Middle School: Challenges and Plans

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Here are some issues that concern many parents and students about middle school.    Also, you’ll see suggestions on planning for these challenges.  Most students won’t need all of these strategies.  Like your child’s IEP, it should be individualized.

 

Challenge: Who’s Who? 

Your child will have new teachers, a new case manager, new administrators and others who are not familiar with them.

 

Plan:

  • Representatives from your child’s middle school should attend the ARD when you decide on services and placement for middle school.  You might want to invite people who aren’t required to come but whose input would be helpful.  Be sure to notify the school in advance if you are requesting that certain personnel attend.
  • It’s a good idea to schedule a team meeting before school starts or within the first two weeks.  Then, you can discuss your child with staff.  Your ARD minutes should document a requirement for this team meeting.  Don’t forget to include paraprofessionals, therapists, and the school nurse if appropriate, in addition to classroom teachers.  Even cafeteria monitors or security officers should receive this information if they cannot attend the meeting.
  • A student portfolio  is a great way to introduce your child to the new team.  Make extra copies so that district personnel can take it with them and refer to it often.  Be sure to include your child’s strengths, interests, hopes, and dreams.  You may also want to include photos of your child doing things they enjoy.  Work samples that demonstrate your child’s ability and creativity are also good to include.  Educators need to know your child is more than a label.  A good portfolio can highlight your child’s strengths and challenges and “make it personal.”
  • Laws regarding transition from public school to adult life require planning to begin at age sixteen.  But, it also states that planning can begin sooner, and it should!  If you feel it is appropriate, you have a right to ask that transition planning begin at an earlier age. If you’ve been keeping up with your child’s student portfolio, it will contain clues about education or employment ideas. 

 

Challenge:   Work, work, and more work!

Academic demands increase with more difficult concepts, a faster pace and more homework. 

 

Plan:

  • The most important tool for dealing with academic challenges is a good IEP.   Hopefully, the ARD team has included accommodations or modifications in the IEP that are needed to succeed.   Some students may need extra time for assignments, modified assignments, or other strategies to handle the increased workload.
  • This is a good time to refine your planning matrix to make sure your child is in the least restrictive environment where they can make sufficient progress on IEP goals.   This will help determine supports needed throughout the day.
  • Be sure to communicate with your child’s teachers if homework seems to take far too long or is a great struggle (or if you child has no homework at all).  Ask the teachers how much time the homework should be taking.  If your child is taking much longer, document the problem.  It’s a good idea to email or call the teacher.  You may also ask for a meeting to discuss possible solutions.  Some students benefit from schedules at home which allot homework time.
  • Some teachers have advisory periods or tutor students privately before/after school.  If you think this would benefit your child, find out how this can be arranged.  Remember, extra tutoring, outside normal school hours, may not be free, just as it is not for children without disabilities.   It doesn’t hurt to ask though as many schools have implemented tutoring programs for all students. 

 

Challenge:  I need a map!

Your child will be adjusting to a new environment, often in a larger building with less adult supervision during class changes and transitions.

 

Plan:

  • Be sure to arrange to visit the new school while your child is still in elementary school.
  • Revisit the middle school campus with your child just before the new school year begins.  It might be best to go when there are no crowds before general orientation.  If needed, get permission for your visit.  Proceed through your child’s schedule.  Do it as often as needed, until your child can do it independently.  (Note: this is not a time to visit with teachers as they are busy getting ready for the school year). 
  • Peer support will be important in middle school.  Perhaps an older student can visit the school with your child and they can walk through the schedule together.  If you don’t know a student, ask your special educator or the school counselor if they can identify one who will be friendly and helpful. 
  • Make note of any accessibility problems and bring them up to your case manager or other appropriate personnel.
  • If your child will have a locker, practice using it.  Request a top or bottom locker located at the end of a row, or one near a teacher who can keep an eye out during class changes if you think it is needed.  If combination locks are a problem, you may want to ask for a modified locker that uses a key or a simple lock where you line up the numbers.  Some students are dismissed a few minutes early from each class so that they can get to their locker before the noisy crowds.  Find out who students turn to if their locker is jammed and make sure your child knows who this person is.  If locker organization becomes a problem, it may be necessary to have someone assist with clean out once per week – document in the ARD/IEP minutes/accommodations pages.
  • Some might initially need someone to accompany them between classes.  This might be done with a paraprofessional or a designated peer.  This support must be documented in the IEP if your child needs it. 
  • You may want to put a map of the school in your child’s notebook or tape one inside the locker.  This is also a good place to put your child’s schedule.  Number classes on the map in relation to his schedule.  Color codes sometimes are helpful to match class schedule to map. 
  • If your child is in a self-contained classroom, use the same plans to get them familiar with the classroom.  Be sure to practice going to each location, whether it is the cafeteria, gym or fine arts class, even if they will have assistance for those transitions. 
  • Some students will need a safe zone – a designated place or person they can go to when they are upset or feeling stressed.  Make sure you provide a visual reminder (such as a map or room number) where the safe zone is in case they forget.

