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Updated 11:00am - Nov 26, 2014

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Students making the big step

Parents can help ease grade transitions

Wescom News Service

Going back to school can cause excitement and nervousness in parents and students of all ages, but the transition is bigger for some families. Heading into kindergarten, middle school or high school for the first time marks a huge change for students.

Nothing can fully prepare kids for the new school environment they will face. But parents and students can do things to help make the transition as smooth as possible.

Kindergarten: Everything starts

Kindergarten is the beginning of a child's school career, and parents, kids and teachers all want to see it start out on the right path. Some youngsters will have experience with school settings through preschool or day care, while for others, this will mark an even bigger change.

Kimberly Williams, a neuropsychologist at the NYU Child Study Center, says the start of school can be tough for parents, even more so than for little ones. She says parents of first-time students worry how their kids will handle separation anxiety, allergy issues, the school's academic rigor and more.

"It's a really big developmental transition," said Williams.

Dave Perdue, the principal at John Tuck Elementary School in Redmond, Ore., says kindergartners often feel "overwhelmed by the size of the school itself and all of the students."

Parents can help alleviate these feelings, he says, by preparing their students. Perdue suggests parents talk about what school is like, work on reading with their children and spend structured time working with their children on things like ABCs and counting.

Getting kids familiar with their surroundings is a great way to make them feel more comfortable in that setting, according to Williams. She suggests parents arrange to visit the school and meet with the teacher before the first day of school. Buying school supplies is also a great way to get kids excited about school, Williams said.

Many children will feel excited about putting their new markers, crayons, paper and pencils to use.

Several schools, including John Tuck Elementary, have programs to help ease the transition. One-third of the kindergarten students come to school each day for three days, giving the teacher time to meet a handful of students at one time.

Perdue says parents and children should not worry about mastering subject areas before kindergarten. Some incoming students, he says, cannot recognize colors, shapes or numbers, while others can. This is normal, and the teacher will work with all of these various skill levels. More important, Perdue says, is for students to be ready to follow the rules and be focused.

"I don't think parents need to be overly alarmed," said Perdue.

Darryl Smith, the principal at Madras Elementary School, thinks learning fine motor skills is helpful for incoming kindergartners. Parents can help children with this by getting them to write with crayons or cut with scissors. Another important skill, he says, is "learning how to share."

Smith thinks that, for the most part, kindergartners tend to adjust to school life well and most are excited about starting school.

"There are more worries on the part of parents," he said.

Sixth grade: Everything changes

The transition from elementary to middle school is a big one for kids and for parents. Many families don't like saying goodbye to the comfortable, familiar elementary school setting.

With the new, often larger setting, come a few perks. Middle school students typically get their own lockers and more freedom to pursue their own interests like music or sports. But middle school is also the time when prickly social issues crop up, involving cliques, peer pressure and a desire to fit in.

Sisters Middle School Principal Kathy Miner thinks the transition from elementary to middle school is a bit less drastic in Sisters, Ore.

Students move to the middle school in fifth grade and, at that time, they still have just one teacher for the entire day. Miner also thinks that having a small school in a small community helps ease the transition. Even with those things in place, though, Miner says students still have to adjust.

"Being organized is the biggest challenge for middle school students," said Miner.

She thinks students should enter middle school "prepared to make new friends," and they "have an open mind about trying new things."

Bend, Ore., parent Sandy Siemens says middle school marks the big change for kids physically and emotionally. This fall, her children will be a sophomore, a sixth-grader and a fifth-grader. She says the transition into middle school is the toughest challenge. Having one son who has already completed middle school, Siemens says, doesn't make her feel any less anxious, because they are "two different children."

"Middle school, I think, is the toughest," said Siemens. "They are the bottom of the totem pole again."

John Siemens, who will be a sixth-grader at High Desert Middle School, says he's nervous about the change.

"There's going to be a lot of different people and only a few of my friends," said John. Many of his friends opted to go to other middle schools in the area.

He likes the idea of having a locker and hears from his older brother that the food is much better.

"I think it's going to be better than elementary school," said John. "One thing I don't really like about going to middle school is there's no more recess."

Middle school is the time when "cliques and peer pressure really start to emerge," according to Williams.

Questions like "Do I fit in?" "Do I belong?" and "How do I feel about myself?" dominate middle schoolers' thoughts, according to Miner.

By the time high school hits, Miner says, many kids have a better sense of who they are and what they are interested in.

In middle school, "they don't know who they are yet, so it's really important what other people think about them," said Miner.

Parents can help, Miner says, by staying involved. Some parents who volunteer at their child's elementary school don't volunteer once their kid reaches middle school. Miner points out that most schools, like Sisters, have tons of opportunities for parents to stay connected. And the more connected they feel, the more comfortable they will be about the transition their child is making.

Ninth grade: Everything counts

Within education, there is no more important transition than the one kids make going from eighth grade into ninth, according to Redmond High School Principal Jon Bullock.

For the first time, students' academic performances really count. And students who struggle early on by missing class or skipping assignments are much more likely to struggle in the long run, according to Bullock.

"Students who are not successful in their freshman year are more apt not to graduate," said Bullock. "The initial taste of success is really important."

Bullock says parents can help by setting up a study area and regular study time for their children. Regular contact with the school staff is also a good idea.

"Getting in touch with teachers is something at the high school level that parents are more reluctant to do," said Bullock. He says parental involvement is always welcome.

High school is often physically bigger than middle schools, with more students, more classes and more choices, all of which can lead to students feeling "lost in the shuffle," according to Delores Curry, a high school counselor in California and secondary vice president of the American School Counselor Association.

