Supporting Young Adolescents’ Transition In and Out of the Middle School

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A position paper of the Association for Middle Level Education

Though there are more than 30 different school configurations that include middle grades students, entry into middle school for sixth grade and entry into high school for ninth grade signals a transition for the majority of students in the US. These school transitions have the potential to evoke a wide variety of emotions, behaviors, and concerns for both young adolescents and their families. For many students, the transition in and out of the middle school are considered major milestones on the road to becoming an adult. For administrators, teachers, and counselors, these transitions are an opportunity to welcome students into a new environment, support them as they try new things, and build relationships while guiding them through their schooling experience.

The Elementary-to-Middle-School Transition

The elementary-to-middle-school transition is marked by numerous changes, from more departmentalized staffing and different types of assessment to larger class sizes and higher academic expectations. Social, emotional, developmental, and academic experiences are affected, requiring students to adjust to what they see as new settings, structures, and expectations (Akos, Rose, & Orthner, 2015). All of this comes at a time when they are also experiencing a host of changes associated with the transition from childhood to early adolescence. They are beginning to mature physically, and to think of themselves as individuals outside of their families. Their attentions turn to exercising independence and developing strong relationships with peers, while avoiding unwanted attention and embarrassment (Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007; Fenzel, 2016). The atmosphere at home may become strained asparents and children struggle with redefining roles and relationships. This complicated period of time has often been associated with a decline in academic achievement, performance motivation, and self-perceptions (Akos, 2016). It is a time when young adolescents are most likely to experiment with at-risk behaviors (Smith, Strahan, Patterson, Bouton, & McGaughey, 2018). It is also the point in time when children begin to make pivotal decisions regarding their academic and career choices precisely at a time when they may be distracted or turned off by academic endeavors (Fenzel, 2016).

A well-designed transition program (outlined below) can ease students’ anxieties and get them excited about middle school (Akos, 2016). Young adolescents must feel successful in school, have opportunities for self-expression and decision-making, and feel cared for and respected as a person (Jackson & Davis, 2000). The concerns most often expressed by students about to enter middle school focus on the routine of the new school: finding their way around and getting to class on time, dealing with lockers and locks, and mixing with older students. They also worry about choosing sports or extracurricular activities and keeping up with homework and long-term assignments. Schools can mitigate many of these concerns by providing orientation activities that demystify new routines well before the first day of middle school (Akos, 2016). Involving students at both levels in the planning and implementation of these activities ensures they are appropriate to student needs and provides positive initial contact between younger students and their older peers. Throughout the middle school experience, teachers can provide opportunities for every child to experience social and academic success by utilizing classroom strategies that promote social development as well as those that address individual learning needs. Middle schools must reach out to families, helping them to become more knowledgeable about young adolescents’ developmental needs and concerns, and encouraging ongoing family involvement in their children’s education (Akos, 2016). A strong home-to-school connection can create a seamless web of support for young adolescents in transition.

The Middle-to-High-School Transition

The Southern Regional Education Board (2002) states the middle-to-high-school transition is the most difficult transition in K-12 education. This transition evokes numerous emotions for young adolescents that range from excitement to fear (Ellerbrock, 2012). While these emotions are completely natural, they do tend to bring forth concerns that families and students share related to the procedural, social, and academic changes associated with the transition (Akos & Galassi, 2004). Many of these concerns are resolved during the first few weeks ofhigh school while others can last well into the first year and beyond. Procedural changes include adjusting to the high school schedule along with new rules and procedures (e.g., finding classes, new bell schedule, new classroom rules and procedures, adhering to high school policies). Social changes focus on relationships (e.g., keeping elementary/middle school friendships, being able to make new friends, fostering positive teacher relationships) and extracurricular involvement (e.g., learning about extracurricular opportunities at their new school and how to get involved). Academic changes are associated with the amount of schoolwork and new academic expectations. Students who experience issues with making a positive transition into high school tend to experience issues with behavior, school attendance, and poor grades. These issues result in difficulties remaining in school and can lead to students dropping out. Neild (2009) found that most students who end up dropping out of high school make and act on this decision by tenth grade.

Supporting the Transition in and out of the Middle School: What Administrators, Teachers, Counselors, and Families Can Do

Although undergoing a school transition can be difficult for many young adolescents, administrators, teachers, counselors, and families can make a positive impact on how students experience this change by working together to plan and implement strategies that will ease the transition in and out of the middle school.