 

Challenge:  So much to organize!

Organizational demands increase, often suddenly and dramatically, when a student enters middle school.

 

Plan:

  • Use a daily planner to keep students organized.  Many schools require some sort of daily planner for recording homework.   It’s a good idea to use one even if it is not required.  Some students forget to write assignments in the planner.  They might need reminders from adults or peers, but any strategy should include a plan for the student to work towards self-sufficiency in this task.
  • Color coding notebooks and book covers by class or subject can help students see at a glance what they need for each class.
  • Be creative about notebook organization.  For instance, your child might benefit from having one large notebook with dividers, or they might do better with separate notebooks for each class.  Another option might be one for morning classes and another for afternoon.  Whatever method you choose, it should be easy to understand and maintain.
  • Ask to see a well-organized locker.  Also, ask to see a notebook from a well-organized student in the upcoming grade.  This will help you see one way that has been successful to keep track of work.  It may need to be adapted for your child, but it’s a good place to start. (see notes on locker organization above).
  • Some schools have teachers post homework assignments and/or grades on the internet.  If this is not required by your district, you can still request that your child’s teachers do this if e-mail is a preferred communication mode for you.  Otherwise, an interactive notebook, or use of the daily planner for communication, might be helpful.  It’s best to have some system in place to check on progress before getting any surprises at the end of the grading period.
  • A critical part of organization is realizing what is important to keep, and what should be thrown away.  Sometimes, a jammed locker or messy notebook simply needs to be de-cluttered.  Surprisingly, this can be more difficult than it sounds but it is a skill worth teaching now and will be invaluable in adulthood.  Find out from teachers how long your child is expected to keep graded assignments or other materials and be brutal about disposing of unnecessary items.
  • There are many options available for electronic organizers.  These might be helpful to keep track of homework and other events.  Some teachers can “beam” assignments directly to these devices.  In addition, alarms or reminders can be programmed for specific times.  This can come in handy as an alert to go to the nurse for medication or turn in important assignments.  A personal device aimed at increasing independence can reduce reliance on others and foster self-esteem.  Make sure the device is noted in the IEP so that your child doesn’t get in trouble for using the device at school.

 

Challenge:  More kids, fewer grown-ups!

Classes are larger with less adult supervision.

 

Plan:

  • Plan your place – some students may benefit from being seated near the teacher or point of instruction in class.  Others might benefit from being in the back of the class or other location.  Requests for specific seating should be documented in the ARD minutes or IEP.
  • If needed, a paraprofessional may be provided to help the student in larger mainstream environments.  Remember to emphasize the need for staff to allow your child to do what they can independently. 
  • Peer supports in classroom settings might be all some students need.  It‘s a good idea to identify these student helpers carefully.  Making a separate student portfolio directed to peers may be a good way to communicate about your child’s needs.  Be sure to remind everyone to respect your child’s confidentiality.  Most often, it’s not necessary to reveal a specific diagnosis or condition to ask for help.  Concentrate instead on communicating your child’s strengths and needs.

 

Challenge:  Where do I go, and who will I be with when I get there?

Many students will, for the first time, be required to change classes.  They will interact with more teachers.  Sometimes, unfamiliar students from other elementary schools will be blended with students your child knows, possibly complicating social interactions.