Williams says "social issues become a little more significant" during high school. She says this is the time when students begin to separate into their own areas of interest and work to find out who they are. Williams says many students she encounters worry about things like making friends, who they'll sit with during lunch and popularity.

"Parents have a tendency to worry about popularity, too," said Williams.

But there is little that parents can do to help students become popular. Bringing up this issue, Williams says, can actually make kids feel "overwhelmed."

Williams says parents of new middle and high schoolers can make the mistake of asking too many questions.

"Parents are so excited because it is so monumental," said Williams. But they end up almost pestering their kids with too many questions. Parents need to remember, Williams says, that kids may be tired or cranky and not interested in talking.

Kids can also pick up on parents' worries or expectations, which can make them feel more stressed because, Williams says, "kids overall also worry about pleasing their parents."

A better approach for parents, she says, is to be open to listening and to be aware of their child's activities.

"Parents need first and foremost to listen and don't need to jump in," said Williams.

Parents should also recognize that it is typical for high school students to feel nervous.

"Nerves are normal. Don't feed into it," said Williams.

Parents can also go wrong by sugar-coating new students' fears. Instead of saying, "It won't be hard, you won't get lost," Williams says, parents should try something like, "Oh, it's a large school, you'll get to meet lots of new people in the hallway."

Curry agrees with this advice, saying parents should "be as positive as possible, but realistic."

Parents should let their children know that the lines of communication are always open.

Bend mom Keri Anderson admits that she is a little nervous about her son Dalpon entering Mountain View High School in a few days, but for the most part she is hopeful.

"If they can survive middle school, it's all downhill from there," said Anderson. "The hard part has been worked through for the most part."

Anderson, who teaches fine arts at Tom McCall Elementary School in Redmond, talks to her son a lot about school. She tells him that high school is better than middle school, but to keep in mind that now everything will count. Academically, she feels like he is prepared. Anderson has makes sure that Dalpon has kept up with his reading and that he has good study skills in place. She thinks the big anxiety is from social pressures.

"Finding a niche where you fit is the most terrifying thing for kids," said Anderson.

She talks to her son about the importance of trying new things to find out where he best fits, but she worries that all of her talking about these potential problems "may have planted phobias."

"I'm hoping that he will just stay true to himself and that he has a sense of who he is," said Anderson.

But she knows that when school starts, it will be up to him.

Alandra Johnson can be reached at 617-7860 or at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Tips on preparing for the first day

The following tips come from KidsHealth, NYU Child Study Center neuropsychologist Kimberly Williams, Family Education and Scholastic.

• Adjust schedules.

Kids should start going to bed early and waking up early well before the first day of school, in order to get their bodies used to the routine. Families may also need to adjust meal times as well.

• Write down key information.

To alleviate some stress, KidsHealth professionals suggest students and/or parents write down key information like locker combinations, time for lunch, bus number and more, to keep in a special location in case they need the information.

• Visit the school.

Before the first day, kids should visit their new schools, find their classrooms and lockers. Those entering elementary school may enjoy a trip to play on the school's playground.

• Shop for supplies.

While parents may find it easier to purchase school supplies without their little ones, buying these supplies can be a good way to get kids excited for school.

• Get ready the night before.

Kids should plan out what they want to wear and what they need to bring to school the night before rather than waiting until the morning.

• Create a study area.

Making a special space where kids can study and do homework is a great idea, according to numerous experts and educators.

• Take something from home.

Anxious kindergartners or other new students may feel comforted if they can bring a small token from home with them on the first day.

Back to school books

The following book recommendations come from librarians with the Deschutes Public Library System.

Picture books for younger children

• "Will I Have a Friend," by Miriam Cohen

• "First Day Jitters," by Julie Dannenberg

• "Off to School, Baby Duck," by Amy Hest

• "The Kissing Hand," by Audrey Penn

• "Vera's First Day of School,"

by Vera Rosenberry

• "Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten," by Joseph Slate

• "Tom Goes to Kindergarten," by Margaret Wild

• "My Kindergarten," by Rosemary Wells

Books for grades 3-5

• "Frindle," by Andrew Clements

• "Bloomability," by Sharon Creech

• "The Best School Year Ever,"

by Barbara Robinson

• "Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo,"

by Greg Leitich Smith

• "Sideways Stories from Wayside School," by Louis Sachar

• "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," by Jeff Kinney

• "Judy Moody," by Megan McDonald

• "Room 207," by Marnelle Tokio

• "Pa Lia's First Day," by Michelle Edwards

Books for teenagers

• "Twilight," by Stephenie Meyer

• "Haters," by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

• "Stargirl," by Jerry Spinelli

• "Freakshow," by James St. James

Other books about school

• "How to be Popular," by Meg Cabot

• "Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie,"

by David Lubar

• "Looking for Alaska," by John Green

• "New Moon," by Stephanie Meyer

• "Totally Joe," by James Howe

What kids say about school

The following information comes from a KidsHealth poll, which is based on a survey of 935 kids ages 9-13 conducted earlier this year.

On most days, how do you feel about school?

Overall response:

• 25 percent like school a lot

• 40 percent like school some

• 13 percent dislike school some

• 22 percent dislike school a lot

For girls:

• 29 percent like school a lot

• 40 percent like school some

• 13 percent dislike school some

• 14 percent dislike school a lot

For boys:

• 21 percent like school a lot

• 35 percent like school some

• 14 percent dislike school some

• 30 percent dislike school a lot

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