A guide for parents and students to tackling those tricky transition points in school
By Wendy Kilmer
Photography by Beth Dukes
Ninth grader Miyah Garcia wondered how hard the work would be and if she could keep her grades up. Sixth grader Alan Mercer worried about getting lost in the hallways of an unfamiliar school. And kindergarten student Linc Buchanon admitted to being just a little bit worried about making new friends.
Whether officially starting school for the first time in kindergarten, moving from the familiarity of elementary school to the newfound independence of middle school, or starting the more adult-like high school experience, transitions to a new level of school can be anxiety producing for students and parents.
“I was nervous about the simple things: the sheer size of our school, the newness of uniforms, the organization of a locker-less campus,” said April Mercer, whose son, Alan, attended sixth grade at Craig Middle School this past year. “I was nervous too about the bigger things: whether my child would fit in socially, how he might handle the freedoms allowed in middle school that would be new to him.”
Fortunately, Abilene area schools and teachers have plans and policies in place to ease transition points for students as they move from one type of school to the next.
Jana Ammons has been teaching kindergarten in Wylie Independent School District for 12 years.
“I love it because it’s never the same,” Ammons says. “There’s always something new happening.”
For that very reason, starting kindergarten often carries a bundle of emotions and nerves for parents and students.
“Teachers are great, but it’s a stranger, and parents want to make sure that the teacher has their kids’ best interests in mind,” Ammons said. “Some are used to being able to come visit whenever they want or pick up their kid at any time, so the security and procedures at the school are new to them. Mostly, they just want to feel confident about who they are leaving their kids with.”
Families who begin kindergarten typically come from four different situations, said Carla Garrett, director of elementary education for Abilene Independent School District. The child has been entirely in a home setting prior to kindergarten, has been in a public preschool, has been in part- or full-time private daycare/preschool setting, or the family has just moved to the area.
Even for parents whose children have been in some form of school setting, kindergarten can be a challenging transition.
“We were nervous mainly because Linc was transitioning from the private school, St John’s, where he had attended the previous two years,” says Courtney Buchanon. “That campus is so much smaller, and he knew everyone. I was worried it would be a hard transition for him. That he would get lost in the mix and be bored. However, Wylie is a wonderful school system and able to challenge each of our children on the level they need as long as you communicate.”
Ammons advises parents, especially parents of kids who haven’t been in a full-time school setting, to prepare for kindergarten by helping their children practice some of the independent activities they might need to do on their own in school.
“Think about all the things they do in a typical day. Can they do those things if they are away from you? For example, can they button their pants? If not, maybe wear an elastic waist at first. Can they open all the food you packed in their lunch? They have to eat pretty quickly, which is new to some of them,” Ammons said.
Everyday activities also provide opportunities that can help with kindergarten academic readiness.
“Talk to your kids a lot,” Ammons said. “Ask questions and have conversations with them. Give them plenty of social opportunities. Read to them. Count with them. Give them practice following instructions. Help them learn to take care of their things and clean up after themselves.”
In addition, Garrett emphasizes giving new students some familiarity with the setting where they will start school. Families can visit the playground area to let their kids explore and play during the summer, and all Abilene schools offer a meet-the-teacher night before school starts so that students and parents can experience the classroom, school and teacher(s) ahead of time.
It’s also important for parents to be aware of how their own emotions might affect their children.
“A sad mom who is grieving her child starting school is not helpful to a child,” Garrett said. “It’s certainly normal to have those feelings, but your child doesn’t need to feel those emotions from you. Talk to your kids about it ahead of time – tell and show them where you will you drop them off and where will you say goodbye. Empower your child. Your child will quickly pick up on your emotions.”
Tips from the Trenches
Sam Nkunzimana: “Don’t be afraid. The teachers are nice.”
Linc Buchanan: “Don’t be scared because it’s really fun.”
Riley Brozovic: “Kindergarten helps you read and have better smartness.”
Gustavo Villanueva, director of secondary education for Abilene ISD, perhaps most accurately hits on the reasons parents fear the sixth grade year: “Parents are concerned because it’s different than elementary school. And, they are concerned because they went to middle school themselves!”
