What to Expect from Your Child’s K–12 Education

Primary and secondary education are big parts of children’s lives. From about age 5 through age 18, students spend most of their weekdays sitting in front of teachers and educators, learning concepts and principles that will—hopefully—help them be successful adults. It’s a significant investment of time and effort for the child, and also for the parents or caregivers who facilitate the learning. That’s why it’s no surprise that parents often want to know what to expect from different stages of their children’s education.

Whether you have a new kindergartener heading for his first day of school, a new middle schooler making her transition from elementary school, or even a high schooler who’s trying to navigate a new maze of responsibilities, you have questions, and we’d like to provide some answers. Here’s a short list of things you can expect from different stages in the school system.

Kindergarten

Often the first step in a child’s education, kindergarten will be your child’s introduction to elementary school and the classroom dynamic. He’ll study his letters and the sounds they make and begin learning “sight words” so that he can begin reading. Math will cover basic counting (usually up to 20), and will also likely cover basic addition and subtraction skills. There will be some classes on science, art, and music; some PE time; and recess, of course.

Beyond that, some of the most important things your child will learn will be social skills: how to make friends, how to share, how to exercise self-control, how to listen quietly, and how to follow instructions. These are things that you may be trying to teach her at home but that are easier to learn in a group setting.

Also be aware that at this point your child is still pretty young, and to accommodate that, many schools either run kindergarten on a half-day basis or provide nap time for the students.

Elementary School

Elementary school usually constitutes the largest single portion of your child’s underage education, as it typically covers (excluding kindergarten) grades one through five or six. The format, for the most part, is very “lather, rinse, repeat,” with successive years mimicking and building upon previous ones. During these years, your child will study a lot of subjects and learn a lot of life skills that will prepare her for secondary education and beyond.

Math

During these years, your child will learn everything from basic arithmetic in first grade to basic geometry and algebra toward the end. These are the years when she internalizes the basics of mathematical functions and builds skills that she will be using for the rest of her life.

Reading and Writing

These years will also be formative for the language center of your student’s young mind as he learns to read and write unassisted. While it may be slow moving at first, your child will quickly develop the ability to teach himself new words and understand unfamiliar words from context. By the end, he’ll begin doing research for reports and essays and will have an understanding of different genres of literature.

Science and Technology

What starts as a study of basic physical science will eventually blossom into dedicated fields of study such as chemistry, biology, and physics. Your child will also likely be taught basic computer and technology skills, better preparing her for secondary education, where she will likely be doing most of her writing electronically.

Social Skills

Over the course of his primary education experience, your child will learn to concentrate for longer periods, learn to build his sense of self-identity, and learn more about his own personal preferences. By the time he’s preparing to leave elementary school, he may have started puberty, and likely has a firm idea of who he is and what he can do (though upcoming years may change that).

Up until approximately fifth grade, your child will be accustomed to learning from primarily one teacher, and will only receive instruction from additional educators for special things like PE, computer time, and music. The critical competencies being taught to him will come from the teacher whose class he belongs to. Fifth and sixth grade may change this up a bit, with different teachers lecturing on different subjects, as your student will experience in middle school and beyond. Regardless, she still has a "homeroom" where she starts and ends, and a specific educator she refers to as "my teacher."

Middle School / Junior High

Middle school will likely be a challenging time for your child. The growing pains associated with attending a new school, combined with the challenges of burgeoning adolescence, will make this new learning environment frustrating at times. Add to that an increased difficulty in subject matter, and there’s a chance that some of the school experience will be negative for your young student.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be rewarding, or that you can’t make it more bearable by preparing properly. Knowing what to expect can help you better assist your child through this challenging time, making the most of the opportunity she has to prepare for high school.

Some school districts will start this period of education sooner than others, and some will end it later. Those students who start in sixth grade are typically attending a "middle school," whereas those who start in seventh grade are probably attending a "junior high," although these terms are fairly fluid. Be aware, as well, that though most middle schools cover grades 6–8, some junior highs just cover 7–8, and some cover 7–9 (starting high school in tenth grade).

