Parents who have children that will attend middle-school for the first time in the fall of this year need to initiate preparations pronto!
Another school year is quickly drawing to a close, and for some students, this is their last year of elementary school. This is not necessarily good news for children with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism (HFA). Why?
First, THE most difficult transition for most students (Aspergers or not) is that of going on to middle-school. This is largely due to the fact that, for the first time in the student’s life, he/she will have several teachers AND a much larger school population to contend with. Gone are the days where the child enjoyed having only one familiar teacher and only one relatively small classroom.
Second, children with Aspergers and HFA have difficulty with transitions in general – especially one this dramatic.
In general, a child’s intrinsic motivation toward school (i.e., the desire to do schoolwork for its own sake rather than for an external reward) has been found to decrease with age. Intrinsic motivation especially drops during transitions between schools (e.g., from elementary school to middle-school). In other words, children may get a great deal of pleasure from doing science projects in the 5th grade but feel like they are doing a project "just to do it" in the 7th or 8th grade.
After entering middle-school, children tend to get lower grades than they did in elementary school. This drop does not seem to occur because of any cognitive or intellectual changes. In fact, children perform just as well on standardized tests after entering middle-school as they did before. It also does not seem that grading becomes more difficult after the transition to middle-school. Therefore, a child’s lower grades seem to reflect an actual change in how he is performing during middle-school as compared to elementary school; he appears to place academics at a lower importance than he did earlier in his life.
Also, children perceive themselves to be less academically competent in middle-school than they did in elementary school. Over the course of just one year, many Aspies begin to lose belief in their own academic abilities, and a sense of low self-esteem kicks-in. This finding is important because children who think that they can do well in school are more likely to actually perform well. Oddly enough, the strongest children seem to experience the biggest drop in belief about their abilities over the middle-school transition.
Research has shown that Aspies are less interested in school, perform more poorly in their classes, and see themselves as less academically capable during middle-school than during elementary school. Figuring out why these negative changes occur is not easy and is the subject of ongoing research. There are probably many developmental reasons for the changes (e.g., shifting interests, the beginning of distracting bodily changes, bullying, sensory sensitivities, a larger building to navigate, more peers to try to relate to, being ostracized from "the peer-group" if you can't "fit-in" or be "cool," etc.). In addition, there seem to be increasing demands from educators and moms and dads for Aspies to get good grades rather than to simply enjoy the learning process. But exactly how much each factor affects children remains unclear.
Many of the factors that affect Aspergers and HFA children during the middle-school transition are beyond the parent’s control. Still, the parent can play a role in keeping the Aspie engaged in school. For one, parents can continue to emphasize the importance of "love of learning" during the middle-school years. Parents do this naturally during elementary school when grades are less prominent and important, thus they should keep up a similar attitude after the transition.
Second, parents can encourage their youngster to realistically assess her academic abilities. As mentioned earlier, strong children tend to stop believing in themselves most of all after the transition. Parents’ supportive words can help children remember that they are competent.
Lastly, simply keep these findings in mind. Recognize that the middle-school transition is difficult and that your Aspie may show signs of less school engagement after the transition. Try to be understanding of the challenging changes he/she is facing, and know that with some time and support, his/her passion for learning will hopefully reignite.
To help your Aspergers youngster adjust, begin discussing the types of changes he can expect long before that first day of class. Take your time and be there to answer any questions your youngster might have.
Here are a few tips parents can take to prepare their youngster for the challenges and benefits of middle-school:
1. Many Aspies may worry about finding their classes, opening their lockers, or dressing for gym class. Address the youngster's fears one by one, and point out that everyone in her class is new to the school and the school rules. Also, point out that many of her fears will be addressed at an open house or school orientation. In the meantime, spend a little time showing your Aspie how to use a locker combination and offer tips on getting to her classes on time.
2. There are a number of books on the market that can prepare your youngster for the adjustments of middle-school. Some are very specific, written exclusively for Aspie boys or Aspie girls. It's not a bad idea to make an investment in one of these resources. They may even help you better understand some of the challenges your youngster will face, and that can help you help your Aspie. A good eBook on the market is Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management.
3. You may want to begin giving your Aspie a little independence once she starts middle-school. For many families, it's during the middle-school years when kids may be left home alone for the first time. This milestone should be approached carefully and with much consideration and preparation. Take time to transition your Aspie from constant supervision - to home alone, and check-up on her periodically to make sure she's using her time alone wisely.
4. Homework during the middle-school years tends to increase, and moms and dads can often find themselves unable to help with specific subjects. But they can still do quite a lot to help their kids tackle homework assignments and complete class projects (e.g., setting up an environment that helps your middle-schooler concentrate on homework in order to complete it quickly; keeping a family calendar in order to track special assignments and projects and keep your middle-schooler organized, etc.).
5. Many changes take place during the pre-teen years, and your youngster probably has questions or concerns about all of them. Discuss some of the changes your Aspie will likely encounter, and role-play how to deal with some of the more difficult challenges. For example, your Aspie will likely encounter new school-rules when she begins middle-school. What should she do if she breaks one of them accidentally? How should she respond?
6. Touring your youngster's new school is a wonderful way to answer any questions your Aspie might have about middle-school and ease any anxieties. A tour will show her where she can find all the places she'll have to go in the course of the day (e.g., gym, cafeteria, locker, etc.), and that will give her a sense of confidence on her first day.
7. Bullying tends to peak in the 7th and 8th grade and diminish slightly every year after. Unfortunately, most Aspies will encounter bullying at some point during middle-school. The best way to protect your youngster is to sit down and discuss behaviors common in middle-school (e.g., bullying, experimenting with tobacco, etc.). Aspies who are being bullied may try to hide the fact from family members or educators, so be sure you know the signs of bullying in order to take quick action.
8. The idea of moving up to middle-school can be scary for some kids. But it's important that children understand that middle-school offers many benefits and opportunities. Talk to your child about all the organizations and clubs she'll be able to join, as well as the independence that comes with being older and more mature. Point out all the opportunities your youngster's school offers, and encourage her to become involved right away, when everyone in her class is just as new to the school as she is.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management