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Transitions: A Rite of Passage

transitions school choice within limitsTransitions, such as when children move up to a new school level, can be both exhilarating and anxiety-producing. Faced with making new friends, managing more homework, or just learning how to handle a locker, even the most eager students may experience some nerves. Parents worry, too, and wonder how they can best shepherd their child into this new stage.

A Rite of Passage

Before we think about how to help, let’s take a moment to consider a different question: What do they need to get out of this transition? Moving to a new set of grades doesn’t involve just a physical change of location or increased expectations. These transitions are rites of passage, critical steps in the process of growing up. It’s important that children emerge from this transition feeling older, more independent, and more accomplished.

If parents do too much, this need for increased independence may be violated. However, if they offer too much freedom, the need for success at school may not be met. So where’s the middle ground? We appreciate Jane Nelsen’s approach described in her book Positive Discipline.

Choice Within Limits

Parents must define boundaries for children and then, gradually, expand those boundaries to offer as many choices as possible within them. Let’s play this out with an example: Eleven-year-old Emma is transitioning into middle school, and her mom, Michelle, desperately wants her to be successful. Emma struggled to keep track of her assignments last year, and Michelle knows her grades will tank quickly this year if that pattern continues.

Restrictive Option

Michelle meets with Emma’s teachers to make a plan. They decide that her last period teacher will sign her assignment notebook after Emma records her homework every day. Emma isn’t included in this decision-making, so there’s no attempt to get her input on her difficulties. She’s frustrated by the supervision and doesn’t like feeling different from her classmates who don’t have to do this. She quickly begins to resent this support.

Permissive Option

Michelle decides to let Emma start off the school year on her own and “see how it goes.”  The problem here is that Emma has never conquered her homework management challenges on her own before, and she’s not capable of doing so now. She’s being set up to fail.

Choice within Limits

The limit, or boundary, here is that work must be completed and turned in. Within that limit, however, the options are endless! Michelle calls a family meeting and tells Emma how excited she is about her transition to middle school. She then asks Emma how she feels about the move. What is she looking forward to? Is she nervous about anything? What does she want to accomplish? Michelle is honest and shares that she wants so much to see her do well, and she’s nervous that missing assignments will hold her back. She tells Emma that because she’s in middle school now, it’s very important for her to be a part of deciding how to make this year successful.

Michelle writes “Ways to make sure homework is done and turned in” on a large blank sheet of paper. Emma, Michelle, and Emma’s dad, each contribute as many ideas as possible. They range from “I’ll write it down every day” to “A teacher could sign your assignment notebook daily” to “Mom could check in with the teacher every week at the end of the week to see how you’re doing.” Along the way, they don’t make judgments. It’s fun to see how one seemingly “off” notion can lead to another quite good one! In the end, Amy and her parents generate a dozen different ideas.

Next, Emma’s parents use their veto power. Michelle crosses “I’ll write it down every day” off the list. She explains to Emma that this strategy didn’t work last year, and she doesn’t feel comfortable trying this again. She wants Emma to have more support than that for now. They discuss the remaining options and their pros and cons. In the end, they find a solution everyone is willing to try.


First, Emma will start off the year without her teacher checking on her every day because that makes her feel singled out. Instead, she’ll review her assignments in the car with her mom before they leave the parking lot each day. She knows her teachers stay after school for 20-30 minutes, so if she’s missing anything, she can run back in for more details. Second, Emma understands that if this method doesn’t work, she’ll need to get more support (which might include getting her assignment notebook signed by a teacher!).

With this approach, Emma is likely to feel a real sense of ownership over the problem as well as the potential solution. She’ll be invested in making it work, but won’t feel like a failure if it doesn’t. She’ll know that her parents will be there to help her find another way to work towards achieving her goal!

It can be hard to see the forest for the trees when going through this sort of experience with your own child. We love talking through ideas with parents, so give us a call if you could use a fresh pair of eyes!