PITTSFIELD -- During a class registration session earlier this month, three Herberg Middle School eighth-graders pondered about heading to high school in the fall.
"It's a lot of pressure," said Caroleena Velez.
"I'm going to get lost," said Natalia Virgilio.
"Oh, God, this is scary," Johnnie Van Zant said, putting his palm to his forehead.
According to a number of academic and children's health studies, transitions from one grade to the next are critical and can be stressful for children and adolescents, particularly with transitions from home into preschool and kindergarten, elementary school into middle school, and middle school into high school.
During these transitions, students face not only academic shifts but social and physical changes as well.
Fortunately, students don't have to take these big steps alone.
In Berkshire County, school administrators, guidance counselors and teachers all work together to help kids transition smoothly into new grades and buildings, and they say there are ways students and parents can help each other too.
Starting with preschool
Earlier this month, Berkshire Family Focus, an online publication for families, partnered with Treehouse children's boutique in Pittsfield to present a free public forum called "Picking the Perfect Preschool."
Panelists included Heather Fletcher, Treehouse co-owner; Thomas M. Miller, licensed therapist and program supervisor of children and adolescents for the Brien Center; Kim Clayton, first-grade teacher at Craneville Elementary School in Dalton; and Stephanie Quetti of the Head Start program based at Conte Community School in Pittsfield.
Kelly Bevan McIlquham, Berkshire Family Focus' founder and a mother of three, described spring as "open house season" for preschool registration and screenings, which can be overwhelming for parents to navigate.
"Choosing the right preschool depends on the parent, child, personality and the school," Bevan McIlquham said.
Fletcher, who recently enrolled a child in preschool, said it is helpful for families to know what they're looking for in a preschool, whether it's a full-week or part-time program, location, and budget, among other factors.
"There is such a wide range of preschools out there and teaching styles," she said.
She also noted this is one of the first times in a child's life where they will be away from their parents and around new people for prolonged periods of time.
"What I've learned is that it's important not to look at what everybody else is doing but to look at your own family and ask, ‘Where will my child thrive?'," Fletcher said.
'A child growing up'
What do school officials recommend to find the best school for a child and to ease the stress and fears of traversing grades? Go on school tours. Meet and interview teachers. Ask questions of other members of the school, be they students or parents.
In the Lenox public school system, Morris Elementary School Principal Timothy Lee knows that for some children, the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Building can be "a big, scary place."
"I generally view transition as a child growing up. And for parents, I understand all those feelings are there too," Lee said.
To help students going into middle school and their parents navigate the changes, Lee coordinates orientation and visit programs with Lenox Memorial guidance counselor Nanette Spoehr. Such practices and programs are common at other schools too.
Lee said another big change students and parents will notice as students progress through grades will be the increase in the quantity and complexity of homework and project assignments. Also, depending on the school, students will experience a shift in time schedules and change with teachers. In early grades, children tend to stay with the same teacher for the whole day. In upper grades, students are more likely to switch classrooms and have more teachers for more subjects.
To help acclimate students to this change of pace, Morris Elementary is piloting a new model this year by having fifth-grade students change classes for writing, social studies and science.
"Students will have multiple experiences in multiple settings with multiple expectations," Lee said.
When school counselor Kristin Griffin of Pittsfield High School recently asked a class of eighth-graders whether they were ready to register for ninth-grade classes, she got a chorus of mixed "yes" and "no" responses.
"That's OK," she said, "I'll be here to help you go through it."
In Pittsfield, the middle and high schools also work together to help students bridge to the secondary school setting.
This is a particularly critical time in students' lives, as studies have shown that students who have struggled in middle school are prone to struggling even more in high school and will become at risk for dropping out.
Herberg Middle School guidance counselors Kari Dupuis and Paul Gregory say that in addition to guidance counselors working together, teachers also work together to synchronize curricula in middle and high school so that subjects are taught in a more seamless progression.
Dupuis said schools also do their best to keep students informed along the way about what's to come for them.
"You break it down into steps," she said.
Herberg eighth-grader Johnnie Van Zant said he appreciates the extra time, explanations and events.
"It's helpful and makes me a little less nervous," he said.
CHALLENGING CHANGES FOR STUDENTS
Research from New York University's Child Study Center outlines the challenges children and adolescents may experience through transition times:
• Prolonged separation from parents and caregivers.
• Meeting new children and learning to share.
• Developing listening, memory and movement skills. Early elementary school
• New school building and longer school day.
• Expanding vocabulary and learning to ask questions.
• Doing homework.
• Forming friendships and working in groups.
• Building literacy, math, computational skills and other more complex concepts.
Upper elementary school
• Gaining independence.
• More social and group opportunities and planning.
• Cliques may form and bullying may occur.
• More application of skills to acquire information and solve problems, to read for comprehension and express thoughts in writing, and to gain knowledge in a variety of content areas.
• In Massachusetts, standardized, high-stakes testing begins in Grade 3.
• New school building, changing classes, more teachers.
• Onset of puberty.
• Changes in friendship circles and social climate.
• More opportunities for extracurricular activities.
• More independence. The increase in demand for task and time management skills and organization.
• May move into a new building with a greater number of students, new teachers and staff.
• More rigorous academics and assessments.
• More independence in thinking and social planning.
• New balance of academic, social and possibly work life.
• Pressure to experiment with or engage in alcohol, drug and sexual activities is also increased.
• In addition to academics, more responsibility for academic and career tracks, course selection and college or post-graduation plans.
Ways to make smooth transitions
• Be aware of changes and challenges students may be experiencing as they progress through grades.
• Schools and parents should talk with a student about how he or she is adjusting.
• Taking tours and meeting staff and students at the new school before classes begin.
• Students and parents should not hesitate to ask for help and ask questions about steps along the way.