M starts Grade 7 in less than two weeks. This is a big transition for both of us.
He’s leaving the cozy, close-knit community of his elementary school for a large middle school, with multiple streams. His old school was just under 400 students, from junior kindergarten to grade 6. The new school has about 500 kids, just in grades 7 and 8.
The elementary school was very close to our house – M could get there on foot in about 4 minutes. The middle school is quite a bit further and he’ll get there by riding his bike or by public transit. Instead of one or two teachers, he’ll have several teachers over the course of the day; – he’ll have to change classes and take his stuff with him; it’s further away. He’ll have a locker instead of a desk. Even though he’ll still be in an Alternative program, which means less emphasis on competition and testing than in a traditional program, he’ll have more homework. And perhaps the biggest change of all, he will be coming home from school, rather than going to his much beloved after-school program.
Middle school will mean an adjustment for me too. I had a very good relationship with the principal at M’s old school. Whenever there was a potential issue, I could fire off an email and have confidence that depending on the issue, the staff would investigate or keep an eye on M. The principal at the middle school is new; not only will I not know her, but she’ll be adjusting to a new environment. Plus, she’s in charge of all the streams, not just the Alternative program. The principal at the old school went to bat for M on numerous occasions – she worked very had to create an environment that maximized M’s success. Even though she knew M and had a good understanding of his challenges, they were always a few bumps to work out, especially at the start a new school year. As much as I’d like to think that M’s transition to the new year/school will be drama-free, I know that’s not realistic. When it comes to M, forwarned is forearmed. And even though I’m confident we’ll get everything worked out, the fact that I don’t know the various personalities makes me a bit anxious.
I’m also worried about how M will manage having several teachers instead of just one – M, like many kids with ADHD and anxiety, copes best when he has a positive relationship with a teacher and/or school staff. While I think he’s a pretty likable kid, I know full well that not everyone “gets” him. I still remember having teachers that I didn’t connect with, which made sitting through class seem tortuous. I had a math teacher in Grade 9 who I really didn’t like – I didn’t understand him when he explained equations and mathematical concepts and for the first time in my life, I didn’t get a good grade in a particular subject. I also a low mark in gym that year, but I sucked at sports – the gym teacher was also my home room teacher, so I knew she wasn’t evil (not so sure about the math teacher). I’m sure there were teachers at his old school that didn’t like M (and some he didn’t like), but he was lucky in terms of his classroom teachers. I know he needs to learn how to manage dealing with teachers he doesn’t like and vice versa, but there’s a potential for a steep learning curve.
At M’s old school, the strong sense of community among the students extended to the parents and families. Even though I wasn’t at the old school very regularly last year, I knew lots of the parents from helping out at various events. I rarely went out in the neighbourhood without running into someone I knew from school. I also knew most of the teachers from helping out in the classroom in previous years. Since parental involvement is one of the tenets of the Alternative program, I’m sure there will be opportunities for me to help out at special events and on field trips. But middle school is much more transitory than elementary school – after 2 years, M will move along to high school. Plus middle school kids are older and encouraged to be more independent. That’s a good thing, but I will miss the sense of belonging that characterized the elementary school.
Perhaps the biggest change will be that M won’t be attending his much-beloved after school program at the local community centre. As much as the principal worked to ensure M’s success over the last couple of years, the counselors in the after school program recognized M’s strengths and went out of their way to support him in situations where he struggled – instead of insisting that he participate in group activities every day, they would give him his space when he needed it and let him sit quietly with a book or talk with one of his favourite counselors. Last year, the after school program ran a separate “club” for the grade 6’s, supervised by a group of counselors who really understood 11 and 12 year olds. One of the counselors had a part-time job testing video games and would often bring new games in for the kids to play. Not surprisingly, he was very popular among the boys. The program staff have already identified M as a future counselor and he’s been invited to come and help out with some of the younger kids later this fall. This is a huge vote of confidence for a child like M who often struggles to fit in.
M says he looking forward to coming home from school by himself – expect it’s more the attraction of being able to play MindCraft or listen to his iPod, without his annoying parents watching the clock. Too much electronics tends to turn M into zombie-boy, so I’m a bit worried about what kind of mood he’ll be in by the time one of his parents gets home, especially if he’s had a tough day. We’ve been leaving M at home alone more and more over the summer, when we go out to dinner or run errands, but being alone for almost 2 hours every day will be a new experience for him.
Despite some nervousness on my part, I do think middle school will be good for M. Because it’s a larger school, M will have an opportunity to meet new kids and make some new friends. As much as I liked the fact that in elementary school, he had the stability and security of spending 2 years with the same teacher and a core group of kids, I recognize that this could be a bit claustrophobic. The kids all knew each other, for better and for worse. While M had a couple of friends he hung around with at school, he was never invited to hang out with them after school or on weekends (granted, he didn’t make much of an effort to connect with them outside of school). From time to time, he would often complain that all his classmates “hated” him. Since he usually said this in the middle of a meltdown, I’m not certain it was totally true. But he often felt like an outsider among his classmates. Nothing terribly unique about that – neither his dad nor I were popular at school. But no 12-year-old is entirely reassured by his or her parent’s tales of pre-teen angst. Ironically, the characteristics that make it difficult for M to get along with other kids – being a know-it-all who wants to be in charge, will probably serve him well later in life.
Even though I expect there will be some challenges over the next few months, I do think M is ready for middle school. He has to learn how to navigate his own path through school, both socially and academically. Now is as good a time as ever. Even if I’m not 100% ready.