Incoming middle school students and high school students face new challenges that can thwart a successful school year. Experts weigh in on how to overcome obstacles so your child reaches the head of the class.

As if puberty and raging hormones weren’t enough, the advent of middle school and high school includes a host of new social, academic and physical or emotional challenges for incoming students. The transition can be scary—for students and parents alike—but, it doesn’t have to be.

Teachers and administrators expect some initial growing pains and are watching for signs that the shift to a new grade or school might be overwhelming.

So, what is overwhelming for a first-year middle school or high school student? In a word—everything.


In middle school, logistics are often the hardest aspect for most kids. For the first time in their short lives, most sixth graders are being introduced to lockers and multiple classroom changes. On top of that, students may also have to learn the layout of an unfamiliar school and be surrounded by unfamiliar faces. 

Appoquinimink School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Sharon Pepukayi, the mother of both a sixth grader and a ninth grader, said that with so many changes to consider, she has to remind herself not to “get all up in arms” because that worry can spill over onto the students. She said that first and foremost, parents should talk to their kids about what this new year means.

“Both sixth grade students and ninth grade students are exposed to new levels of independence so talk to them about that,”Pepukayi said. “Talk to them about the social aspect, too. Kids automatically have a lot of nervousness going into a year with so many new expectations. Anyone would.”

Pepukayi’s asked her oldest son, B.J., to give her youngest son, Bryce, some advice and she said that the first thing out of his mouth was “organization.” When asked to elaborate, she said that he said that he remembered middle school being a whole new world of homework, projects and assignments. He also remembered that he had to quickly assimilate to a new life of changing teachers multiple times a day.


For ninth grade students, they start the school year off in the opposite way they ended middle school, where they went from being the oldest kids on campus to now being the youngest and most naïve.

They’re independence is also growing and the organization that B.J. Pepukayi talked about for middle school becomes even more important because high school means more extra-curricular options like clubs and sports.

“From very early on, they have to figure out how to prioritize their school work alongside any sports they decide to do,” Pepukayi said. “Most sports require a minimum grade point average so that means they have to learn how to juggle practice, games and any other clubs they join. It’s a lot to have to do.”


With the proper support system, kids can flourish from day one. First, parents are encouraged to listen to the ins and outs of their child’s first days. Is little Johnny complaining about how far away his locker is from his classes? Does Jane seem withdrawn because she doesn’t know anybody?

Once the challenges are identified, talk to one of the child’s teachers first.

“The teacher is the one on the front lines, interacting with your student every day,” Pepukayi said. “From there, it might move up the chain to the administrators, if it looks like a plan needs to be put into place to help a child succeed.”

Not every kid wants to admit to mom and dad that he or she is struggling. Kids can also go directly to staff and faculty members with their issues. School counselors are there just for that purpose, though most students rarely seem to interact with them. Parents can also encourage their children to talk to the school administrators they regularly see observing lunch or guarding the halls.

Beth Mineo, who is an associate professor in the University of Delaware's School of Education as well as the Director for the Center for Disabilities Studies, said that it’s important that as students age, they are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own needs and management. They must learn how to respectfully express their needs for support and accommodation and really learn how to self-advocate.

“The challenge of those years [for teens and pre-teens] is that they’re beginning to see the world separate from their families,” Mineo said. “They have to learn to negotiate those differences. Communication becomes critical.”

Mineo added that special education recognizes the importance of those years for teens, especially from age 14 and up, for figuring out how to navigate themselves through the educational system. That same recognition is not necessarily emphasized for students who do not have an identified

“These are not skills you learn in a textbook. You have to learn them in real life,” she said. “We don’t do that nearly enough for students who don’t have clearly identified disabilities.”

She also stressed that some students within special education programs might have severe disabilities while others might be contending with Attention Deficit Disorder (or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or learning disabilities.

“Most importantly, educators and families have to learn to let go,” Mineo said. “It’s the only way kids will learn the difference between successful behavior versus a place he doesn’t want to be.”