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Transition Time

Any move to a new grade is a challenge, but particularly the major transition years

The end of a school year and the beginning of another are exciting times in schools and classrooms, but increasingly researchers are finding they are also important for students in both their perceptions about school long term and their performance. And it is particularly important when students are moving on to a different school.

So, for instance, the move from kindergarten to first grade, into middle school or high school and even on to college are key times when students often need support and many students develop patterns that stick.

A team of researchers from Britain and the U.S. reported just last year in Frontiers in Psychology, for instance, that their extensive research had shown the transition to middle school especially was critical. Their study showed that more research needed to be done, and some concerns were over-stated, but that educators and parents need to focus attention on these transitions.

“The transition to secondary education has received increased interest from researchers in recent years, with many regarding the change as one of the most stressful events young adolescents will experience”, the report says. “Children report additional concerns during this time, including fear of bullies, being lost, peer relationship worries, and anxiety over coping with an increased workload. Additionally, the transition can directly impact educational attainment, with a reported interruption in students’ academic growth during the transition year.”

That sums up what other researchers have said about all those important transition periods, where the change can affect students acutely both socially and academically.

“Transition to a new school can be very disruptive to learning and interpersonal relationships,” says Linda Taylor, co-director of UCLA’s School Mental Health Project in the university’s psychology department. “When transitions go poorly, learning, behavior, and emotional problems can arise and be exacerbated. All this contributes to eventual dropping out of school.”

Other research has shown that a positive transition into middle school is critical for success, and that achievement often drops off dramatically in the first year there. Authors of that study believe the middle school transition year is the most critical period in a student’s K-12 education.

But others also believe that the high school transition is important, because the work at that level becomes more difficult and critical for life outside of school, and there is more pressure to perform and make decisions about the transition. Others obviously believe the move into first grade is key and early childhood education deserves more attention.

So, given all of that, what should schools do to help with students at any age transition well? Here are some tips that apply to most any important transition period.

Set up connections. It is important for schools to communicate with each other about the students that are moving, and some are better at it than others. Typically it should be taking place at a time that tends to be busy for schools (often when testing is occurring) and it can seem like a lower priority than other work that needs to be done. But it is critical.  Schools should develop a process where key people at each school can individually discuss each student’s performance, supports needed, and (in privacy with counselors, in some cases) personal and social concerns.

Connect at home. Schools should make parents aware of how important transition years are – at both the school the student is leaving and the one they are matriculating to. Some schools hold specific parent meetings for each student as they leave or early in their time at a new school. Others even do home visits to help parents feel comfortable with people at the new school and get to know the new families – and gain some insight about the students’ home environment.

Be upfront with students. Give students a chance as a group and individually to talk about their concerns in advance, making sure they know none of them are insignificant. (Educators often report students entering middle school, when asked privately, actually are concerned about being stuffed in a locker from seeing the portrayal of that frequently in movies and television shows.) Prepare them, too, for the challenges of, for instance, a day full of six-eight classes in middle school, or more electives in high school and more responsibility for their own work.

New student sensitivity. Remind the staff that all new students are nervous and have concerns – and aren’t likely to want to express them. They should be hyper sensitive to them needing assistance in making the adjustment and being reluctant to talk about their concerns.

Look at data. Schools create a lot of useful information about students and too often it isn’t used. There are grades, but the perhaps should be considered in connection with trends in their grades. Consider test scores, but note if they vary from grades significantly. And keep track of the other information about students behavior, family interactions and interests.

Collect data too. Schools should survey new students and parents and perhaps their own staff about the transition and make changes each year. There are often assumptions about the process, and systems in place that aren’t accurate or effective. Schools should gather information but also be willing to change procedures based on feedback.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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