Along Came Middle School :: Helping Your Atypical Child Transition from Elementary School


Ah, the middle school years. They are a rite of passage for almost everyone. A bittersweet time, so to speak, that can best be described by the words “freeing, but awkwardly painful.”

middle school transitionParents of soon-to-be middle schoolers have moments of:

He can’t be THAT old! Wasn’t he just starting kindergarten LAST year?!?!

As well as:

Dear Lord, the teenage years are coming. HELP!

Then, as back-to-school time nears, you get the class schedule, buy those school supplies, purchase some new gym sneakers, and away they go to discover the world of “being more independent.”

At least, that is what happened when we sent our daughter to middle school just two short years ago. She loved it! Yes, she had her drama-filled moments and times when she was unsure of herself, but for the most part she is all about middle school and the amazing things it has to offer. Her dad and I love that. She is finding her way, and unbelievably, I am totally cool with that.

This year, we find ourselves once again parents of another soon-to-be middle schooler. Kid number two will join those fun-filled, awkward, but freeing years. And to be honest, this momma could not be MORE nervous.

I know, I know, as silly as it sounds, I am much more apprehensive about sending the second kid to middle school than the firstborn. It does not make sense that this veteran mom would be panicking, but (ask her husband) she totally is. And the even funnier thing: she herself is a teacher of 20 years. Yep, I am a wreck!

The difference in our kid number one and kid number two go much deeper than just gender. You see, kid number one is “typical,” while her brother — kid number two — is considered “atypical.” At first glance, he appears normal for lack of a better term, but you quickly learn through behaviors and quirks that he isn’t. He is gifted, but in special education — “twice exceptional,” they call kids like him — and on the autism spectrum. His biggest deficit in life: social skills.

While years of therapy have helped, we are far from the social skills deemed age-appropriate for an 11 year old. He does not seem to know when to stop, forgets what he is supposed to be doing, and needs LOTS of reminders. And let’s just say “lots of reminders” and “becoming more independent” don’t fit very well together.

Plan A, which we did with kid number one, is obviously not going to work here, so on to plan B we go. I mapped it out, I made a few calls, and I am already feeling less anxious about sending the boy on his way. Here is what we are doing to help our “atypical” pre-teen boy transition smoothly to middle school.

Schedule a Tour of the School

Call the school office and a request a tour of the school. Someone will be able to help you. We reached out to the administration, and they happily welcomed us to schedule an appointment for a tour.

Why this is helpful? Most kids in general are nervous about the jump from elementary school to middle school. The schools are vastly different in size, they will have six or seven teachers to juggle, and HELLO locker combinations!

Often, atypical kids are more anxious about everyday things that many kids do not even stress about. Prepping him on where he can find the bathroom, when and where he will eat, and how to open his locker will help him feel more comfortable with such a tremendous change in school settings.

Make Contact with the Special Education Team

Many atypical students will have a plan in place to help them with their deficits. Our son has been blessed by a myriad of professionals, who help him succeed in school.

Because he has both an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and a BIP (Behavior Intervention Plan), he has people in place to help him work through his challenges and struggles. Send an email when you are thinking about it, and not when you are trying to survive the first weeks of school; however, be prepared to not receive an instant reply.

Why this is helpful? Even if the teacher/staff do not respond immediately, they are more than likely already putting some thought into what they need to do in regards to your child’s needs before school even starts. As a teacher myself, I know it can be extremely helpful for me to have some insight to the situation and a name to faces. Then, the first days will be a lot easier for both your child and for their support team.

Role Playing with Different School Scenarios

Let’s face it. There are not many times in children’s elementary education when they have to get themselves from class to class without a teacher leading the way. “Bubble in your mouth and quiet feet” do not apply to any middle-school passing period that I know of. In fact, if anything it is more like someone opened the gate and shouted “free pizza at the end of the hall!” In middle school, they have to find not only their own way from class to class, but also the cafeteria — and they have to remember what to bring to each class before that magic tardy bell rings out.

