School Transitions

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

This entry contains the following:


Eric M. Anderman


Kristen N. Missall, Robin L. Hojnoski


Helen Patrick, Brent M. Drake


Patricia Jarvis


School transitions mark the time period when students move from one school environment into another. Transitions occur at a variety of ages and vary greatly across school districts. Students often experience problems adjusting to changes in educational environments; consequently, teachers need to receive professional development training to assist students in making successful school transitions.


Although transitions can occur at many different time periods, several periods are typical. The transition into kindergarten is the first major school transition; however, for some children, who already have attended childcare or preschool, the transition into kindergarten may be much easier than for other children, who have stayed at home until just prior to kindergarten. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that most children do experience at least some care before kindergarten from non-parental caretakers; for example, in 2001, only 26.1% of preschool children were cared for solely by parents (U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Consequently, for most children, the transition into kindergarten is not the first time they have been out of the home.

The second major transition for most students is the transition from elementary school into middle or junior high school. Much research has been conducted examining the effects of this transition on a variety of outcomes. Research generally indicates that the transition into middle school often is problematic for early adolescents because the instructional practices of many middle schools do not meet the developmental needs of early adolescents (e.g., Anderman & Maehr, 1994; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Simmons & Blyth, 1987). Many students become less motivated and begin to lose interest in school after this transition.

Mortorboards against the sky signal school transitions.Mortorboards against the sky signal school transitions.CHRIS CHEADLE /ALL CANADA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES.

The third transition often is the transition from middle or junior high school into high school. There is less research on this transition than on some of the other school transitions. Nevertheless, a growing body of evidence suggests that this transition often is traumatic and problematic for some students (Eccles, 2008).

For some students, high school represents the final stage of formal education. However, for many students, the transition from high school into college represents another very important school transition. Some students attend two-year community colleges, whereas others attend four-year colleges or universities. The transition into college for many students represents the first time that the student attends school while simultaneously living away from home. Many students do not adapt well to college life and experience academic difficulties during their first year of school, which can eventually lead to dropping out (Tinto, 2006).


Transitions are extremely important because they represent major shifts in the daily contexts in which children and adolescents interact. For some students, the transition is smooth and peaceful, whereas for others it is stressful.

School transitions are related to a variety of behavioral and psychological changes. Research indicates that across transitions, students often experience changes in relationships with peers, parents, and teachers. In addition, behavioral problems often become evident after a school transition, which is particularly true when students interact with new peer groups after the transition. Much research has examined changes in academic variables after transitions; many transitions are related to notable changes in students' motivation to learn, academic performance, and attitudes toward school.


It is very important for educators to be well prepared to assist students during transitional periods. Teachers cannot assume that students will naturally adjust to new learning environments with little difficulty. Educators must attend to the developmental needs of children and work collaboratively with parents, school counselors, and administrators to ease transitions for students of all ages. Programmatic efforts to facilitate such transitions are growing in number.


Anderman, E. M., & Maehr, M. L. (1994). Motivation and schooling in the middle grades. Review of Educational Research, 64, 287–309.

Eccles, J. S. (2008). High school transitions. In J. Meece & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Schooling and development: Theory, methods, and applications.

Eccles, J. S., & Midgley, C. (1989). Stage-environment fit: Developmentally appropriate classrooms for young adolescents. In C. Ames & R. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education: Goals and cognitions (Vol. 3, pp. 139– 186). New York: Academic Press.

Simmons, R. G., & Blyth, D. A. (1987). Moving into adolescence: The impact of pubertal change and school context. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). Digest of education statistics (NCES 2006–030).

Tinto, V. (2006). Research and practice of student retention: What next? Journal of College Student Retention, Research, Theory, and Practice, 8, 1–19.


Kindergarten marks the entrance to formal schooling and is an important time of transition for children and families (Pianta, Rimm-Kaufman, & Cox, 1999). Children are changing developmentally in ways that potentially support adaptation to the expectations and demands of the kindergarten setting. Given the number of changes that characterize the transition period, identification of factors that support successful transition are critical. This entry describes the changes children experience as they transition to kindergarten and discusses factors related to successful adjustment to schooling.


