Transitioning from Elementary to Middle School: Tips for Parents of Gifted Students
Transitioning from elementary school into middle school is a big adjustment—both for children and for their parents. Parents of gifted children often find this transition especially trying, since the services that were available for children at the elementary level are sometimes difficult to find at the middle school—when they are offered at all.
One goal of schooling should be for all students to strive to do their personal best and extend their own learning.
Although middle school enthusiasts are quick to deny it, the philosophical underpinnings of the early middle school movement in the United States were pointedly anti-gifted in nature. The movement away from providing services to gifted students can be found in the polemical statements from founders of the movement and in the decline of workshops addressing the needs of gifted students at the National Middle School Association’s annual conferences.
So what is a parent to do?
Learn About the School’s Offerings
Multiple sources at your new school can provide you with meaningful information about the services for gifted students: the school’s Web site, other parents with children in the school, and an appointment with the principal will give you a good sense of how the school addresses the needs of gifted children. In some states, the school report card highlights the services offered to gifted students, but be aware that the information presented is limited. A school might report that it has a gifted program, but what does this mean? Gifted programs range from challenging, ability-grouped classes attended by students daily to an occasional field trip with no services offered during the school day.
You know your child’s needs best. Look for a match between the school’s specific offerings and the needs of your child. Is your child gifted in math? Then see if the school offers courses such as Algebra I for high school credit. Is your child gifted in literary analysis? Then ask if the English courses are ability grouped, and request a copy of the reading list to see if it is commensurate with your child’s reading ability.
In Nashville, Tennessee, a group of parents raised questions about what they saw as a lack of opportunities for gifted and high ability students in the district's middle schools. The school board responded by forming a task force with multiple stakeholders. Within five months the task force developed recommendations to increase the offerings for gifted and high ability students at both the middle and high school levels. Without requesting any additional funding, administrators of the Nashville middle schools were able to add 14 high school credit courses. As a result, 18 of the 23 middle schools in Nashville were able to offer a minimum of 3 high school level courses for high school credit.
Making sure that challenging offerings are available for your child might have to start long before he or she arrives at middle school. Be vigilant and start asking questions before the transition year.
Learn About the School’s Philosophy
Does the school treat giftedness as a cause for providing challenges above and beyond those of the regular classroom, or is giftedness treated as an annoyance? Does the school allow opportunities for high ability students to spend time in class together, or do the school’s grouping practices prohibit this? Does the school’s idea of gifted services include having gifted students tutor others, either individually or in cooperative learning groups? If so, be concerned. While tutoring other students can be a worthwhile activity, a child should not be expected to play the role of a teacher.
Dr. Marian Matthews of Eastern New Mexico University conducted a series of studies on the reactions of gifted middle and high school students to their tutoring and cooperative learning experiences. Across the board, she found that students are frustrated and resentful when they have to take time away from their own learning to help students who do not care about school. Repeatedly, she found that gifted students reported having to “do all the work” in group settings, a refrain that many parents of gifted students hear regularly.
Occasional tutoring can be a good thing and can help gifted students develop peer relationships and empathy for others, but excessive peer tutoring can be tedious and de-motivating. One goal of schooling should be for all students to strive to do their personal best and extend their own learning. This may not be possible if gifted students are tasked with the responsibility for the other students’ learning at the expense of their own.
Look for Physical Clues Regarding the School’s Culture
When you visit the middle school, take a good look around the lobby. Do you see display cases filled only with sports trophies? Or do you also see creative works and awards for academic endeavors, such as science fairs, essay contests, and math competitions? Your observations will tell you a lot about what the school values.
Hibbing High School in Hibbing, Minnesota is well known for producing outstanding students in math. On a visit to enquire about their excellent math program, I was amazed to see that the entire math hallway was covered with the photographs of the school’s star math students, going back for several decades. The teachers told me that students were motivated to have their photos in this “Wall of Fame.” They would even return years later with their children to tell proudly how they earned this honor.
The culture of this school valued high achievement, and the manifestations of high achievement both motivated students and honored their accomplishments.
No one will be able to advocate for your child as well as you. Approach this task well-informed and pleasantly assertive (not aggressive), and you will be on the right path to ensuring that you child’s needs are met.
—Cheri Pierson Yecke, PhD
Cheri Pierson Yecke is the author of The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools, Rowman and Littlefield (2005) and Mayhem in the Middle: How middle schools have failed America—and how to make them work, Fordham Foundation (2005)