Why Middle School? The case for Illawarra kids who really can benefit from Middle School...

 Ben Carden - Guest Author - Cedars Christian College Mon 14 October 19


The case for Middle School!

Primary school direct into High School mean our kids move from from being the biggest fish in the secure confines of a primary school pond, into being a small fish in the free flowing waters of high school, can be a tough swim upstream for our kids.

At Parents Guide Illawarra, where the team are all 'non-expert' parents fumbling our way through, we look to find experts who can help us support our kids during challenging times.

So we were delighted to interview Ben Carden - Middle School Co-ordinator from Cedars Christian College, near Wollongong. It is his role to smooth the path and care for, the wellbeing and social and emotional health of Cedars' students as they transition through the journey from Primary School up into High School.

We hit up Ben with the following questions of Why Middle School? And, does it help smooth the transition drama's that can come from Primary to High? Ben's responses were enlightening - read on!  For anyone wanting to trial a Middle School Experience Day at Cedar's click here!  

Q.1 Ben, what are the typical worries / pressures / challenges students face around transition to high school?
Students obviously worry about the change of environment and the transition from the one teacher model to the many teacher model typical of most high schools.

Changing from a smaller, nurturing environment to a much larger and diverse school environment can also be cause for stress. The idea of the workload drastically increasing form primary to high school is also a cause of anxiety for many students.

One of the key pressures comes with the dawning of your child's adolescence. As parents, it may be common during this time to see your child's friendships and relationships take a few twists and turns and for your child to struggle at this point.

These relationship issues arise as your child begins to seek out more 'adult' type relationships where the focus becomes less on doing things together, and more on being known and valued by peers for who they are and what they stand for.

These new relational dynamics can often lead to friendship challenges in the latter years of primary, and when students move off to high school, they often have to begin again in a new cohort of peers who they do not know very well, and the skills they've required can fall by the wayside.

Our school staff at Cedars Christian College understand this phase of development and are deliberate in their approach to associated issues such as connectedness, belonging, defining your sense of self and negotiating peer relationships where you are able to be yourself and accept others for who they are.

At this stage, a child feeling a secure sense of belonging and connectedness at home, can have a safe platform from which to navigate the changes in their other relationships BUT it is likely each child will be actively testing the boundaries in their relationships and appropriate behaviour at home too! Therefore making it really tough for parents and carers to stay connected with them during this bumpy time.

At this point, as parents and teachers separate the unwanted behaviour and call out the behaviour / impact of this for what it is, we then avoid unintentionally labelling them in negative ways.

Encouraging a child to use positive language about who they want to be and how they want to treat others / be treated themselves, helps them identify themselves in positive ways, and reject any negative labels / attributes during this tender stage of their development.  

Q.2 What is the Middle School structure and what are the benefits for students?
Cedars' Middle School caters for students in school years 5-8 with the deliberate intention of helping to ease students' transition from senior primary to the early years of secondary schooling. As mentioned, this phase of life, with the onset of adolescence and all that accompanies this stage of development, it is quite often a challenging phase for young people to navigate.

Middle School aims to soften this transition process by intentionally creating a learning community where the change from primary to secondary style schooling is softened by introducing these changes over a number of school years in a supportive and collaborative environment where teachers are handpicked to work with students in this phase.

Having a Prep - Year 12 learning community enables us to do this, and Middle School staff have been hand picked to help students negotiate the challenges and change associated with this phase of life's journey. 

Q.3 What are the key differences in Middle School and staying at Primary?
In Year 5, and the onset of Middle School, a number of things happen to begin transitioning students into the high school model ahead of contemporaries in other primary schools. First of all, our students move from the Junior School campus to our Middle/Senior College campus.

This change of environment helps students to become comfortable with the environment of high school earlier than they would otherwise. They continue to work through the Primary Curriculum with specially trained primary teachers, however, they are able to do this in a learning environment shared by high school students.

This enables them to observe the routines and personnel involved in high school and they become far more comfortable with the changes associated with secondary study as a result of this immersion.

Additionally, our Middle School model allows some specialised high school teaching staff to begin delivering the curriculum to primary students in some specialised subjects (e.g. Visual Arts, Music, Languages), meaning they become familiar with high school methods and personnel before the onset of Year 7.

Cedars' Middle School also employs the 'Homeroom Teacher' model, where every Middle School student has a 'Homeroom Teacher' who is responsible for their welfare beyond the curriculum. This homeroom teacher delivers a significant proportion of the curriculum to their Homeroom Class, allowing them to develop strong relationships and rapport with the students in their care. This depth of relationship enables staff and students to identify and collaboratively work through challenges as they arise, and helps students to feel a sense of connectedness and belonging.

As students progress through Middle School, the time spent with homeroom teachers gradually decreases (from about 80% of time in Year 5 to about 30% of the time in Year 8) so that the transition to the traditional high school model (where every subject is taught by a different teacher) is softened. This strength of relationship between the homeroom teacher and their homeroom class is a key strategy in helping to facilitate positive transitions between primary and high school.

Middle School students also have the opportunity to take part in targeted Middle School events and routines that make the learning community feel smaller, promoting a stronger fabric of relationships within the learning community, which research suggest goes a long way to underpinning academic success and student wellbeing.

One of the big positives I have observed in the Middle School model is that if issues arise in Year 5 or 6, the Middle School staff are able to continue working through these things with students right into high school- issues don't get forgotten or brushed to the side as students change schools.

Q.4 At what point can / should parents consider thinking about what high school and what their options are? Or whether the Middle School model will suit?
High school comes around pretty quickly once students begin on the primary school journey, and I'd suggest that once your child enters Years 3 or 4, it's probably pretty important to have a good idea of how your child progresses through things like transitions and change.

If you know that this is an area of concern for them, it's probably prudent to think about how you can best help them manage the changes associated with high school as they will be upon you before you know it. Even if your child seems ok with change, they will still probably find the change to high school a big one, and its a good idea to begin these conversations early, even if its about trying to identify any potential areas of concerns that your child may have.

The Middle School model at Cedars Christian College helps to get these conversations on the agenda, as it is a deliberate strategy to help smooth out this transition. I think regardless of the children involved, the Middle School model is worthwhile given it deliberately targets the change from primary to high school and aims to keep students engaged through these years as much as possible.

Q.5 What helps students flourish at Middle / High School at Cedars?
I think if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be 'relationships'- deliberately seeking to build significant relationships between students and their peers, students and their teachers and also teachers and parents. It is the strength of the relational community within Middle School that enables this often challenging phase of schooling to be approached from a proactive and positive foundation.

Q.6 How best can parents and carers help their kids transition to High School?
Having deliberate and proactive conversations to try and identify any fears or hopes early in the piece, and working proactively to try and find solutions for these. Helping them to develop the study and organisational skills they will require to succeed such as self discipline, forward planning and time management. Again, knowing this, your schools' staff / teachers can then proactively seek to help students to develop their personal skills in these areas.

Finally, if you have the opportunity, try and choose a High School (or Middle School if that feels right for your child) with a real sense of community that resonates with you and your child. I am often amazed and inspired by the enthusiasm and endeavour of our students and what makes my job all the more fulfilling at Cedars Christian College is the level of connection we find with our students, teaching staff, our parents and within our community. 

With our thanks to Ben Carden for sharing his insights and expertise and to Cedars Christian College for sponsoring this article :)

To discover more about Cedars Christian College, click here to visit the website

Or contact the school with any questions on (02) 4271 8124 or email info@cedars.nsw.edu.au

Click here to discover the Cedar's Prep / Primary / Middle / High School open days and book a tour / experience day!


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