Contextual changes from preschool to kindergarten coincide with developmental changes. As children physically mature, their experiences change, providing additional opportunities for skill development in a repeating and reciprocal cycle. Through the preschool years, basic skills increase rapidly. Greater motor coordination allows children to engage in more physical activity (e.g., running, climbing) essential for interactive play and group games that become more prominent in kindergarten. Changes in fine motor skills allow children to participate in academic tasks (e.g., writing, using scissors) and support adaptive skills (e.g., dressing, tying shoes) that promote independence. Language and communication skills become more sophisticated and refined, allowing greater expression and understanding of ideas, feelings, and knowledge. These basic developmental changes that are readily observed are accompanied by changes in cognition and psychosocial development that are explained by theoretical perspectives.

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) developed a theory of cognitive development that placed children of transition age near the end of the preoperational period, moving toward the concrete operational period. This movement is characterized by decreasing egocentrism and increasing flexibility in thinking, leading to increased perspective taking, understanding of functions and relations, cause and effect, and simultaneous consideration of features of objects (e.g., length and width). From an information-processing perspective, changes in cognition are accompanied by increases in learning and memory capacity that result in diversified strategies for learning (Miller, 2002). As cognitive capabilities change, children interact with and store knowledge in a way that increases capacity for learning and connecting new information to existing information. These cognitive advances contribute to effective problem-solving in an academic sense and in interpersonal interactions. Flexibility in thinking, greater memory capacity, and more effective problem-solving can support focused attention, task persistence, and increased motivation to learn. Increased perspective taking can facilitate social problem-solving, the development of empathy, self-regulation and self-control, necessary skills for school success.

Developmental changes are also reflected in theories of social development. According to the psychosocial perspective of Erik Erikson (1902–1994), as an individual develops, new skills create opportunities and demands. Physical and cognitive changes contribute to increasing autonomy and a developing sense of self through participation in new experiences. Adaptation to the opportunities and challenges in school is an important element of Erikson's theory of identity development, which places children of transition age in the stage of Industry vs. Inferiority, characterized by the sentiment “I am what I learn.” Further, emotional and moral development reflects a shift toward social comparisons and an internalized sense of standards, rules and values based on fairness and equality. Success in school, academically and interpersonally, provides children with a sense of mastery and competence that supports continued development.

Sociocultural theory provides a larger context in which to consider the cognitive and psychosocial changes that children experience during transition. Social interaction is critical to development, and the nature of interaction shifts to accommodate and challenge the growing child. As children mature, their participation in sociocul-tural activities and interactions with others changes, affording greater opportunities for development as evident in the different experiences from preschool to kindergarten. Key to this process is the notion of the zone of proximal development, developed by Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), which can be defined as the difference between what a child can do independently and what the child can do with adult support. Successful learning within the zone in academic or social domains is characterized by shared goals, scaffolding, and social interactions between a child and a more competent individual. Thus, teachers, care-givers, and competent peers play a significant role in supporting adjustment to formal schooling.

In sum, developmental changes that characterize the age of transition to formal schooling prepare children to become more active learners and more social beings during a time of increased demands for social competence, both of a learning-related and peer-related nature. In kindergarten children enter a world of opportunities and challenges different from their preschool or home environments, and their experiences in that context set the stage for continued development.


Preschool and kindergarten settings vary a great deal in curricular content, structure, and focus. In general, preschool settings tend to be characterized by an approach to education that emphasizes child-directed learning through play, whereas kindergarten settings are more likely to emphasize the acquisition of skills and knowledge through direct instruction approaches and structured activities (Hemmeter, 2000). From a sociopolitical context several factors may contribute to observed differences in the two settings. Preschool programs have historically operated independently from the formal schooling system, and evaluation outcomes in preschool have been more likely to focus on health and safety than on early academic performance or development of social competence. Coupled with a significant emphasis on child-directed learning and play, this has resulted in few formal instructional curricula for preschoolers. In contrast, physically located in schools and conceptually linked to formal schooling, kindergartens may experience accountability demands, attention to performance and standards, and emphasis on foundational academic skills. As such, formal curricula for kindergarten are widely available and used in schools with an eye toward academic outcomes (e.g., learning to read) that change the nature of children's experiences.

