As a child, middle school completely overwhelmed me. There were higher academic expectations, new interests and extracurriculars, a much wider and more intimidating social landscape, physical and hormonal changes, and a developing sense of self with which to reckon. Add to this madness a cocktail of executive dysfunction, impulsivity, distractibility, high emotional sensitivity, and hyperfocus — all due to undiagnosed ADHD — and my distaste for middle school is understandable.
Oh, did I mention that I started middle school in a new town? I felt like I had been thrown into shark-infested waters. The one person I happened to know at my new school immediately shunned me because of my ADHD-fueled obsession with Treasure Trolls (it was the ‘90s, after all). My backpack heavily featured the wild-haired, bejeweled dolls, and it was socially disadvantageous to be seen with someone toting such a juvenile accessory. Cue intense rejection sensitive dysphoria.
I did have teachers with reasonable expectations who seemed to care, but I was an undiagnosed student and, although I worked unbelievably hard to maintain a 4.0 most of the time (because, anxiety), my teachers did not temper their disapproval when I misplaced a textbook, forgot an assignment, absent-mindedly wrote on a desktop, or impulsively left my seat. Being made to scrub all the surfaces in the science lab after class under the glare of an adult authority figure I respected caused me no small amount of shame and self-loathing.
Today, I’m the parent of a new middle schooler with ADHD, which is why my own memories of middle school awkwardness and growing pains are flooding back. But I’m using my middle school experiences to help my child transition to a new academic stage with the least amount of stress possible. Here’s what helped him – and us – so far.
1. Strengthen existing friendships. My son formed some sweet friendships throughout the fourth and fifth grades. Though many of his friends joined him in his new middle school, we prioritized facilitating time with them outside of school and during the summer before sixth grade. This enabled him to solidify those bonds before middle school rocked the proverbial boat.
2. Sign up for extracurriculars and focus on interests. My son signed up for his new school’s swim team, and he plays trombone for the sixth-grade band. The benefits are three-fold: He gets to partake in activities he enjoys while getting to know other kids who share his interests, which would be more difficult to do otherwise in a school that is more than twice of size of his previous one. The activities he chose also happen to help him regulate his emotions and obsessive behaviors.
3. Establish habits and routines. Despite our best efforts to anticipate the demands of middle school and advise our son accordingly, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. For example, in the beginning of the school year, there were several Sunday nights when my son would suddenly (and anxiously) remember that he had assignments due the following morning that he had yet to begin. It occurred to us then that his teachers no longer required him to keep an agenda for class, which was an expectation in elementary school. While some students probably rejoiced in no longer having to record their assignments, the loss of this invaluable tool was causing my son’s previously successful school routine to break down.
I know that paper planners are essential for my own day-to-day functioning as an adult with ADHD, so we bought my son a paper planner (our county no longer provides them for middle schoolers) and got him back into the habit of adding his assignments here at the end of every class and checking his agenda as soon as he got home. To reinforce the habit, I checked his agenda every day for the first two weeks to make sure that he was using it, and I signed each entry, as his teachers had required us to do in elementary school. Now, he manages his assignment book on his own and has learned that, for those of us with ADHD, habits and routines, while tedious, are our friends.
4. Ride a few waves on your own. So far, middle school has been an exercise in finding tools and strategies that work for our son and encouraging him to use them independently. Gaining a sense of autonomy is an important part of growth, but striking a balance between guiding our pre-teens and giving them ownership of their school experience is tricky. We don’t want to let them drown, but it’s okay – healthy even – to let them ride a few waves on their own. In fact, it’s imperative that they do.
5. Be patient and give yourself grace. At the end of a long day away from us, my son (and all middle schoolers) need a safe space to decompress, express their emotions, engage in their interests, and… play! Our kids are now pre-teens who have body hair, wear deodorant, and will soon be taller than their moms, but they’re still kids — and they need our patience and understanding during this critical juncture in their young lives.
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