Belonging, Competence, and Autonomy Transitioning to Middle School

(Damaris MacLean, May 2022)

Though I have worked in schools for 20 years, 2021-2022 was my first serving as the Class V Dean at Nightingale. With my own children approaching fifth grade at 7 and 9 years old, I was curious to see what it would be like to lead them through this transition from Lower to Middle Schools. Nightingale houses students K to 12 in a seven-story building in Manhattan. The physical move from Lower to Middle School is small, from the fourth to the sixth floor, but the expectations for middle school students are completely different. They move through the building independently, responsible for keeping track of their own assignments. During free periods they are expected to seek out extra help from their teachers and possibly attend math or science labs. They must weigh the urge to run up to the rooftop playground against a need to get extra help in math or catch up on history reading missed due to a bout with CoVid. At the same time, these young adolescents are navigating friendships stilted by social distancing and zoom school during a critical time for social growth.

I was grateful to my experienced co-dean and to my colleagues at Heart of Character who so clearly laid out the tenets of the ABCs to guide my decisions through the first year of my deanship. During this rite of passage to fifth grade in the aftershocks of CoVid separations, we wanted to plan the moments and the days carefully, considering their needs as children and students.

At the beginning of the year, we wanted the students to have a strong sense of BELONGING, to feel welcome and safe and excited to come to school. Each student has a dean who is in touch with parents, classroom teachers, and the students themselves. The day begins with the ritual of looking at the schedule of predictable events (snack, lunch, athletics) and the extenuating ones (remember to change into your uniform during lunch so that you can be on time for your game after school!). We remind them to check their own bodies to be sure they are in uniform and have left their smart watches or phones inside their locker. We ask them to help each other to know the schedule and get through the day on time.

After the first quarter, every parent has a meeting with their child’s Class Dean and Head of the Middle School. What do we need to know about your child to make this year as successful as possible? What was last year like, with zoom all year? Did your child come to Nightingale from a school that taught for the test so that she is anxious about ambiguity? How may your child’s friendships have shifted during the ’20-’21 school year? What does this child need to have a sense of belonging with the physical building, with peers, with teachers? These meetings lay the foundation for strong relationships with the parents and the school, which is critical for the emotional and academic success of the child.

We also want to give each fifth grader a sense of COMPETENCE through a blend of independence within well-defined structures. What does this child need to learn to manage the workload (homework, tests, projects), personal belongings (sneakers, sweatshirts, water bottles, pencils, books, notebooks, chromebook), friendships, and an ever-changing body? Our skills class is designed to offer the kind of structure and support that foster competence; Class V teachers look in planners to make sure students’  homework is recorded; Upper School peer tutors can support younger students in one-on-one settings. Students travel to their classes alone, but lateness is reported to the dean, and all unstructured time is carefully monitored. These structures are meant to help students manage themselves with the buffer of adult supervision and support – when needed.

A strong sense of AUTONOMY is critical in fifth grade as students begin to perceive themselves as gaining independence from their parents, their teachers, and their peers. They are still eager to please and yet, they have a nascent awareness of the possibility of the joy from learning as their own satisfaction, rather than learning because it is expected of them and handed to them or simply because they intuitively know it’s fun. This took a long time for me in certain subjects. Math was a necessary chore until a teacher in 11th grade (Tom McKeon, are you out there?) revealed the elegance of the unit circle in his pre-calc class. How are we giving students the opportunity to experience this joy of learning, the curiosity to learn more without external motivation? One tangible decision we have made toward this is to give only written comments (no grades) to all Class V students.

Now that we have reached May, I think we have given these students the confidence they need to move into sixth grade in September. There is still learning to do, but they are playful and responsible (for the most part!). They know how to follow the rules and when to test them. They know the system, they love their teachers, and they are ready for the summer!

Damaris Maclean teaches Spanish and is Director of Global Partnerships and Community Engagement at Nightingale, in Manhattan. She is a member of Heart of Character’s Board of Trustees.