Changing experiences are accompanied by changing expectations related to learning and social interaction. As time on learning increases, classroom daily activities shift from more play-based in preschool to more structured and academically focused in kindergarten. Further, because more children are enrolled in kindergarten classrooms than in preschool classrooms, children may be interacting with a larger and more heterogeneous group of children in the context of higher child-teacher ratios. Learning-related social skills (McClelland & Morrison, 2003) that enable children to attend to instruction, follow directions, participate in group activities, organize materials, and persist in challenging tasks become more important. In addition, membership in group and individual relationships (Schwartz, Garfinkle, & Davis, 2000) becomes increasingly complex to negotiate and requires effective peer-related and adult-related social skills, such as initiating and maintaining positive interactions, sharing, turn-taking (McClelland & Morrison, 2003), effective social communication, and regulation of emotions (Izard, Trentacosta, King, & Mostow, 2004). Behaviors that may be tolerated in preschool settings and viewed as within the range of developmentally appropriate may be considered inappropriate and problematic in terms of school adjustment. For example, difficulty following directions, sharing, compliance, or lack of social interaction is likely to generate more concern in kindergarten settings. As such, it is important to understand expectations of kindergarten settings to facilitate transition.


Research suggests that academic development at kindergarten entry has both direct and indirect effects on first grade schooling outcomes, and the link between early performance and later achievement has been demonstrated through grade 10 (Stevenson & Newman, 1986). Thus, upon entrance to kindergarten children need to have foundational skills to support continued development. Critical early literacy skills in language development, phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondence, concepts about print, and alphabetic principles need to be in place for a child to be prepared to read and write (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Children's language structures and word knowledge continues to grow, facilitating development of more complex phonological neighborhoods that support early literacy skills such as rhyming (Snow et al., 1998). Similarly, children's early informal numerical understanding provides a structure for formal instruction in skills and concepts that expand their ability to use mathematics in abstract ways (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001). Facility with a mental number line constitutes an important conceptual framework for mathematical learning (Griffin & Case, 1997). Without foundational skills in key academic areas, the gap between children with skills and those without is likely to continue to grow throughout kindergarten and subsequent grades (Bowman et al., 2001).

Although necessary, early academic skills alone are not sufficient for successful transition to elementary. The degree to which children successfully navigate the kindergarten social environment in terms of classroom rules and expectations (learning-related social skills), peer relationships (peer-related social skills), and adult relationships (adult-related social skills), can dramatically affect short-term and long-term adjustment to kindergarten and to school in general.

Acquisition of learning-related social skills such as task completion, listening, following directions, active participation, attentiveness, compliance, self-regulation, and independence are necessary for kindergarten success as they facilitate the ability to attend to, participate in, and benefit from instruction (McClelland & Morrison, 2003). Kindergarten children rated by their teachers as having high levels of learning-related social skills have significantly less risk for being identified with behavior problems (Cooper & Farran, 1988). Kindergarten teachers have also specified that key behaviors such as listening to the teacher and complying with teacher directions are critical to successful adjustment to kindergarten (Pianta et al., 1999). Moreover, in a survey of 3,500 kindergarten teachers across the United States, 46% indicated their biggest concern was that entering children “had difficulty following directions” (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, & Cox, 2000). Studies have shown connections between learning-related skills at the beginning of kindergarten and later academic success, with learning-related skills accounting for unique variance in children's reading, mathematics, vocabulary, general information and alphabet skills in kindergarten and through the end of second grade (McClelland & Morrison, 2003).

