Your child always had tons of friends. Birthday party invitations arrived for children you never heard her mention. She had best friends at soccer, in her classroom, in the neighborhood. She was even friends with—yuck—boys.

Now she has one best friend. And she wants to be with that friend all the time. What changed? She entered 3rd grade.

“That was the year my child spent more time dealing with her social life than [with] schoolwork, family, and activities all put together,” recalls Tracy Davis, a former 3rd grade teacher whose daughter is now in 5th grade in Jackson, Miss. “She was all about the best friend.”

Students in 3rd grade are gaining confidence, making their own decisions, and figuring out where they fit within their school community. There is no single description of a 3rd grader; kids develop at different paces. While some stick closely to a favorite playmate, others remain happy to spend time with lots of friends.

But 3rd graders in general do share similar traits as they shed their little-kid selves in favor of a more independent persona. This stage can present challenges for parents, who see their child listening more intently to his buddies than to his family—a child who thinks he has everything figured out and who suddenly views schoolwork as an intrusion on his social time.

Increased Academic Pressure

At the same time, with academic expectations rising, 3rd graders may experience anxiety about their schoolwork, especially if they had always gotten good grades with ease. While parents want their child to live up to her potential, they don’t want her getting stressed out over one B on a math test.

Further complicating matters, some 3rd graders will face standardized tests that determine whether their school is labeled successful and, in some cases, whether they can move on to 4th grade.

“Teachers and parents can put that in the right perspective,” says Nancy Davenport, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a former 3rd grade teacher. Children need to hear that no test can determine their future and that no single test score is reflective of their intelligence. They need to know that they are more than just grades and test scores and that their accomplishments in creative and athletic pursuits matter, too.

Some kids develop perfectionist tendencies at this age as they strive for the neatest penmanship, the highest test score, or the most flawless paragraph. Parents should encourage their children to try their best but to realize that perfection in every aspect of life is not attainable. Moms and dads can even use their own experiences to drive home that point.

At this stage, it’s important for students to take charge of their homework. Provide a quiet place for homework and be available to help, but expect that your 3rd grader is old enough to complete the work himself. Because of increased expectations, don’t be surprised if your child has more homework in 3rd grade than she did the year before.

Children who are struggling mightily with the increased workload and expectations of 3rd grade may need to be tested for learning disabilities. Parents should approach this with a positive attitude; it’s a way of figuring out how their child learns best rather than something to be ashamed of.

Outside Interests More Important

At a time when children place friendships with classmates at the top of the priority list, they may start to shut parents out of the details of their lives. Or they may want to monopolize dinner conversation with the ins and outs of their day.

Such self-centeredness is normal for this age, experts say. It’s not uncommon for kids to want to discuss the minutiae of their school day because their school community is hugely important in their lives. Other 3rd graders might want to hurry through dinner and rush to their rooms to talk on the phone with their friends. Parents should not be offended by their child’s waning interest in home life, nor should they be surprised if their child gets upset at the suggestion of missing a day of school because of illness.

Third grade is also a continuation of the silly phase many children start in 2nd grade. Only now, with your child getting older and being exposed to more pop culture, you might hear more pop culture references and the occasional tasteless potty humor. Also common is the tendency for 3rd graders to construct their own private world with a best friend or a small group of friends, laden with inside jokes that mean nothing to their moms and dads.

It is, experts say, part of growing up. It’s not fun for parents to feel like they’re on the outside looking in at their child’s world and not knowing the language. But it’s part of the transition that is 3rd grade. The excitement of seeing your child blossom may well override the frustration of feeling a bit like an outsider.

For more information, read “3rd Grade Academics: What To Expect”

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.