 

Plan:

  • For some students, it can be overwhelming changing classes several times a day and having different teachers and students in each class.  But bear in mind, that some students really enjoy the excitement and variety this introduces.  Remember to accentuate the positive when preparing your child for this change.
  • As previously stated, if your child needs help getting from class to class you may want to ask for a paraprofessional or peer to accompany them.  This kind of support, if needed, should be faded out as soon as possible. 
  • Some students will need to adjust to having many different teachers throughout the day.  Experience tells us that not all teachers (or classmates) will be favorites, but learning to cope with these differences is an invaluable skill for your child.  Recognize that teachers and classmates have varying personalities, but always insist that your child be treated with respect.  If needed, social skills training may be used to teach your child to do likewise.
  • It may be necessary to ask that your child be seated away from certain peers.  Simple strategies like this can sometimes prevent serious problems.

 

Challenge:  We’re not in elementary school anymore!

Your child will be navigating a new world where many of the written and unwritten rules have changed.

 

Plan:

  • Get a student handbook and review it with your child before school starts. If appropriate, go over the student code of conduct and discuss behavior and related consequences.
  • Teach your child to be a self-advocate, talking with teachers to work out problems, while you remain ready to help if needed.
  • Ask if your school has a social skills training program, particularly one that makes use of natural peer supports.  Inclusive education involves not only teaching the child with a disability how to be included, but also teaching peers how to be more supportive and accepting of students with disabilities. 
  • Challenge previously held notions that all programs must be run by speech and language pathologists and highly qualified psychologists.  While program development and oversight may be best left to these professionals, implementation can and should occur at all levels down to and including other students.  There is simply too great a need to leave all the hands-on social skills training in the hands of so few professionals who already have many other responsibilities to juggle. 
  • You might want to ask counselors to identify students who might make good choices for social skills coaches and hire them to work after school or on weekends.  Alternatively, of course, you could just invite them to visit your child at home.  Remember, keep the long term goal in mind which is to have natural peer supports that are educated, compassionate and understanding regarding disabilities.  These individuals will be your child’s adult friends and neighbors.  Remember, the best students to work with your child might not be the “straight-A” students – they may be students who have struggled themselves and therefore have valuable insight into your child’s challenges.
  • Practice social skills before school starts. Some students  can benefit from video modeling (videos which depict social situations and show what to do) or role playing exercises.
  • Don’t eat lunch with your child everyday!  Most middle school students (including students with disabilities) don’t think it’s cool to have their parents around all the time. 

 

Challenge:  Tough crowd!

The problem of bullying deserves special attention for children with disabilities.  Unfortunately, some studies show that children with disabilities are more likely to be victimized than students without disabilities.  Also, some students with emotional or psychological disabilities may have problems bullying other students and may require special services, such as psychological services, to address this issue. 

 

Plan:

  • Part of avoiding bullying is to teach your child not to be a victim.  Removing your child from the situation may be a natural reaction, but this may not be the best learning opportunity for your child.  There are strategies your child can be taught which will make them less likely to be targeted.  This is a chance to teach critical self-advocacy skills, as well as how to ask for help, that your child will need as they age.  Ensure these skills are addressed in the IEP.
  • Pay special attention to settings such as the bus, before and after school times that are unstructured, physical education, lunch periods and study hall.  These are perfect opportunities for natural peer supports to be used.
  • Check to see if your child’s campus has an anti-bullying program.  There are many programs available, or your district may have a program already in place.  Ask what is done to ensure that students with disabilities are not victimized, particularly during times with less supervision such as physical education or lunch. Often, peer programs such as Circle of Friends can be successful to avoid bullying problems.
  • For more information on bullying, read some of the resources below. 

 

 

Challenge:  PE can be a scary place!

Physical Education deserves special mention, too.  Unfortunately, this is a time when bullying or taunting might be more likely.  This might be because it is usually taught in large groups and there is less adult supervision.   Also, it is naturally competitive in nature.  Some children with disabilities might have delays in gross motor or fine motor skills or other physical limitations.  Others might have social skills issues which make it difficult for them to accept losing a competition.   Remember, no matter what the environment -- lunch, music, arts or academics --there are many creative, fulfilling and effective ways to include students with disabilities.  Respect for individuals’ talents and needs leads us to good ideas on how to make things work and PE is no exception.  The potential benefits of exercise and social interaction are worth trying to make PE a positive experience. 