Acquisition of peer-related social skills such as the ability to initiate and maintain interactions, share, cooperate, and demonstrate respect for other children (McClel-land & Morrison, 2003) significantly affect a child's transition to school and subsequent adjustment (Ladd & Coleman, 1997), and is commonly reflected in the number of mutual friendships that children have, peer social status, and general climate of peer interactions (Phillipsen, Deptula, & Cohen, 1999). Research suggests that children who engage in high rates of positive initiations toward peers receive high rates of positive initiations from peers (McConnell et al., 1984), and that children tend to maintain similar relationship patterns across kindergarten (Ladd & Coleman, 1997). Children who maintain friendships during the first two months of kindergarten are more likely to view school favorably (Ladd & Coleman, 1997) and children with high levels of prosocial skills tend to have more mutual friendships (Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999). In addition, children who engage in positive peer interactions demonstrate more positive overall engagement in the classroom (Fantuzzo, Bulotsky-Shearer, Fusco, & McWayne, 2005), suggesting a relation between learning-related and peer-related social skills.

Adult-related social skills have an important role in the transition to elementary because children transitioning to kindergarten are still quite young, and have largely relied on adult modeling and nurturance from birth. Because parents and caregivers are the first socialization agents of young children, their influence has lasting effects on their child's social development. Children who report closeness with their parents tend to adjust best to school with more friends, fewer conflicts, and higher levels of peer acceptance, with teachers reporting frequent on-task behavior, following directions, and overall classroom competency (Clark & Ladd, 2000). This is important because children tend to develop relationships with teachers that mirror their relationships with parents, that is, if a child is clingy and needy or distant with a parent, they are likely to interact similarly with a teacher (Clark & Ladd, 2000). Children with appropriate teacher relationships are more likely to have important social skills, including self regulation and independent work habits (Pianta, Nimetz, & Bennett, 1997) as well as higher academic achievement, more mutual friends, and a higher level of peer acceptance (DeMulder, Denham, Schmidt, & Mitchell, 2000). Some research has suggested that parent involvement in school activities starting at kindergarten strongly impacts a child's adjustment to school, which can maintain through at least sixth grade (Pettit, Bates, & Dodge, 1997).

In conclusion, the transition to kindergarten is marked by important changes. Children are changing developmentally in ways that can support their adjustment and growth cognitively and socially when fostered in sensitive interactions with others. Further, the context of learning and social interaction changes as children move from preschool and home settings to formal school environments, resulting in new opportunities and challenges for skill development. With changes in context, typically there are changes in expectations for early academic performance and social behavior that require a solid foundation as well as continued development of skills and knowledge (Pianta et al., 1999). School success is largely determined by competence in the areas of academic skills and relationships with peers and adults. Key elements from these areas have collective and significant influence on a child's transition to elementary school and subsequent school adjustment (Pianta et al., 1999). Viewed together, a detailed picture emerges of the skills and experiences most likely to lead to successful transition to elementary, providing direction for early education and kindergarten settings in their efforts to support young children's development.


Bowman, B. T., Donovan, S., & Burns, M. S. (Eds.) (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Clark, K. E., & Ladd, G. W. (2000). Connectedness and autonomy support in parent-child relationships: Links to children's socioemotional orientation and peer relationships. Developmental Psychology, 36(4), 485–498.

Cooper, D. H., & Farran, D. C. (1988). Behavioral risk factors in kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 1–19.

DeMulder, E. K., Denham, S., Schmidt, M., & Mitchell, J. (2000). Q-Sort assessment of attachment security during the preschool years: Links for home to school. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 274–282.

Fantuzzo, J.W., Bulotsky-Shearer, R., Fusco, R., & McWayne, C. (2005). An investigation of preschool classroom behavioral adjustment problems and social-emotional school readiness competencies. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 20, 259–275.

Griffin, S., & Case, R. (1997). Re-thinking the primary school math curriculum: An approach based on cognitive science. Issues in Education, 3(1), 1–49.

Hemmeter, M. L. (2000). Classroom-based interventions: Evaluating the past and looking toward the future. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20(1), 56–61.

Izard, C. E., Trentacosta, C. J., King, K. A., & Mostow, A.J. (2004). An emotion-based prevention program for Head Start children. Early Education and Development, 15(4), 407–422.

