Kids across New England are back to school, and for many students, this year has some added anxiety as they adjust to the unfamiliar hallways and social changes of middle school.
"I understand that they're at the age now that their social relationships are competing directly with our family relationships," said Christina Horner, mother of two 6th grade boys. "To be popular, to be well-liked. That's the most important label right now."
Experts say this particular transition is a difficult one for children. Students are dealing with physical and emotional changes in a new academic environment.
"Some say the main goal for kids in middle school is survival," said Bob Lichtenstein, PhD, director of the school psychology doctoral program at William James College. He said navigating a new social environment is the most challenging part of middle school life.
"They are concerned about looking different, not being with it or not having friends," Lichtenstein said. "It's all very uncertain at this stage."
Finding their way around a new building is another source of concern for students. Many schools offer orientation for 6th-graders to get comfortable with their new setting. That's the case at Boston's Timilty Middle School where Celeste Henry-Williams has been teaching for 15 years.
"There's a lot of anxiety," said Henry-Williams. "Students are coming from an elementary school where they were the big fish. And all of a sudden, they're a newbie."
She says forging relationships with kids early on is key, and so is parental support.
"We really encourage parents and guardians to become involved, to become active, and to utilize that," Henry-Williams said.
"Really sit down and say, 'So tell me. How's middle school going so far?' Make the eye contact, wait for an answer," Lichtenstein suggests. "Parents often lose sight of the fact that they're still really important. The kid just isn't going to be as quick to show it."
With parents, teachers, and counselors to guide them, students can find their voice during an awkward time of development.
"Every year when I see my 6th-grade students, I think, wow. They're just 5th-graders coming over. But when you see them in January, you realize that they're developing into young adults. And with that, given the right structure, the world can be their oyster."
Lichtenstein also said it's important for guidance counselors to make connections with students early in the school year so that students feel comfortable coming to them with concerns.