-person and virtual classrooms. And when it comes to middle schoolers, most will experience the same awkward challenges that come with leaving elementary school behind, coupled with the stress of a global crisis.

"When kids are making a transition to a new environment, to tamp down their anxiety, you want to expose them," says Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author of Middle School Matters. "You want to prepare them for what they can expect and give them opportunities to clear up misconceptions and ask questions."

Here are a few simple ways to prepare your kid for their first day of middle school.

Help them with the logistics.

For new middle schoolers, mastering a new schedule, transitioning between classes, and figuring out that dreaded combination lock are all common concerns, says Fagell.

Ask them what they're worried about and help them find solutions. Get a lock to practice on. Set up a virtual discussion with the school counselor to talk through questions. Help them navigate the virtual learning platform their school is using. And sign them up for any before-school orientation program where they can meet teachers and walk their class schedule. This year, some middle schools are offering those programs virtually.

"Take advantage of those," says Fagell. "It's a big deal to have any kind of familiarity with the environment."

Put your child in the driver's seat.

Throughout elementary school, you probably helped your child iron out issues with teachers and friends. Now it's time to step back a bit, says Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover and founder of social leadership programs for middle schoolers.

If your child is rotating between virtual and in-person learning and doesn't know anybody in their rotation, encourage them to email their teacher to see if they can switch. At the same time, ask your child if there are other ways to stay connected with friends if they won't be in class together.

That doesn't mean parents shouldn't be involved at all, says Icard. "I would put them in the driver's seat, but you are the facilitator. 'You can say, 'How can I help?'"

Set them up for handling friendship drama.

As middle schoolers figure out who they are as independent people, friendships will come and go. Prepare them for drama, says Fagell.

"Friendships are going to be far more unstable and shifting," she says. "That's part of the process of learning what you need from a friend and what you can give to a friend and developing your own identity. But if you're not prepared for that, it can feel really bad."

Normalize that it's normal for friends to walk away—and that it doesn't feel good, but that they shouldn't take it personally. "It has more to do with kids maturing at different paces," she says.

Encourage social connections.

After months of being away from peers and, now, thrown into an entirely new social environment, help your child come up with a few topics to talk about and some questions to ask as they meet new friends or reconnect with old ones, says Icard.

If they are headed back to physical classrooms and are worried about who they might eat lunch with, see if you can find a friend who has the same schedule and can meet them outside the cafeteria, says Fagell.

Focus on safety messaging.

For kids who are fearful about returning to a classroom because they might get sick or make a family member sick, Fagell recommends emphasizing what adults are doing to make them safe.

"Focus on safety messaging as opposed to danger messaging," says Fagell. "Instead of saying, 'We're wearing masks because, if we don't, we're all going to die.' You say, 'Here is what your school is doing to help keep everybody safe because safety is the priority, and this is how we are taking care of everybody in the community.'"

Don't do your back-to-school shopping all at once.

Starting in middle school, your child's desire to fit in and create their own look may be more important to them than ever before. That's why, every year, Icard recommends purchasing only a portion of your child's back-to-school needs before school begins, so students can start out with a little something new and then see what their classmates have. For kids returning to the classroom this year, that same tip extends to the newest must-have accessory—face masks.

Icard advises buying kids the very minimum they need at the start. Then, during the first week, let them view the landscape. From there, they can decide if they'd prefer to wear the brand or style that their classmates are wearing—or something else altogether. "I would not spend a lot of energy getting your kid prepared in terms of their look until they get there and see what other kids are doing," she says.

Be positive!

Don't push the storyline that these will be the worst years of their lives—even if middle school was horrible for you. Shed your own baggage and embrace this time in your child's life, says Icard.

Emphasize new opportunities for independence and praise the heightened sense of humor and justice that can come with this age. For kids who weren't happy in elementary school because of a lack of friendships or academic troubles, let them know that middle school is an opportunity for a fresh start, says Icard.

"This is a time in life where your child is beginning to develop the skill set they need to become independent, and that's what we all want," she says. "We just forget that it's often a sloppy process in the beginning."

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