By Stephanie Filio
Change requires transition—between grade levels, habits, jobs—and, though often difficult, ultimately leads us to grow and progress in life. During this COVID-19 pandemic, much of our world is transitioning from a carefree communal life to anxious isolation. We already know that a child with an unstable and mobile upbringing is at higher risk for mental health difficulties and dropping out. We could not have anticipated the need to respond to a generation of children transitioning between major levels of education in the face of such a widespread crisis.
As our schools extend their closures for the 2019–2020 school year, we educators have adapted to digital schooling to the best of our ability. We didn’t know this was coming, and we don’t know what is coming next. Even still, we have been able to lean on our knowledge of children, content acquisition, and cognitive finesse. When we welcome our new middle schoolers into our wild fold next year, we can use the confidence of what we have already accomplished to provide a world that is again orderly and safe. Using classic transition-preparedness techniques and amplifying comprehensive SEL programs, we can help our sixth graders achieve success during a traumatic time.
At my middle school, counselors move to the next hallway annually, following our caseload students for the three years they are with us. Our rapport and relationships deepen each year, and wishing them well when they go off to high school is often more difficult for us than it is for them!
The work that goes into healthy transitions (such as moving grade levels and developmental stages) is really the bread and butter of what a middle school counselor does. We introduce students to the safety of our school, act as bumpers as they navigate the social and academic logistics of this period of growth, and then remind them that they are equipped and capable of great things in the scary world of high school.
Next year, I will be back to basics as I rotate down to sixth grade. It is exciting to approach this new batch of kids. But it is also somewhat daunting to map out the goals and norms I want to establish with them so that we can foster all the good habits they will need to be successful in the long run. Sixth graders are fresh and unassuming in their newness to middle school, and we know only bits and pieces of what the next couple years have in store for them.
The jump from elementary school to middle school is perhaps the most difficult for kids. Students in sixth grade are still developing coping skills and the ability to operate and make decisions independently. Simultaneously, they are exiting the sweet and soft space of primary education and entering the complex and weighty world of secondary education. They are conflicted in heart and head by their evolving cognition in the preteen and early teen years.
With each progression between schools, the breadth of what students can control both expands and contracts, and this can be frustrating and confusing in a whole new way. For example, middle schoolers can select their exploratory education, but they can’t decide not to dress out for their physical education class. They can select what they want for lunch, but they can’t choose how well their locker will work. They can pick their friends, but they won’t know what people will post about them on social media.
What to Expect
When my daughter started middle school, she had a friend who was one year ahead of her. She asked him what she should expect it to be like, and he said, “It’s like getting hit by a truck!” Pretty appropriate! This explains why even though elementary schools spend a significant amount of time getting students ready for middle school, students’ cognitive recall for this information is often buried under anxiety the second they walk through the doors.
The preparation is not done in vain, however, because it’s all there beneath students’ emotions and will eventually marry up with the middle school’s efforts to walk them through the shock and get them to a place of calm, clear thinking. Once sixth graders reach this stride, they are often good to go, but until then they’re just freaking out.
What can we do to prepare kids for this great leap into the unknown? We can make use of our school counseling education about comprehensive programs so that we envelop each student and provide consistent expectations and exercises for choice. We can give them room to experience all these feelings and can coax them toward healthy coping skills that help them learn to self-soothe.
Mourning the Loss of Their Safety Net
When students realize that they have to say goodbye to elementary school, they are experiencing an emotional loss. To make matters worse, familiarity feels like safety, and the transition can be overwhelming and scary. The emotions we see in kids during this transition are much like those we see when children mourn the loss of a loved one, experience a divorce, or say goodbye to a parent leaving for a military assignment.
Take a sixth grader’s disposition as an example. Calling upon the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief (a system often adapted for other types of loss), we see denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in our new middle schoolers in their first year with us.
- Denial: I can’t figure out how to open my locker—I’ll figure out how not to need one.
- Anger: I hate this school—I wish it were more like my other school.
- Bargaining: I’ll go to PE if I don’t have to dress out.
