In a three-year study, our research team evaluated a grant given by the Raikes Foundation to various school districts across Washington State to help students transition from elementary to middle school. The study gathered student and parent perceptions about middle school and analyzed the services and strategies schools used to help ease the transition.
It turns out, many students form their perceptions of the next school level based on hearsay and stories from their teachers, parents, and peers. It also turns out that many adults still harbor ill feelings about their own middle school experiences. In focus groups, parents shared their own stories of bullies and drama when they were students. Older students and siblings warn incoming students of fights, drugs, mean teachers, and bad food. Students reported hearing their teachers say, “Just wait—you’ll never get away with that kind of behavior in middle school” or “You are going to be in for a surprise when you see how much homework you’ll have.” While many or all of these tales may contain elements of truth, they certainly do not paint the whole picture, or at least not a very optimistic one.
So what are the major concerns of transitioning students? Based on a series of focus groups of transitioning sixth graders, we found students’ biggest worries to be bullying/fights, getting lost, not being able to open their lockers, getting shoved inside a locker, and fitting in socially. You will notice, none of these issues have anything to do with academics. As educators and parents, we can help ease that transition in order to help students focus on important things (like completing their homework and passing tests). Here are some suggestions on how parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, and peers can all help ease the transition with minimal effort.
Tips for Educators and Schools
- Communicate with families early and often. Caregivers always seem to want more information in multiple formats. Mail newsletters, update the website and reader board, and send fliers home with students detailing upcoming transition activities, deadlines, and procedures. Knowledge is power and an informed parent is usually a happy parent.
- Be positive. Frame conversations with students (and caregivers) about the next level of schooling in the most optimistic light. Talk about the exciting opportunities they will have to experience greater course offerings, more lunch choices, multiple teaching styles, and a widening social circle.
- Pave the way. Prepare (do not scare) students to tackle the next level of their education. Talk matter-of-factly about the increased responsibilities students will have at the next level and help them practice new ways of heading their papers, typing their assignments, and organizing their planners, for example.
- Practice logistics. This one depends on some funding, but one of the most beneficial transition practices noted in our study is a visit to the new school during the spring before the transition. This allows students to get a feel for the size, layout, and routines of their future school. If possible, elementary schools should purchase a set of combination locks for students to practice on, as this eases the anxiety about opening lockers.
- Targeted interventions. Another beneficial practice is giving select students a head start to get adjusted to the new school during the summer before the school year begins. Teachers at the current school can identify a subgroup of students based on certain risk factors and needs, and recommend these students to participate in a day or two of preparatory activities to make them feel comfortable with the routines and expectations of their new school.
- Encourage student mentors. Establishing a peer mentorship program is an easy way to foster a positive school climate while helping younger students transition into their new school environments. Programs such as Link Crew and WEB (Where Everybody Belongs) not only support transitions for younger students, they also create leadership opportunities and empowerment for older students to make a positive difference at school.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
- Keep the lines of communication open. Talk about your own middle school experience in the most positive light (come on, it was not that bad, right?). Make sure your child knows it is okay to talk to you about any issues or worries they are having.
- Practice makes perfect. One of the biggest concerns most students have is about using lockers. Get an inexpensive combination lock and let your child practice all summer long. By the first day of school, they will not remember what they were so worried about in the first place.
- Know where to go. Most middle and high schools host incoming elementary and middle school students for some sort of open house or orientation where students are allowed to roam the halls and familiarize themselves with the lay of the land. Make sure to help your student take advantage of these opportunities. If the school does not host a formal event, set up a time after school hours or during the summer. Get a copy of the campus map and highlight where their classes will be.
- Know who to trust. Make sure your student knows where to turn if they have a problem during the school day. Whether it is the school counselor, a teacher, the security guard, or principal, students should know where to turn if they are ever bullied, feel unsafe, or need to report something inappropriate.