What the Student Learns

In middle school / junior high, classes are taught by teachers who specialize in a subject. That means students will have a schedule that dictates what room they will be in for each period, and they won’t be in class with the same students the whole time. This may cause some frustration, as most of them are used to always being in class with their friends.

The number of subjects is also expanded. At this point, music and art are likely no longer part of the students’ schedules (unless their school allows electives, and a student has chosen it). Odds are good that during these years the school will teach them how to type on a computer, how to edit a fellow student’s English paper, and how to solve for x.

What the Student Does

Students who were part of sports groups during the elementary years have likely continued into middle school. Sports competitions between schools become more serious at this stage, so those who are involved will likely become more passionate, while other students will consider joining for the first time.

Friends are more important than ever, and you may find at this stage that your student cares far more about their opinions than yours. Expect him to withdraw from you and to spend more time communicating with friends (whether in person, over the phone, or electronically). Be aware that whom he spends his time with has an influence over how he behaves, as peer pressure is in full swing during middle school.

What the Student Feels

Middle school coincides with a host of emotional and physiological changes, so be prepared for some fireworks. Tweens and early teenagers tend to be very emotional; they feel things more passionately than they did in elementary school, but they have yet to learn how to manage those feelings. Expect the emotions to come pouring out from time to time when your student doesn’t know how to hold them all in.

Adding to this is how students’ bodies are “betraying” them at this age. With puberty in full swing, students are experiencing a lot of physical changes, and odds are they’re self-conscious about all of them. Boys, for example, are likely dealing with a cracking voice as it starts to deepen; expect them to feel humiliated about it.

High School

Surviving middle school means moving on to high school and preparing for college. Classes have further diversified and, more importantly, specialized. Students will be learning advanced concepts like calculus, literary deconstruction, and stoichiometry. These years will help determine what your student will be studying in college, so be sure to help her find where her strengths are.

Friends will continue to play a major role in her life, and at this stage, your student may find herself leaving old ones behind and making new ones. She’s also likely to start trying to pursue romantic interests from this point on (or at least pining after certain people from afar). Try to keep yourself apprised of whom she’s spending her time with.

Freshman Year

The start of a student’s high school career comes with a lot of changes. A new school usually means new teachers; possibly new classmates; new, harder classes; and a new structure, where students will likely get to plan out much of their schedules, including choosing electives in areas they’re interested in. This gives your student a taste of college life, where he will be in charge of his own education.

Colleges care about your student’s grades at this stage and will weigh a lot of his acceptance on his GPA. This added importance, along with the added difficulty of classes and homework load, is bound to cause some stress. Make sure you help your student to stay organized and on top of his coursework.

There’s often a variety of extracurricular activities and groups to participate in at this stage. Encourage your student to pursue his passions or find new ones, but be sure he doesn’t overload himself.

Senior Year

At long last, the K–12 journey nears its end. Senior year means the end of an era, and the first step toward a life beyond parental supervision. College preparation will play a large part for many students as they turn their gazes toward universities and higher education. Not everyone is college bound, though, and some may want to pursue technical schools or head straight into the workforce after graduation.

Grades are important even at this stage, as colleges look at the final transcript once it’s sent, so encourage your student to stay focused all the way to the end. Besides, slacking now sets a bad precedence for freshman college classes.

Your student is likely to start feeling nostalgic at this point as she feels the ending of this chapter of her life as pointedly as you do. Expect her to want to spend quality time with friends before “breaking up the band,” with the urge strengthening as the year progresses.

By this point in the game, your student should have a general idea of what things she has an aptitude for, what she’s interested in, and what kind of vocations are not worth pursuing. College may still shake things up a bit, sending her in different directions than planned. But don’t necessarily expect your die-hard thespian to become an expert in calculus her first year of college (or vice versa).

And just like that, the school years are over. No more pencils and no more books. By the end, you’ve experienced some ups and downs with your student, but she’s learned a lot in the intervening years and is—hopefully—a well-adjusted, well-prepared young adult.

However, if you’re looking for a way to simplify this process and take some of the stress out of all the changes your child will experience during his or her school years, consider enrolling in an online school. It allows your student to participate from anywhere, and mitigates much of the frustration that comes from the classroom setting.

Learn more about online K–12 education in our find out more section