- Depression: No one in my classes likes me—I have no friends.
- Acceptance: I can’t wait for seventh grade—I can’t believe I won’t get to see my friends all summer!
The kid who is acting too cool for school, the kid who cries every day, the kid who refuses to go to school—they all may be showing signs that they are struggling with change. I spend my days pinging around the hallway to offer a strong, consistent presence while allowing kids enough space to be able to process their feelings. I am there to answer students’ questions, help connect them with resources, teach them how to diversify how they view things, and try to prevent them from collecting too many major regrets. At the end of the day, however, the biggest job of the transitioning middle schooler is identity development, and to do this they’ve got to make some mistakes, learn some hard lessons, and grow from it all.
Strategies for Helping
I have some tried-and-true mini-goals for my counseling practice with sixth graders that, once established, can be called upon throughout their three years with me. These strategies are meant to feel like insider information between me and the students so that eventually they require no explanation. Some of them include:
Connections to elementary school (letters). I like to reach out to our feeder schools and ask the school counselors there to write and send me notes for their frequent-flier students. I keep the notes until students show me—through withdrawing or lack of self-control, for example—that they need a connection to a familiar safety zone. Pulling out this surprise note of confidence is my secret weapon to helping kids get back on track!
Children’s books. Sometimes middle schoolers get really, really spun up in their emotions. Like, really spun up. Because I try to give my students the illusion of space (I’m actually all up in their business, but I act like a naïve boomer), they like to joke about my silly disposition. This includes when I make my kids read children’s books aloud to me when I think they have spiraled out of control and need to put their feet on the ground. Or they need to remember how to share, how to be a good friend, or how throwing fits isn’t helpful. After resistance from them and persistence from me, it takes only a couple pages before they say, “Yeah, okay, Mrs. Filio, I get it.” It is a perfect combination of meditative impulse control (sitting quietly reading) and making a connection to elementary content and their young self in the elementary school environment. Picture your favorite toys and games from when you were a kid and you’ll get it.
Mindfulness. I like to start the year with a mini-lesson on mindfulness within my initial introductory lesson. I teach students 4×4 breathing and have them practice it several times. I tell them that things are about to get real now that they’re in middle school and that they are going to fall apart a little sometimes. Then I remind them that when they start to panic, they can come see me! I tell them that in these moments, I will let them vent, help them brainstorm some options for moving forward, and tell them to “chill out.” And then we will practice 4×4 breathing. The kids know they are on an emotional brink, and I want them to feel comfortable experiencing it all, while also putting in a little plug for my school counseling practice.
Locker help. For the love of god, lockers are the evil arch-nemesis of every middle school kid throughout history! Sixth-grade teachers, counselors, and administrators take pity on the entire hallway when it is time to assign lockers. Students are so excited about having a piece of the school to call their own, and getting a locker is the big kahuna. But alas, in a sea of students in front of their new contraption, all trying to nonchalantly open that sucker, 95 percent will feel defeated, and no amount of elementary school counselor locker lessons can change this. It’s just a law of nature.
I have extra locks for secret practice with students, and I never give the impression that their locker troubles are a bother so my students can always feel comfortable coming to me about a tough situation. Fun fact! Though they eventually get the hang of lockers in their first year, when students are in eighth grade and starting to fall apart approaching high school, they suddenly forget how to enter their locker combinations, and we spend more time than you would think helping them.
Repercussions of Widespread Trauma
When we experience trauma, we naturally become more resistant to change because we have lost faith in the assurances and promises of safety from others—and the universe in general. We are about to see just how bad it can get.
Keep in mind that after the trauma students have experienced with the COVID-19 crisis, they will likely have even more difficulty transitioning. I would venture to say that we will see more tears, more withdrawal, more school refusal, and more opposition from our incoming sixth graders for the next couple years than we have ever seen before.
This generation will likely have intense difficulty emotionally connecting to their new school-home and will likely need to be shrouded in more reassurance than we are used to giving. To that end, and perhaps after any widespread trauma, it will be important to design school counseling programs through a little bit different lens with a slightly more clinical approach.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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