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Go Ask Mom

7 ways rising middle schoolers can make the best of middle school starting now

Posted August 16

Raising an infant is difficult, but raising a young adolescent may be even harder. According to a recent study from researchers at Arizona State University, mothers are most stressed when their children start middle school. (Deseret Photo)

Editor's note: This article by Michelle Icard, author of the fantastic book "Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years" and a Charlotte mom, originally appeared on her blog.

For the past twelve years, my job has been to help kids and their parents transition to, and through, middle school. Over the years, I’ve learned enough to fill a book, but since the book is written for parents, I wanted a chance to talk directly to the kids about to make this big step. Here is a summary of just seven of my favorites, written just for you, as you graduate from elementary school this year. And no surprise, like most moms, I love lists. So here it is, your “Make The Best of Middle School” To Do List:

Decide now how it’s going to end.

As you graduate from elementary school, you’re going to hear a lot about new starts and fresh beginnings. I’d like to skip the beginning and go straight to the end.

Imagine yourself at your 8th grade graduation. What kind of person do you want to be when your three years are over? What kind of experiences do you want to have had? How would you like to be described at your 8th grade graduation?  Successful, creative, kind, thoughtful, persevering, fair? Do you want to have been on a team, in a club, on the news?  Once you know where you want to end up, it’s much easier to get there.  Write down your goals for middle school and share them with someone. Then with the support of your family and friends and teachers – but mostly powered by your own strong will and determination – you will get there.

Plan for your plans to change.

In college, when I was studying to be a teacher, I had a professor who made it her number one priority to fluster us. We showed up the first day and the desks were in a circle. Just as we got used to circle discussions, we showed up one day and the desks were in straight lines. Just as we readjusted, we showed up one day and the desks were all gone. Sometimes she would even make us write detailed lesson plans, then remove something crucial from our materials before we started to teach.

The point she was trying to make is that the best teachers (and I think, the best human beings) know that nothing is more important than being flexible. Plan for your plans to change, she used to say. Often, things go according to your plan and that’s great! But sometimes, I promise they won’t. Your friend may decide not to be your friend anymore. Your teacher may move your seat next to someone you don’t like. You may run out of glue half way through your 3D science project. At 9 pm. The night before it’s due. You may not make the team even though you made it the year before.

It’s good to have a plan and it’s good to know when to change direction. As I recently read on a sign hanging in a teacher’s classroom: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”

Belly up to the buffet.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who goes to a restaurant and orders the same thing every time. A burger. Or cheese pizza. Or chicken tenders. You know you like it and you won’t be stuck hungry if you take a risk ordering something new and end up not liking it.

But, if you’ve ever been to a buffet before, you know they are filled with lots of options and you can try as many things as you like until you find something, often something unexpected, that you do like.

I call middle school, the “buffet of life” because it’s a time when you can and should try new things. When you go to middle school, one of your jobs is figuring out what kind of person you want to be apart from your parents. Until now, your parents have made a lot of decisions about “who you are”. They signed you up for activities after school, they arranged play dates with friends, they picked out the clothes you wear. But now, you’re going to start making more decisions about what you like to do, and who you like to hang out with, and how you want to look.

It’s time to belly up to the buffet and try new things. Maybe you’ve never been in a play. Put your name on the sign up sheet! Maybe you’ve only been friends with people from your neighborhood but there is a kid in your homeroom from Somalia. Start a conversation! Maybe you have always listened to 95.1 in the car…try moving that dial around. The world is full of flavors, and friends, and music and experiences and all you need to do is belly up to the buffet and try them to see what you might like.

Keep your friendship eggs in different baskets.

You’ve probably heard the saying “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.” Usually when people say this they’re talking about money or time. But in this case, the eggs are friends.

Imagine me, on a bike, riding down the sidewalk on a nice sunny day with a basket of farm fresh eggs on the front of my bike from the farmer’s market. The sun is shining and I am looking around thinking what a nice day I’m having. When suddenly, a branch across the middle of the sidewalk catches my wheel, the bike goes flying, and the basket of eggs comes crashing down on top of me covering me in shell and raw egg yolks.

Friendships, like eggs, are fragile. Limiting yourself to one set of friends is like keeping all your eggs in one basket. If your friends are all in the same group, when any one of you hits a bump in the road you all get covered in the mess. So stay in touch with friends from elementary school, make time for neighborhood friends, connect with people on your sports team and most importantly, branch out at your new school to make friends from different social groups. This will ensure you have that many more places to go when things get bumpy or messy.

Slow down and pull over sometimes.

Dr. Michael Thompson, an expert on kids your age and one of my favorite authors, says that being in school is like traveling on a highway. If the whole group is going 65 miles per hour, sometimes you feel like you have to keep up with them to avoid getting run over or hurt. But “friendship,” says Thompson,  “resembles the side streets and back roads of childhood.  Friends can go at their own pace. They can stop when they want to. They can get away from the speeding traffic.”

When you find yourself speeding along and feeling out of control, find someone who you can slow down with. I think the best side road you have is your family. Pull over from time to time and slow down with them.

Try hard.

A psychologist from Columbia University studied 400 5th graders in New York City. She gave them each the same puzzle to solve. To half of the kids she said “you did well. You must be smart at this.” To other half she said “You did well. You must have worked hard at this.”

Then, she gave the kids another set of puzzles to work on. But this time, she gave them a choice between an easy puzzle and a puzzle that would challenge them but that would teach them something. Most of the kids from the group that was called “smart” chose the easy puzzle. They were afraid of not looking smart if they failed at the harder puzzle. But 90% of the kids who were complimented for being “hard workers” chose the harder puzzle. They were afraid of not looking like hard workers if they chose the easy puzzle.

When you go to middle school work hard. Try. Take risks. Honestly, in middle school and beyond, for the rest of your life, from your teachers to your eventual boss, people won’t care if you’re smart. What they want to know is that you’re a hard worker. In fact, starting today, forget about your grades in elementary school. In middle school, you are the kid who loves a challenge. You are that kid who always works hard.

Say “hi."

So far, I’ve asked you to make a plan, scrap your plan when you need to, belly up to the buffet, keep your eggs in different baskets, slow down, and try hard. This last piece of advice may be the most important, even though it’s deceptively simple. When you get to middle school, before you walk in on the first day, take a deep breath, exhale, then walk through the front door, look around, smile and say “hi”. Repeat 287,000 times. Have fun!

Parents, want more? Check out her book, which I highly recommend. Icard will return to Raleigh in April for her Right in the Middle mother-daughter conference.

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