Ladd, G. W., Birch, S. H., & Buhs, E. (1999). Children's social and scholastic lives in kindergarten: Related spheres of influence? Child Development, 70, 1373–1400.

Ladd, G.W., & Coleman, C. C. (1997). Children's classroom peer relationships and early school attitudes: Concurrent and longitudinal associations. Early Education and Development, 8(1), 51–66.

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McConnell, S. R., Strain, P. S., Kerr, M. M., Stagg, V., Lenkner, D. A., & Lambert, D. L. (1984). An empirical definition of elementary school adjustment: Selection of target behaviors for a comprehensive treatment program. Behavior Modification, 8(4), 451–473.

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Pianta, R. C., Nimetz, S. L., & Bennett, E. (1997). Mother-child relationships, teacher-child relationships, and school outcomes in preschool and kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12, 263–280.

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Most educational systems in the United States involve students attending a middle school (traditionally called junior high school) for two to three years, sandwiched between the elementary and high school grades. There is considerable variability in the grades included in middle schools, although sixth through eighth are the most common. Grade configuration is influenced primarily by social, demographic, and space considerations within school districts. Middle schools span elementary schools' focus on providing all students with a breadth of educational experiences and developing core knowledge and skills, and high schools' educational specialization that prepares students for the workforce or post-secondary education. They typically offer new subjects that students can elect to study, different levels of a subject within the same grade, and teachers with subject-specific specialization for academic subjects (resulting in students being taught by multiple teachers).

The transition to middle school coincides with early adolescence—the developmental transition period between childhood and adulthood. Developmental changes associated with adolescence have bearing on all students' experiences.


The early adolescent period is a time of dramatic physical, cognitive, social, and psychological growth and development. Not only must adolescents adjust to their own changes, they must also adjust to others treating them differently because of that development.

Physical Development. The onset of puberty usually marks the beginning of adolescence. Females begin puberty approximately eighteen months earlier, on average, than males; however, timing varies widely. Adolescents experience a dramatic growth spurt, with significant gains in height and weight, development of secondary sexual characteristics, and changes in fat and muscle distribution. Sexual interest also develops. Adolescents often appear awkward with their bodies, because of their rapid and irregular growth. Pubertal timing, relative to peers, is related to adolescents' body image and satisfaction with their appearance; late-developing females and early-developing males hold the most positive perceptions.

Cognitive Development. Adolescence is characterized by steady improvement in a range of cognitive abilities, both because of biological maturing and experiences. Adolescents process information faster and more efficiently, and their memory is better than in childhood. They become more meta-cognitive, or able to think about their thoughts and actions. However, they also tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate their vulnerabilities. Adolescents become increasingly able to engage in complex and abstract thinking, reasoning, decision making, and problem solving. With their improved cognitive abilities they appreciate others' perspectives better, reflect on themselves more, and become more self-aware. With these changes come greater self-consciousness and a tendency to believe that their experiences and feelings are unique to themselves. Finally, adolescents become better at regulating and coordinating their thinking, emotions, and behavior.

Social Relationships. Another dramatic change associated with adolescence is the increased importance of peer relationships. Young adolescents spend more time with peers, and friendships become more intense, close, and involve more self-disclosure. Distinct peer groups, with different characteristics, reputations, and status hierarchies, appear during early adolescence. With this emergence of cliques and crowds comes concern about social image. The desire to fit in and be like others is also strongest in early adolescence. This desire for acceptance is accompanied by greater use of strategies designed to project a particular image.

Psychological Development. With the development of adult-like characteristics comes a desire for greater independence and autonomy. Changes in young adolescents' physical characteristics, cognitive abilities, and social relationships influence their identity development—perceptions of who they are, what they are good or not good at, what they value or devalue, and what they aspire to or fear becoming. Establishing an identity involves the process of exploring and embarking on commitments (both emotionally, and with time and resources) to particular paths and outcomes. Although identity continues to develop through adulthood, it is especially important during adolescence; choices made at this time can have far-reaching consequences for education, employment, and relationships.