Administrators, Teachers, and Counselors Can:

  • Encourage collaboration among administrators, teachers, and counselors at the sending and receiving schools;
  • Provide a comprehensive transition program that includes multiple transition activities before, during, and after the transition;
  • Make the planning, implementation, and evaluation of transition activities an annual focus;
  • Engage in collaborative planning with equivalent counterparts at the sending and receiving schools to ensure a smooth academic transition that recognizes and accommodates variations in curricula across feeder schools;
  • Become knowledgeable about and engage in instructional practices, including opportunities for peer interaction (e.g., cooperative learning) that support the developmental characteristics of young adolescents where students can experience academic success;
  • Create a climate that values and supports effective home/school communications;
  • Review the bell schedule(s) and map of the middle/high school prior to making the transition;
  • Practice procedural tasks with students prior to making the transition (e.g., bell schedule, combination lock);
  • Review the middle/high school student handbook and create activities that focus on pertinent information prior to the transition;
  • Talk about middle/high school academic and behavioral expectations;
  • Review examples of middle/high school assignments;
  • Review necessary academic skills (e.g., note-taking, study skills);
  • Focus on teaching life skills (e.g., responsibility, communication, time management);
  • Provide counseling at both the elementary and middle levels to address transition concerns and assure students of the availability of ongoing support;
  • Make use of developmentally responsive organizational structures at the middle school (e.g., teaming).

Families Can:

  • Participate in school transition program activities;
  • Include older siblings in orientation activities;
  • Provide young adolescents with manageable tasks that will help them develop organizational skills and responsibility;
  • Encourage young adolescents to try new things and to regard failure as a necessary part of learning and growing;
  • Become knowledgeable about the needs and concerns of young adolescents;
  • Help their student turn anxieties into positive action by learning about those things that are anxiety provoking (e.g., school rules, schedules, locker procedures);
  • Attend school events and stay involved in children’s schooling;
  • Support their child in efforts to become independent;
  • Maintain strong family connections with their young adolescent;
  • Be alert to signs of depression or anxiety in their child and seek help.

Supporting the Transition in and out of the Middle School: Creating an Effective Transition Program

An effective school transition program is noted in the literature to be the primary way to support students as they make the transition from one school to another (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009; Morgan & Hertzog, 2001). Transition programs offer multiple activities before, during, and after the school transition that introduce students to their new school’s rules, procedures, and expectations while supporting students’ academic and social needs and concerns (Hertzog & Morgan 1998, 1999; Morgan & Hertzog, 2001; Ellerbrock, Denmon, Mahoney, DiCicco, & Sabella, 2014). Attributes of successful school transition programs include a sensitivity to the anxieties accompanying the move to a new school setting, the importance of families and teachers as partners in this effort, and the recognition that becoming comfortable in a new school setting is an ongoing process, not a single event (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm, & Splitt-Gerber, 2000; Cauley & Jovanovich, 2006; Hertzog & Morgan 1998, 1999). Chances increase that students will experience a successful transition and, at the high school level, remain in school if they engage in multiple transition-related activities that focus on the procedural, social, and academic aspects of the transition. Examples of activities include:

  • Offering opportunities for middle/high school students to act as academic tutors for elementary/middle school students prior to the transition;
  • Arranging a tour of the new school prior to the transition;
  • Having a day for only incoming students to attend their new school without upperclassmen on campus (typically the day before school officially begins);
  • Offering an informational session conducted by administration, teachers, counselors, and students from the new school;
  • Engaging students in a “Rite of Passage” celebration activity at the end of elementary/middle school;
  • Shadowing of a middle/high school student for a day;
  • Implementing a “big brother/big sister” mentoring program where middle/high school students mentor elementary/middle grades students;
  • Inviting a panel of middle/high school students to talk with elementary/middle school students about the academic, social, and procedural aspects of the transition and answer questions in the spring before the transition;
  • Hosting a family orientation held at the receiving school;
  • Arranging for a middle/high school student mentor for each student who is making the transition;
  • Arranging a teacher swap day where teachers at the sending and receiving schools trade classes for a day;
  • Hosting an extracurricular day where school coaches, club sponsors, and other extracurricular representatives provide information about their organization and how to get involved;
  • Organize a high school curriculum/academic fair for teachers to share academic information;
  • Create a vertical team of middle and high school teachers to focus on streamlining the middle and high school curriculums.

It is important to remember that the transition to a new school is a process that takes place over time, not just something that is done immediately before or after students experience a school transition. Transition literature as well as transition studies call for a comprehensive approach built upon a commitment to teamwork and collaboration where educators, families, and students work together in designing and implementing transition supports for students as they transition from one school to the next. It is clear that collaboration among all adults who share responsibility and concern for the welfare of young adolescents is ultimately the most effective transition strategy we can employ.


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