Across the country, 5th graders everywhere are making a break for summer and celebrating the end of all things elementary school. Goodbye to walking in quiet lines down the hallway, being stuck with the same kids all day in class, and being the oldest kids on campus. Hello to the great unknown.
If you’re headed to middle school next year, you might not know exactly what to expect, so here are seven tips to help you have a great time no matter comes your way.
1) Decide now how it’s going to end.
As you begin your journey toward middle school, wouldn’t it be helpful to have a map? Maps are useful tools, but the thing about maps is, they’re most helpful when you know where you want to end up. So even though you are a soon-to-be 6th grader, spend some time this summer thinking less about the beginning of middle school and more about the end. What kind of person do you want to be at the end of 8th grade? 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, then put a pin in the map and with the support of your family and friends and teachers – but mostly powered by your own strong will and determination – you will get there.
2) Belly up to the buffet.
When you get to middle school, one of the most important things you will begin to do is develop your unique identity. That means figuring out who you are apart from your parents. For a long time now, your parents have made most of the decisions about who you are – they signed you up for your activities, picked out your clothes, even picked out who you hung out with by arranging playdates. All of this is good and it was very nice of them! But as you enter middle school, you will start doing these things more independently as you figure out who you are in the world.
I call middle school the “buffet of life”. You have so many choices available to you! New activities, new friends, new ways of dressing and expressing yourselves. Try new things. If you always get the same thing at the buffet, how will you ever know if you like something else? Parents, this is a time of change and that can be unsettling. But just as you encouraged your kids to try new foods, encourage them to try new experiences throughout middle school. Who you are as an adult is not a foregone conclusion. It takes trial and error.
And remember, trying new things is no reason to make fun of someone. If you always get the lo mein at the Chinese buffet but one day you decide to try to the fried rice, should someone laugh at your choice? Or be offended? Or get angry? Of course not. Same thing in middle school. Everyone will be trying new things, and that’s alright.
3) Keep your friendship eggs in different baskets.
You’ve probably heard the saying “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.” Imagine yourself, on a bike, riding down a peaceful road on a lovely day with a basket of farm fresh eggs on the front of your bike. The sun is shining and you are whistling, when suddenly – a rock in the middle of the path catches your wheel and with a twist you’re thrown from the bike as it crashes in the path, covering you in dust 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 clique, when any one of you hits a bump in the road you all get covered in the mess. So stay in touch 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.
4) Build good social karma.
Karma is this idea that what you put into the world, you get back. You put nice out, you get nice back. You put mean out, you get mean back.
No doubt, in middle school, at some point someone will try to wrap you up in a nest of gossip and bad influence. Avoid getting involved in other people’s drama. You can build good social karma by expressing empathy for someone who is upset, as in “that must have been an awful situation” or “I can just imagine how bad you felt when you heard that rumor” but not by taking sides, as in “She did that to you?! I hate her for you! I won’t talk to her at lunch.” When your focus is on giving empathy, not serving up revenge or retaliation, you keep yourself free of social payback and develop a reputation as trust worthy.
Parents, I encourage you similarly. When your child comes home from school and reports “you won’t believe what so-and-so did to me today” remember – empathy first. As parents, it is our instinct to solve the problem, to identify those teachable moments, and to give our kids the tools they need to face their challenges. But first things first. “That must have been hard” always comes before “What are you going do about it”?
5) 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. Sometimes that person is your mom or dad or grandparent or sibling – someone you can be yourself with at your own pace until you’re ready to join the traffic again.
6) 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. 90% of the kids who were complimented for being hard workers chose the harder puzzle and the opportunity to learn. Most of the kids from the group that was called “smart” chose the easy puzzle, probably because they were afraid of taking a challenge and not looking smart anymore.
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 will be less and less impressed with your intelligence and more and more impressed by your commitment to hard work. 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.
My last piece of advice is deceptively simple but may be the most important.
7) Smile and say hi.
When you walk through the door on the first day of school next year, make eye contact with someone, smile, and say hi. Repeat this 287 million times. Everyone feels nervous about meeting new people in middle school. Make it easy for other people to get to know you and you will find yourself with lots of new friendships.
Decide now that once middle school starts you will…
- set goals,
- try new things,
- have lots of different kinds of friends,
- offer empathy when someone needs it,
- slow down when you need to,
- work hard,
- smile and say hi.
I hope you have a fun summer and a terrific time in middle school!