Middle schools typically afford experiences quite different from those students were accustomed to. The school buildings tend to be larger, serving students from multiple elementary schools, and employ subject-specific specialist teachers. Students also experience changes in what and how they are taught, how they are evaluated, their interactions with teachers and peers, and institutional norms and requirements. The nature of these changes has profound implications for young adolescents' academic and emotional thriving.

Middle Grade Schools (1980s). Research during the 1980s by Roberta Simmons and Dale Blyth showed that the transition to junior high school (as it was called then) was typically accompanied by worrying changes. Compared to students in K-8 schools, those in junior high had lower grades, lower self-esteem, and more negative attitudes about school. Other researchers (most notably Jac-quelynne Eccles, Carol Midgley, and their colleagues) identified similar and additional negative outcomes, including lower achievement, perceived ability, and interest in school, less positive and personal student-teacher relationships, and more anxiety and absenteeism. Because the comparison was between students in the same grade, with only the schools' grade configuration differing, prevailing notions that hormones and puberty were responsible for students' difficulties in junior high were shown to be incorrect.

Eccles and Midgley argued that these changes were a result of a mismatch between the school environment and students' development, and they coined the term stage-environment fit. They noted that the nature of junior high schools was antithetical to the developmental needs of young adolescents. That is, at a time when social connections and interpersonal relationships become particularly important, students had less opportunity for personal connections because they moved from class to class, with different teachers and different classmates and experienced predominantly whole class instruction. At a time of dramatic and uneven cognitive development, homogenous classes were formed by ability grouping and students received different learning opportunities. It was then extremely difficult for students in lower tracks to learn material necessary for college entry, and this design worked against those with later, but normal, cognitive development. Worksheets and whole class instruction predominated, so students' lessons were less varied and individualized compared to elementary school. Also of concern, junior high school teachers were less confident about teaching their students than were elementary teachers in the same grades.

When students are particularly concerned about fitting in and are sensitive about how they are viewed by others, they experienced more public and socially comparative grading practices and recognition policies. Also, although students are able to view situations more complexly, understand more abstract and nuanced ideas, and are developing their reasoning and argumentation skills, their lessons were slotted rigidly into short periods. Thus, time constrained the type and complexity of activities they could engage in. When students desire more independence and responsibility, they had fewer choices and opportunities for input. Teachers trusted students less than did elementary teachers of the same grades, and their management and discipline practices were controlling and custodial rather than student-centered.

Middle School Reform (1990s). Concern that junior high schools were not meeting young adolescents' needs led to calls for reform, with the objective of creating middle-level educational environments that are congruent developmentally with their needs. Turning Points, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development's prominent and influential report, advocated widespread changes to all aspects of the middle grades experience. The National Middle School Association advocated similar changes. Their recommendations included: (1) creating smaller learning environments to promote positive teacher-student relationships and connectedness to school (e.g., interdisciplinary team teaching, advisory programs), (2) teaching more challenging and complex material (e.g., emphasizing critical thinking skills, interdisciplinary curricula, flexible or block scheduling), (3) ensuring all students have common core classes and can be successful (e.g., heterogeneous classes), and (4) preparing teachers for the middle grades (e.g., learning about adolescent development, gaining certification with a middle grade specialty).

Middle Schools between the 1990s and Early 2000s. The middle school reform recommendations were adopted unevenly, according to reviews by the Carnegie Corporation and the RAND Corporation. Organizational changes were adopted more often than recommendations involving instruction. More than half the middle schools introduced home room classes and team teaching, however, often not as intended, thwarting objectives. For example, team teaching was premised on teachers having time together for shared planning and communicating about students, but teachers' planning times were often not coordinated. Flexible scheduling, which allows longer time periods for more complex activities, had been introduced infrequently. Integration across disciplines was difficult because teaching methods and beliefs vary for different subjects. Students continued to be placed in classes by ability groups in most schools. Although there were promising teaching reforms to increase students' conceptual understanding in mathematics and science (advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Research Council, respectively), in the early 2000s these efforts had been supplanted by consequences of high-stakes standardized testing, with its emphasis on knowledge that can be assessed quickly and easily.

