Navigating the transition from elementary to middle school

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For any kid, moving up from elementary to middle school presents a challenge. For boys, who are almost always still children – i.e. have not hit puberty yet – when they enter middle school, that change might not seem too much of a change at first. The learning shift that happens in middle school – from concrete thinking (events, facts, arithmetic) to abstract thinking (how events and facts impact larger concepts, mathematics) – can be a leap for a boy who’s still a concrete-thinking child.

Another challenge is the rapid physical changes that a boy can go through in the time from age 11 to age 14, the typical age range for middle school. The boys who hit puberty and its accompanying physical developments early, around age 11 or 12, can be seen by teachers as being older than they are. For example, I had a 13 year old student who was whip-smart. He was also a freshman in high school at the time. He got into a lot of trouble at school, and pointed out to some other teachers that they’d have no trouble with his behavior if he was in the 8th grade – which is where most 13 year old boys are. A tip for parents of smart boys who advance quickly in academics: make sure your boy’s teachers know his chronological age.

Middle school is where I see the best opportunity for gender-based learning to have a major impact on a boy’s success in life. If it’s possible for you to send your son to a boys’ school, do it. If not, here are my suggestions for helping him deal with some of the learning hurdles he might face:

  • Help your son find a suitable mentor. An older boy with good verbal skills, one who’s done well in school himself and who can work, and play, with your son. They can start by throwing a ball or racing each other, and wind up with opening books. If your son sees this boy as a role model, he can help your son make the middle school transition path much smoother.
  • Encourage your son to read age-appropriate graphic novels. Many great classics like Call of the Wild and Red Badge of Courage are available from Puffin Graphics; Classical Comics has all the Shakespeare plays and a full complement of Dickens. This will help a boy whose reading skills are developing more slowly than those of his peers in class, particularly the girls.
  • Use the paper clip trick. If your son is a reluctant reader, use large paper clips to clip together three or four pages through a whole book, and let your boy take a break after he’s read through a clipped section, and written a sentence about what he’s just read. Once a day, and twice a day on weekend, and he’ll get through several books every semester.

In the next post, I’ll revisit bullying and talk about the emotional changes that can impact a boy’s success in middle school.

In “The Parents’ Guide to Boys,” Dr. James lays out a brain-based approach to encouraging boys toward and through a successful school experience. In this blog post series, she shares some nuggets from the book to help parents learn what’s happening in their son’s developing brain, and guide him toward a love of learning.