Easing the move to middle school

Middle school students exit buses for their first day of school. (AP Photo/Scott Martin)

Making the move from cozy elementary school classrooms to the big-league world of middle school – with locker combinations to remember, class schedules to learn, more homework and all those big kids roaming the halls – is easier when new middle schoolers have this on their side: Good friendships.

Last week, Healthy Kids gave parents a Philadelphia counselor’s advice on helping kids of all ages make and keep friends. Now, there’s even more proof  that friendships matter more than ever when for 6th- or 7th-graders entering middle school or junior high. Girls and boys with friends who do well in school and respect the rules – and who steer clear of kids flirting with trouble – consistently did better academically in a recent University of Oregon study.

Good friends in middle school did even more – kids with close relationships with other well-adjusted kids at age 13 were more likely to be happy, productive young adults at age 24, the same researchers found in an earlier study. Why? The way kids navigate the intense social scene of the early teen years has lasting effects (something any adult who struggled through the shark tank of junior high knows all too well).

“The brain is changing rapidly,” one of the researchers notes. “Kids' brains are almost wired to be reading the social world to see how they fit in, and the school is the arena for it." That means that a lot of what really counts in middle school gets overlooked by adults – as some kids sail through the social whirl and others flail. "A great deal of learning is taking place that is not being attended to, “ the researchers note. “Puberty is taking place.

The take-home for parents: Pay special attention  to changes in friendships and encourage students to pursue and participate in adult-supervised activities to promote strong, healthy relationships. That’s easy if your kid excels at sports or music, or is a ‘joiner’ willing to sign up for the newspaper club, the yearbook staff, and other middle-school clubs.

What if your child is shy or just not into school-based activities? Try these options:


  • Scouting: The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts offer  plenty of week night and weekend activities that give kids a chance to be physically active, learn new skills and lead others.
  • Faith-based groups: Don’t overlook youth groups at your own house of worship.
  • Arts classes: Painting, drawing, crafts, making videos, creative writing – any or all may appeal to a creative kid. Look for local options at art centers, local colleges. Got a young drama queen or king? Check out youth theater programs.
  • Homework clubs: Not the most exciting, but many schools offer after-school homework clubs one or more days of the week. It’s a way for your child to get out of the house, be with other kids in a supervised environment…and get a little academic help at the same time.
  • Girls and Boys Clubs: With locations throughout Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware and beyond, this group  offers sports, fitness, arts, computer classes,  healthy-living skills, teen programs  and more.
  • 4-H: You don’t need a horse or a farm to sign your kid up for this low-cost program for kids ages 5 to 18. 4-H now offers after-school clubs, nutrition clubs, adventure “quests”, groups for kids from military families and more.  Programs in PA, NJ, DE and beyond.