Research in the 1990s and early 2000s showed that students' attitudes about school and feeling of connectedness no longer declined after the transition to middle school. Thus, the changes that targeted improving student-teacher relationships and creating a positive school climate had positive results for students. However, students did not fare better academically compared to pre-reform levels. Researchers expressed concern with the nature of instruction and the shortage of qualified teachers. Students viewed their classrooms as emphasizing learning and understanding to a lesser extent than their elementary school classrooms did.


Students who are confident about themselves and their learning are most likely to experience the transition to middle school positively, whereas those who begin with academic difficulties are at risk for academic and behavioral problems. Participation in school-affiliated extracurricular activities strengthens school commitment and achievement, especially for low-achieving males. Early pubertal development is a risk factor, particularly for girls. They are more likely to experience low self-esteem, to have older friends, be sexually active, and drink alcohol; therefore, their social lives may generate tensions with academic demands before they have developed sound coping strategies.

Friends and peers reinforce each others' actions and, therefore, support and encourage positive or negative behaviors and attitudes, depending on peer group characteristics and the intensity of the relationship. Consequently, strong friendships with peers who value school and achievement are positive predictors of transition experiences, whereas socializing with peers whose norms are counter to those promoted by school predicts future academic and social difficulties.

Students are most likely to make a positive transition to middle school when their classroom and school environments promote both their learning and understanding and supportive interpersonal relationships. This transition outcome involves a classroom emphasis on learning and understanding, not just memorization of facts, where success is viewed as self-improvement or in criterion-referenced terms, students have some autonomy, teachers have high expectations for all students, and learning activities are challenging, valued, and relevant to students. Furthermore, positive outcomes are more likely when students believe their teachers are enthusiastic and committed to helping them learn and are able to do so, feel respected as learners and as people, and view their classmates as encouraging them academically and emotionally. In contrast, competitive learning environments in which students' progress is public and expressed relative to others, and teachers' practices are controlling, inconsistent, or inflexible are likely to elicit less positive transition outcomes.

Characteristics of schools and staff affect the nature of the middle school transition. Having student-teacher advisory teams and a consistent group of classmates ease the transition. Also, having teachers who are confident in teaching their students, knowledgeable about their subject-matter and how to teach it, understand and like young adolescents, have opportunities for their own professional decision making, and feel supported by their principal and school administrators, predict middle school students' achievement and socio-emotional well-being. Conversely, students are less likely to thrive when their teachers experience high teaching demands and stress, low autonomy, and feel pressed to cover content, rather than having flexibility to pace material in response to students' understanding.


Academic and social aspects of school are closely related; socio-emotional and behavioral difficulties lead easily to academic problems, however academic problems can precipitate poor socio-emotional well-being. In general, “standing out and not fitting in are especially detrimental during the middle school years” (Juvonen et al., 2004, p. 48). Indicators of possible difficulties are increases in absenteeism, tardiness, missed homework assignments, and declining class preparedness, interest, participation in lessons, and grades. Also, repeating a middle grade is a strong predictor of dropping out of school. Depression, with its lethargy, decreased emotionality, and sleep disturbances can lead to academic problems. Displaying problem behaviors, such as aggressiveness, disruptiveness, or impulsivity are warning signs of difficulties, as is having relationships with deviant peers. Being socially isolated increases risk for depression, interpersonal difficulties (including bullying or being bullied), poor school performance, and dropping out of school. Finally, likelihood of difficulties at middle school increases with multiple stressors; these also include stressors outside school, such as illness, financial problems, or conflict within the family, divorce, and students' job commitments.


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Simmons, R. G., & Blyth, D. A. (1987). Moving into adolescence: The impact of pubertal change and social context. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.