 

Plan:

  • Dressing out for PE can be a problematic time for some students.  You might want to ask that your child be allowed to dress out in an alternate, private location, or a location with more supervision.
  • If you feel it is in your child’s best interest, some districts offer courses that can be taken instead of attending regular PE classes.  Others might offer PE in the summer where this requirement can be met in smaller groups.  Of course, some students will love PE.  Just as the rest of your team needs to understand your child, the PE coaches should be included when you provide your student portfolio or other form of introduction
  • Some students might enjoy being a team manager if direct participation in a particular activity is not possible.   Explore all the possibilities for ways your child can be involved in physical education classes if you feel modifications are necessary to ensure “the right fit.”
  • If adaptive PE is being pushed because regular PE is “not appropriate”, you may investigate outside PE options (YMCA or health club working with trainer, etc.).  Often this is an option used by students who are in competitive athletics but children with disabilities can also use this option.  Just note that many districts have policies in place and certain deadlines for applying for this “waiver”.  While you will mostly likely incur fees for this outside participation and extra documentation, it may be more “appropriate” to get your son or daughter accustomed to participating in a regular exercise program in the community.  

It should be noted that in 2007, Senate Bill (SB) 530 (80th Texas Legislature) amended Texas Education Code (TEC) §28.002 (l) by adding criteria for physical activity in the middle school grades.  Beginning with the 2008-09 school year, students in grades six through eight are required to participate in at least 30 minutes of daily moderate or vigorous physical activity for at least four semesters. Traditionally, new curriculum requirements begin with an entering class of students.  Therefore, students enrolled in grade six during 2008-2009 are expected to have completed four semesters of structured physical activity by the end of their eighth grade year.  If you have concerns about how your child will meet these requirements, they should be addressed at your child’s ARD.  In addition, all students including those with disabilities are required to participate in the annual physical fitness assessment.

 

Challenge:  Puberty happens! 

During the middle school years, most children are experiencing many changes related to puberty.  They may become anxious or confused about their feelings. This is a normal part of development for all adolescents.  Your child may hear other students talking or see them acting in ways they don’t understand. Statistics tell us that 1 in 3 people with disabilities are sexually assaulted or abused.  Your child must be educated about his/her own sexuality in order to protect against this horrifying statistic.

 

Plan:

  • You might want to seek guidance from a counselor on how to talk to your child about puberty and human sexuality.  It is better for them to get information that is accurate and reflects your personal values than to hear conflicting, incorrect and confusing tales from other students.
  • Each family must decide when to address sexuality education , but you should understand that puberty is inevitable and avoiding the topic might create more anxiety and confusion for your child.
  • It may be necessary to specifically teach your child how to defend themselves from sexual molestation or abuse (Good touch/bad touch concepts, your whole body is a “private part”, etc.).  Many children with disabilities may need to practice role-modeling with a trusted person, in addition to having family discussions.  Teaching them to say “NO!” and run away may not be enough.  It is important that children understand the context of the situation in which this might occur and the tactics an abuser might use to intimidate or establish trust.
  • Remember that hormonal changes might affect not only behavior, but also medication side effects and efficacy.  You might wish to consult your physician on whether any medications your child is taking should be adjusted or discontinued.
  • It might be appropriate for your child to have accommodations or modifications to participate in Health Education courses.  It’s important to consider how to include students in these important discussions and not rule out participation just because the standard classroom program is not suitable for some children.

 

Resources:

Texas Project FIRST:  Transition to Middle School

 

US Department of Education:  Helping Your Child Through Early Adolescence

 

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (curriculum) – Please note that the Middle School curriculum can be found in the TEKS by chapter section. 

 

Texas Education Agency – Coordinated School Health Programs (ie. Healthy & Safe Environments, Counseling & Mental Health, Health services, Health and Physical Education, Bullying, etc.)

 

Smoothing Your Child's Transition to Middle School  by Greatschools.net http://www.greatschools.org/LD/managing/smoothing-your-childs-transition-to-middle-school.gs?content=980

 

Bullying

            National Middle School Association – Research Summary

            US Dept of Health & Human Services Stop Bullying website and Bullying

Among Children with Youth with Disabilities (pdf)

 

Since You’re Not A Kid Anymore Its Time to More in Charge of Your Healthcare – Healthcare Transition Guide for Teens in Middle School

 

Sexuality Education -

 

TEACCH – Univ. of North Carolina Strategies for Surviving Middle School with an Included Child with Autism

 

Mind Publications Moving from Elementary to Junior High is a Big Adjustment

 

PBS Kids Go! Middle School