Painful personal memories, paired with pop culture images of middle school as a time of awkwardness, bullies and pre-teen angst, may instill anxiety in even the most calm and confident parents.
“I was as nervous as a mom of a sixth grader as I was for kindergarten, and I work at the school!” said Lee Wallace, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Craig Middle School and also parent of sixth grader Maeve Wallace. “I couldn’t wait for the first day of school to be over where I could talk to her and see how things went.”
But, as with entering kindergarten, parental anxiety should be tempered for the sake of the student.
“Don’t let your fear paint a negative picture of school for them,” Villanueva said. “Parents are a huge part of the school experience.”
Fortunately, many of the typical fears are likely overblown. Abilene middle schools have a variety of practices in place to care for the needs and nerves of new 6th graders. There is ample time for getting from one class to another, and teachers are present and visible in the hallway to help any misplaced students. Most schools have grouped the sixth grade classrooms in just one hallway, and some local middle schools even have separate passing period just for sixth graders, to help alleviate hallway crowding.
“Students tell me every year that making it through the first day of school was so much easier than they thought it would be,” Wallace says. “We do not count tardies the first week. We make sure they know how to pay for their lunch and go through the lunch line, and we work with their PE locker combinations, and repeat over and over the general procedures.”
In addition, fifth grade students have a chance to tour the campus, meet current middle school students and see classes in session during the spring semester before they start middle school. Shortly before school starts in August, parents and students are invited to tour the school and walk through the student’s class schedule as many times as needed.
Still, even seasoned students might feel unsettled by the larger campus and new faces.
“Before I came I was super nervous about getting to my classes on time, getting lost, and how hard the work would be,” said sixth grader Vicky Gao. “But once I got here, I found out it’s super fun. They teachers are really nice; they tell you what you need to know, they’re supportive and considerate; they know what you need.”
After the first day, or perhaps the first week, students typically begin to feel more confident and start enjoying the freedoms afforded them in their new setting.
“It was nerve-wracking that first day,” said Alan Mercer. “I had no clue where anything was, other than having seen it at the walk-around. My sister had been here and told me about it, but I really didn’t know the layout of the sixth grade. I was pretty nervous but excited too. My sister had told me it was fun and you got more freedom. It took about a week to know how to get from one class to another and get a routine and a group of friends to stick with. I was still nervous, but it was fun, even during that first week. By the second week I was more confident.”
Tips from the Trenches
Alan Mercer: “Bring your big boy pants because it’s harder academically. The step from fifth to sixth is a big one. Organization is important. Bring a binder or a folder. You’ll get a late grade if you don’t bring your homework on the first day it’s due. You have to be responsible for your own work.”
Vicky Gao: “You can make new friends. Everybody is really nice. Always put your best foot forward and work your hardest.”
Kay Pinson has 28 years of first-day-of-high-school experience, so she’s learned what to expect: speechless faces staring back at her.
“On the first day, most are silent,” Pinson said. “They’re terrified about finding classrooms and restrooms. I’ve had kids who were so scared of the restroom they tried not to use the bathroom all day. Lunch can be terrifying also – who will be in their lunch period that they know? Will there be long lines? Will they finish in time? But after a week or two, they settle into routines. They need routine and to know what to expect.”
Seeing students settle into that routine and begin to embrace it is one of the reasons she loves teaching freshmen.
“There’s so much growth from the beginning of the year to the end,” she said. “They are seeing a new freedom and independence. Some crash and burn, but some blossom. There are so many new opportunities for them.”
Ninth grader Miyah Garcia said her favorite part of high school, as compared to middle school, is the additional freedoms.
“We can listen to music, we can use our phones at lunch,” she said. “Teachers are more comfortable and chill. The teachers are really fun.”
Choosing extracurricular activities and thinking through future careers is a key aspect of high school.
“Moving from middle school to high school, you’re looking at more choice of subjects, examining careers, making a four-year-plan,” Villanueva said.
As with incoming middle school students, new high school students have chances to check out the campus and their areas of choice ahead of time.
“We have opportunities for students to tour the building, learn more about elective areas, hear about their options and see students in the classroom,” he said. “Band, FFA, programs like that go and talk to eighth graders, and in the summer they have another chance to go tour the school. These events begin to erode the fears that students and parents have.”