Moving from the Middle

The middle-to-high-school transition is fraught with stressful challenges. Principal among them is the change in school environments. Many students move from middle schools organized into interdisciplinary teams of students with teachers who know students well, into larger, more traditionally structured high schools that seem impersonal, socially unsupportive, and competitive.

What’s more, students attend elementary and middle school surrounded by the same peer group, so they worry about changing to their social circles in high school, dealing with upperclassmen, and making new friends.

In addition to changes in the school environment, students also face changes in academic demands when they enter high school. They are charged with learning more content at a faster pace with increased pressure from accountability measures.

Students who enter high school lagging behind their peers academically need support during the transition or the gap between these students and their classmates will widen each year, potentially increasing students’ negative attitudes toward school, behavioral issues, and the probability of dropping out.

A Responsive Transition

Transition supports that address the procedural, social, and academic aspects of the move to high school may help foster a middle school–high school transition that responds to young adolescents’ needs. Middle level educators can help by providing the following supports:

  • Comprehensive transition programs with multiple activities.
  • Transition courses focused on high school academic and life skills.
  • Teacher practices that are responsive to students’ needs.

Many students make the decision to stay or quit school within the first few weeks of their ninth grade year, according to researchers Jay Hertzog and Lena Morgan, authors of several books and articles about the middle school transition. Middle and high school educators must recognize the serious consequences of an unsuccessful transition and implement these kinds of supports to help ease students’ move to the high school.

Comprehensive Transition Programs

Research shows that effective middle-to-high-school transition programs are comprehensive and ongoing, with activities scheduled throughout students’ last year of middle school, through the summer, and into their first year of high school. Such programs offer activities that introduce students to their high school’s rules, procedures, and expectations, and simultaneously help to foster a strong social network and academic success. During the students’ last year in middle school, staff members might work with high schools to

  • Take students on a tour of the high school.
  • Host a high school informational session.
  • Schedule an end-of-middle-school celebration activity.
  • Plan for middle school students to shadow ninth grade students.
  • Hold a parent orientation.
  • Have eighth grade students follow the high school bell schedule for a period of time.
  • Invite high school students to talk to eighth grade students about high school.
  • Arrange for middle school students to have a high school student mentor.
  • Initiate collaboration between eighth and ninth grade teachers about curriculum and teacher expectations.
  • Allow high school upperclassmen to act as academic tutors for eighth grade students.

Students are more likely to experience a successful move and remain in school if their middle and high schools offer multiple activities throughout the transition that address their procedural, social, and academic concerns.

Transition Courses

In the past decade, many high schools have implemented ninth-grade transition courses for freshmen that focus on familiarizing students with their new school, including the layout of the building, school personnel, and cocurricular activities, and teaching students important academic and life skills. Educational and career planning are important elements of such courses as well.

Middle level educators can infuse similar content and activities into their middle level coursework. For example:

  • Explore high school textbooks.
  • Study a map of the high school.
  • Review and discuss the high school student handbook.
  • Reinforce academic skills such as note-taking and study skills.
  • Teach life skills such as how to be responsible, communicate effectively, and manage time efficiently.
  • Discuss high school academic and behavioral expectations.
  • Examine examples of high school assignments and tests.

Responsive Teacher Practices

During this transition time, students have many needs related to caring, connectedness, competence, autonomy, and belonging. Teachers who address these needs can increase students’ motivation and academic success in high school. Middle level teachers can

  • Make an effort to know students personally.
  • Listen to students.
  • Show a genuine interest in students’ academic
  • and social lives.
  • Model caring behavior.
  • Teach to understanding.
  • Provide constructive feedback.
  • Hold high expectations.
  • Challenge students academically.
  • Engage students in classroom activities.
  • Connect learning to life outside school.
  • Provide opportunities for students to interact positively with their peers.

These teacher practices address students’ procedural, social, and academic concerns as well as their developmental needs, thus increasing the opportunity for students to be motivated and experience success in high school.

Demystifying the Transition

Although the middle-to-high school transition is a difficult period for most adolescents, middle level educators can make a positive impact on how students experience this change. Jay Hertzog and Lena Morgan suggest that a strong transition program that includes at least three activities targeted to decrease students’ procedural, social, and academic-related concerns can help support students during the move.

A focus on teaching specific academic and life skills, whether through a ninth-grade transition course or infused in coursework at the middle level, can also foster a smooth middle-to-high school transition. Students benefit from activities that demystify rules, expectations, and the layout of the high school. Opportunities to build supportive relationships with teachers and peers are also important.

The transition to high school is a process, not simply something that is done at the end of middle school or at the beginning of high school. Middle level educators play a critical role in helping students experience social and academic success during this transition.

Cheryl R. Ellerbrock is an assistant professor of middle grades/general education at the University of South Florida.

Jennifer M. Denmon is a former middle school and current high school English teacher and a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida.

Bridget Mahoney is a doctoral candidate in secondary English education at the University of South Florida.

Michael DiCicco is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida.

Laura Sabella is a former language arts teacher and current doctoral student and field experience supervisor at the University of South Florida.

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, April 2014