Transitioning to Middle School

By Jann Logue, Washington, IL

Editor’s note: Last fall, Down Syndrome News (Vol. 32, #6, 2009) asked for ideas on making a smooth and successful transition from elementary to middle school. We heard from several of you and common themes are in the sidebar on the right. Thanks to paraprofessional Jann Logue for sharing her thoughtful ideas on a successful transition she helped orchestrate.

I had the privilege of assisting a student with Down syndrome from his kindergarten year through eighth grade. Throughout our journey, we had many ups and downs and learned invaluable lessons along the way. I think we did our part in helping our school district think more inclusively. Along the way, he and I forged a lifelong friendship because of our shared experiences. He is, undoubtedly, the best teacher I have ever had.

Our elementary school goes through fifth grade and then we transition to sixth grade in the middle school building. I share a few tips that made our journey smoother. We did most of these things (and some became obvious to me during the process).

The first thing is communication between fifth and sixth grade teachers. Teachers know what information is important to share and they respect each others’ opinions. Ideally, this should begin in the middle of the fifth grade year. It sounds early — but it’s not. Sixth grade teachers will have many questions they only feel comfortable asking fifth grade teachers.

As an aide, one thing I did was to put together a binder showing examples of the student’s writing, coloring and work. I included many photos of his classroom interactions that demonstrated how he was included. We also made a video to show he speaks and interacts; his sense of humor and interests; and accommodations, including a slant board and voice amplification system. We all worry about change and the unknown — this helps teachers know what to expect.

Taking it one step further, we invited the sixth grade teachers over to the elementary school to observe the action. These introductions really helped initiate a teacher/student relationship so that the sixth grade teachers weren’t total strangers to the student. In turn, the teachers liked observing the student in his fifth grade environment to think about how their rooms would suit his needs. Again, this spurred many questions and emphasized the importance of communication.

After the sixth grade teachers observed at the elementary school, we took a trip over to the middle school to see how things worked there. We toured the building and pointed out restrooms, lockers and the gym. We even ate lunch there — going through the lunch line with other middle school students. The most important thing we did was to spend time hanging out with other students. Here again, through conversations and games, the seeds for relationships with children just one year older were planted.

Another vital part of the transition was pre-planning the student’s day. In our sixth grade, students go to different rooms and teachers for each subject. We came up with a “circle of friends” that were the most supportive and helpful with our student. We made sure that eight to 10 of these students were in each class. This helped immensely with both communicating needs and modeling appropriate behavior.

Because both schools are in the same district, I also accompanied the student as his aide in the middle school. This helped to alleviate the many worries of both the student and teachers. There are some things you just don’t remember to talk about no matter how many meetings you have. So, by traveling along, I could address a myriad of little issues when they arose. If it’s possible, this was probably the key to a smooth transition.

All of the little things need to be pre-planned as well. For easy recognition, we made sure his locker was on an end. We also used a picture schedule until everything became familiar. We brought along things that had made him successful in previous years, such as a communication book. We also planned every new area of his day including lunch routines, recess rules, bus stops and more. It is also a good idea to speak with the entire faculty, including lunch ladies, custodians, bus drivers and recess monitors, to let them know what to expect

This may seem like a lot, but each piece helped smooth the transition. Middle school is a time for exploring personal interests and making new friends. Every student needs help with transitioning.

That student is now a senior in high school and doing great. I am glad to report he took along many friends from middle school and has made many new ones, too. I stayed at the middle school. Teachers here have said they are changed people because of inclusion. It just goes to show that sometimes students are the best teachers of all!

Transition tips

  • Talk to staff at both the elementary and middle schools about available classroom and teaching options. If possible, set up a time to observe at the middle school.
  • Meet with the school team to share what you love about your child, long-term goals and your rationale for what you believe will make your child’s school experience a successful one.
  • Share information about your child — how he learns, details about social and physical development, educational expectations and concerns. Encourage questions. Develop a “Student at a Glance” page to highlight IEP goals.
  • Have the student visit the school in advance. One student attended three orientation sessions instead of the typical one to increase comfort level. Take the schedule and walk around the building to find classrooms.
  • Make an album with photos and information about teachers, office staff and other school personnel that students will meet to use at home over the summer. Use social stories, too.
  • Students who need more transition time can visit the new building more often — even daily — during the spring of fifth grade.