Why this is helpful? Tardies are now on the kids as opposed to being a parent’s responsibility. Your children’s teachers will not be following them to the locker to remind them to get their gym bag or drumsticks. The hallways are loud and chaotic for those few minutes right before the tardy bell rings. These extra stressors can ramp up any child’s anxiety, but for atypical kids, it seems to magnify things immensely. In addition, when stress is high, how does one respond? Not very well, admittedly; even we grown up people do not always handle stressful times very well.

Double- and Triple-Check Your Child’s Daily/Monthly Routines

Does your child take medication? Take a peek into your medicine cabinet. Does your child have enough refills to get them through the first six weeks of school? If your child takes medication at school, have you visited with the school’s nurse to ensure you filed the proper paperwork for him or her to administer it daily to your child? Most school districts have a very specific form they require your child’s doctor to fill out. Check your school district’s website. Many will have a medicine form you can download yourself. If you don’t have access to a printer, stop by your school’s main office and the staff will gladly give you one.

Do you have an extra labeled bottle of the prescription to leave at the school? If not, call your pharmacy. If your child has a current prescription on file, the pharmacist can print a label of the prescribed med needed for school and give you an empty bottle . . . a trick many of you probably already know. However, it took me a few times of saving my own bottles at home to learn this. Asking for the empty bottle makes things much easier.   

Does your child see an outside therapist? Is there a standing appointment (each week at 5:00 p.m.; every two weeks on Tuesdays at 4:00 p.m., etc.)? If so, is your child actually ON the schedule? The last thing you want to do is to assume he or she is, show up on that day, and have the receptionist inform you that oops, you are not on the schedule. A quick phone call to your child’s therapist’s office can remedy this problem in an instant.

If your child sees a therapist, but not on a somewhat regular basis (fingers crossed that we will be there soon), then I would call and schedule a check-in session for your child about a month into the new school year.

Why this is helpful? Best-case scenario? Your kid is ROCKING middle school and isn’t needing that support at the moment. Keep the appointment anyway, and use this time to go in and update your child’s therapist about the changes/challenges your child is facing and how he or she is responding. That way, when things are starting to break down for your child at school, the therapist is caught up to what is going on in his or her daily life. And by keeping the appointment, your child can receive positive feedback and praise not always heard elsewhere. And trust me, a boost in confidence for ANY child is well worth the copay to see the therapist.

On the other hand, if your child is NOT handling the transition to middle school very well, you will have an appointment set and ready to go. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a situation of waiting weeks to be seen. In the meantime, your child is spiraling down at warp speed. The best thing to do is to try and catch dips in behavior/moods as quickly as you can. It will be much easier to help restore your child to his or her happy-go-lucky self and just being a kid.

Photo Credit: Rooted in Love Photography

I know, without a doubt, that even the best-laid plans do not always work out. However, my hope is that with a few extra steps, we have helped lessen EVERYONE’S anxiety about transitioning to middle school . . . especially this momma!

All children are different and have different needs. Some of our plan B may work for you, but some of it may not apply to you and your child at all. Totally okay! You do YOU. And when you figure out your plan B, feel free to add a comment/suggestion below. Who knows who you will be helping out. Deep breaths, moms of atypical kids; you’ve got this . . . and more important, so does your kiddo!

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Anna moved to Fort Worth fresh out of college in hopes of finding a job. She quickly landed a teaching job on the northside of town and has officially declared Texas her home “for the time being.” Spending the last two and half years in her “cloffice,” she devoted all of her evenings and weekends to online lectures, grad school assignments, and research. She recently graduated with her masters in special education with an emphasis in dyslexia and acquired a strong dislike of statistics and APA7 in the process. Married for 21 years and a mom to three teens, she spends her free time recouping the thousands and thousands of hours of lost sleep that motherhood gifted her. When not napping, you can find her listening to her favorite crime podcasts, singing showtunes, or attending any school event that involves her talented offspring. She openly shares her journey of parenting a neurodiverse teenager through the unpredictable, yet rewarding, days of high school to help families like hers.


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