That next step: The time leading up to transition years are crucial for students
Researchers are increasingly finding that transition years are crucial in a child’s academic development – but also that they often dramatically affect their emotional health and social well being, both of which are critical to their ability to function in school. And increasingly, educators are using teaching strategies to pay closer attention to those years when students move into a new school or on to a new level, but also at the preparation time in the previous grade. “These transitions affect their academic experiences, motivation, self-perception, and self-regulatory beliefs,” says Casey Gilewski, a Coker College education professor and author of an article that reviews extensive research on the topic. She is particularly concerned about how we use teaching strategies to bridge the transition from elementary school to middle school when students are expected to do more work in more classes and navigate a bigger school with a wider range of students, all while they are undergoing important and impactful developmental changes.
Gilweski says it may be helpful to think of transitions in two structures with three parts: the Process before, during, and after the actual move to the new school and the transition academically, socially, and procedurally.
Linda Taylor, one of the founders of the School Mental Health Project at UCLA, which has studied the issue, says “Addressing transitions present opportunities to prevent problems and enable learning.”
“Many schools pay too little attention to providing supports for transitions. When this is the case, opportunities are missed to promote healthy development, address barriers to learning, and prevent academic, behavior, and emotional problems. Transition stressors can be barriers to school adjustment and thus learning and teaching,” she says.
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Casey Siddons, a consulting teacher in Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools, who taught sixth grade social studies and has helped develop a number of innovative approaches to make the transition to middle school easier, says it requires planning. “If we don't set the right tone when they first arrive,” he says, “We are facing problems for the next three years.”
Siddons is cohost of the education podcast “Eds (Not) Dead” and he’s written about how to help students adjust to a range of new challenges. He championed a program at his school that allowed 6th graders to stay with one teacher for four classes during their day, similar to elementary school, and sponsored a week-long, half-day summer orientation program for incoming students. “It’s such a critical time, and if we don’t get it right, kids suffer and perhaps underperform for several years – or struggle socially,” Siddons says.
Gilweski agrees. “Students are worried about being thrown into an environment of independence and responsibility – an environment significantly different from any educational experience known to date. They are expected to get to and from classes on their own, manage time wisely, use a locker, organize and keep up with materials for multiple classes, be responsible for all classwork and homework from multiple teachers, and at the same time develop and maintain a social life. It’s a lot to handle.”
Beyond their individual needs, she notes a good transition will create a bond with the school, and research has shown that students who feel connected and have a sense of belonging perform better, behave better, and take better care of school property.
12 Teaching Strategies for Making the Transitions to Middle School or High School Easier
- Gather information early. Find out from students and their parents facing a transition year what their concerns are and try to resolve them during the previous school year. Also get information from those students and their families who have just gone through a transition to find out what would have made theirs easier, and use that feedback in planning.
- Consider the message. Talk to students throughout the year prior to the transition and have a consistent message that explains the changes, creates excitement about the move, allays fears, and makes it clear that students should seek help if they struggle in any way. It is important they know how to get support.
- Develop networks. Often, says Taylor, problems arise because the transition process does not connect various parties involved – the student, the parents, the new and old teachers, and school officials. Schools should have a formal structure for making sure that all parties can communicate and that critical information about the students is passed along. “You have open communication with the feeder schools so that the staffs can work together,” she says, noting transition committees from each school should be formed and meet jointly.
- Keep parents informed. Beyond that network, think about ways to keep parents up-to-date with all the information they need about the academic, social, and procedural aspects of transitions, including at sessions where they can ask questions.
- Plan visits. Allow new students to come to their new school in the evening or over the summer when it’s quiet – and give them time to look around. Some schools do a scavenger hunt where they have to find certain offices or distinct parts of the building. Others have several days of summer orientation where they discuss everything from the social drama they’ll see to the ways to work a combination lock.
- Student to student. Some schools also allow a new student to shadow with an upperclassman, but experts note that such arrangements can give younger students the wrong impression or heighten anxiety. It is, however, a good idea to have student representatives of the new school visit and talk with the transitioning students, or serve as guides the first few days. Other schools have a pen pal system, where the new student can write to one at the school, all accomplished through classes where it can be monitored. Taylor says any of this sort of interaction should be well supervised and done with care.
- Parent-to-parent. Consider giving parents of students facing a transition an opportunity to meet parents whose students are already at the school to gain a connection, and answer specific questions staff members may not think of.
- Spell out support. Before it is needed, it is a good idea to make it clear to new students and their parents how to get support – for academics or social issues, or just navigating a new schedule and new school. Spend a lot of time reinforcing this since the the new student’s minds will be elsewhere, but finding the right support will be a key issue for them later and not knowing how often causes problems to go unresolved much longer.
- Normalize anxiety. Taylor notes that it helps students to know that they are not alone in their worries – and it may help them be willing to talk about their concerns, which often are shared by classmates.
- Use technology. A school might develop an individual website page for new students with news and guidance, or create groups on social media, assigning a staff member to monitor and answer questions with the help of veteran students. At Pioneer Middle School in Tustin, Calif., students created a video that introduced new students to their school and the staff and showed them around.
- Counselor overload. The counseling office will likely be swamped – especially if the counselors are responsible for student schedules, which will likely need a lot of attention in the first week. That means it might be harder for them to address emotional issues that are likely to surface, especially with students coming to school for the first time in kindergarten or moving into middle school. Schools should provide support for counseling offices during this busy time.
- Help and help again. During the first few days, make every effort to provide new students with guidance so that their experience is positive. Provide signage, announcements throughout the day, and make the staff aware that they should be available for any questions. One school has each teacher where an “Ask Me” button so new students will feel comfortable. Check in later – maybe after a month – to see how things are going.