This is a post in Back To School, an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers technology trends in education for parents and educators.

Middle school, junior high, intermediate centers—there are lots of names for the schools that teach our kids in the awkward years between elementary school and high school. But their goals are all the same: help students make the transition from one stage of their education career to another.

Parents will have their hands full navigating their children through this tricky time, but there are some things they can get right off the bat as school starts. Appropriate technology can help with school work and personal time and give kids the best possible advantage.

Defining The Middle

Some school districts start middle school in the fifth grade, while others start in the sixth and a few even have K-6 for elementary school and just 7th and 8th grades for middle school.

If your middle school student is beginning in the fifth grade, then his or her technology needs will be very much in line with those of elementary students. Fifth grade students in middle school tend to still have a single all-day teacher or sometimes dual-team teaching. Either way, the students aren't moving around from class to class and homework loads in these early middle school classes isn't exceptionally higher than it was in their last year of elementary school.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Academically focused magnet schools will have more rigor, and individual middle schools will have higher or lower levels of coursework from district to district and even within a district. This is why it's very important to connect with your child's teacher or teachers to find out what level of work will be expected of them.

Desktop Decisions

In elementary school, ReadWrite recommends that students can get by with a tablet of some kind, since they won't be using it primarily to write, draw or otherwise create. So when will middle school students start needing something more computationally capable?

The simplest advice is to figure how much writing (essays, book reports and the like) or other special projects your student will need to do in the coming year. If using a family desktop isn't going to work, that's the time to think about getting your little go-getter a desktop or laptop.

Deciding between the two can be tricky. Laptops are lighter and mobile, but more expensive than their desktop counterparts. Kids usually want laptops because they're easy to carry around, but your bank account might argue otherwise. Likewise if your child is at that awkward age; laptops are a lot easier to inadvertently drop or smash into doorframes or walls.

The best argument in favor of a laptop is if your kid is regularly going to be away from the house for a while before or after school—on a long bus ride, for instance, or at an after-school program until you can pick them up. The laptop will give them a chance to get some of their schoolwork done during what would otherwise be down time. (Not that down time is a bad thing for kids, of course.)

If a desktop is what you need, there are plenty of affordable options out there. Unless your family is a dedicated Mac clan, Apple hardware is probably not your best value, though a Mac Mini with an existing monitor, keyboard and mouse won't set you back too much.

Buying a Windows desktop (or laptop) these days means a Windows 8 machine, but your kids likely won't care that much. But one big tip: Avoid "all-in-one" desktops at all costs. Yes, they look slick, and they are space savers, but if something goes wrong with an embedded component or you want to upgrade memory or a hard disk (often a cost-effective way of extending a PC's useful lifetime), opening the machine might be a real pain. Save some stress and money and get a boring old standard PC case.

Looking At Laptops

If you need a laptop instead, the same reasoning applies—except that there isn't really a super-affordable Mac laptop outside of used or refurbished models. Better to stay in the PC laptop family if price is an issue. Try to balance price with weight as much as possible. Your student will be lugging around a lot of textbooks as the years pass, so why add more of a burden to their backpacks?

You do, however, have an additional cost-effective option with laptop-class machines: Chromebooks. These Google ChromeOS machines are not Windows-based (and so present less of a virus risk), but you can use them to write documents and other material that's compatible with Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.

The Chromebook's main drawback is that it works best when connected to a Wi-Fi network. Schools often have Wi-Fi, but those networks also can be highly restricted, so be sure the system you buy will still work everywhere your student needs to use it.

And Then There Are Phones

Your middle schooler will almost certainly need a phone of some sort. In elementary students, cellular phones are typically only necessary in certain circumstances. Middle school students are more likely to have after-school academic, athletic or social schedule changes, and everyone feels a lot better when they can stay in touch.

As much as your student may want a smartphone, weigh that decision carefully. A feature phone with a decent keyboard to handle the inevitable rapid-fire texting will most likely handle everything they need. Smartphones, as a rule, require data plans, which can add at least $40 per month to the cost of the phone. Couple that with the expense of repairing or replacing the thing should it get lost or damaged, and you can see why smartphones for most students this age could be a very expensive proposition.

Parent Resources

Unfortunately, there's a serious dearth of age-appropriate websites for middle school students. A lot of the websites that used to be out there have since folded or have been merged into other sites. The reason, perhaps, is the same challenge all educators and parents of middle school students face: this is a time of transition, and kids this age are more willing to strike out onto the Internet on their own to get their research and homework help.

Still, there are some good resources out there. Check your school's website for online resources more specifically tailored to your school's curriculum.

  • The CIA World Factbook. The CIA may not be at the top of everyone's hit parade right now, but their World Factbook is an encyclopedic reference for all of the nations of the world.
  • FunBrain. Grade-level games all the way up to the eighth grade. More fun than teaching, but something to do for kids who need some extra practice.
  • IXL. Grade-level practice problems abound on this simple-to-use site, more than enough to give kids the help they need at their own pace.
  • typing web. Getting your kids typing fast and using touch method is a really good idea. Mobile or stationary, we're going to be using QWERTY keyboard interfaces for a long time.

Photo by Brad Flickinger