School transition research has included consideration of transitions from elementary to middle and from middle to high school as well as transitions across grades within schools and across schools in adolescence and has documented many problems for adolescents. Jacquelynne Eccles and her colleagues produced the seminal work in this area published in the American Psychologist (1993) as well as many other scholarly journals. She hypothesized that most middle and high schools in the United States do not meet the developmental needs of adolescents. She further argued that school transitions are largely discontinuous and disruptive for development. Much data support this hypothesis across diverse populations and strong longitudinal study designs that controlled for many confounding variables (e.g., Simmons, et al., 1987; Eccles, 2004; Isakson, & Jarvis, 1999; Gutman, & Midgley, 2000; Barber & Olsen, 2004).

Generally, students making the transition to high school experience a decrease in self-esteem, participate less in school and extracurricular activities, see a drop in grade point average, miss more school days, and suffer from anonymity. Additionally anxiety is high concerning school procedures and the presence of older peers. Yet characteristics of schools as well as differences between adolescents may influence such adjustment. According to Barber and Olsen, high school students have been assumed to have fewer problems than middle school students given that they have had experience with middle school transitions and are more mature than early adolescents, all of which makes them less vulnerable to peer influence. These authors and many others argue that these assumptions are incorrect, as high school students in middle adolescence also experience significant stressors as they strive to meet the challenges associated with school/grade transitions. The focus of this entry is on empirical findings from research on adolescent adjustment during the transition to high school.


Based on John Hill's 1983 theoretical framework for studying adolescents, biological, cognitive, and social changes are fundamental to the transition from childhood to adolescence. Such changes occur across developmental contexts, including family, peers, schools, work, and leisure. Psychosocial issues, including identity, intimacy, sexuality, autonomy, and achievement, are paramount for adolescent development as well as across the lifespan generally. Adolescents face challenges associated with these psychosocial issues as they move through adolescence and experience the fundamental biological, cognitive, and social changes across contexts that give the issues greater significance than in childhood. Specific developmental challenges following this theoretical framework for adolescents making the transition to high school include the increased importance of academic achievement (unfortunately largely focused on grade point average) for success after graduation, the increased social significance of peer associations, and high school environments that require more self-reliance in students than was required of them in middle school.

The increased emphasis on social interactions in high school creates an environment in which fitting in and belonging serves an added source of pressure while at the same time peers (and parents) provide support for adolescents during this transitional period. Teacher expectations and demands increase in high school and students experience a higher level of stress than they did in middle school. Stark and colleagues and Phelps and Jarvis found that high school students reported their main problems to be in the areas of school, parents, friends, and dating, which is consistent with the types of developmental adjustments adolescents typically encounter and the high school atmosphere itself. Males reported more school problems, whereas females reported more interpersonal problems in both studies. Thus, adaptive coping strategies are needed by adolescents to handle such challenges. Success or failure at developmental tasks in adolescence sets the pathway for adult adjustment.


Structural changes in peer groups and schools influence the student transitioning to high school. This transition engenders changes in peer contacts such that adolescents begin to come into contact with older peers who are perceived as having more antisocial values. As with literature on early maturing adolescents, students entering the high school environment may not be prepared to cope with the influences of older, more experienced peers.

In most high schools, the structure of classes is also potentially problematic for adolescents in that classes are even less decentralized than in middle school leaving students without clear connections to caring adults who know their academic and social strengths well. Brief contact with numerous teachers in a more anonymous and bureaucratic setting makes it difficult for adolescents to feel valued and special, especially in overcrowded, resource-impoverished schools. This lack of connections to adults who can listen to adolescents' concerns undermines healthy adjustment, as Barber and Olsen discussed and the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development noted in their task force report on preparing adolescents for the 21st century. Barber and Olsen assessed transitions to middle and high school in the same students and found that, although in high school students reported fewer negative changes than they had two years earlier in middle school transition, the types of problems reported were consistent across both school transitions. Specifically, students perceived the school environment negatively (feeling less positive about school, feeling the need for more organization, and perceiving less support) and indicated decreased psychological adjustment (e.g., lower self-esteem, more depressive and anxiety symptoms).

Similarly, the research teams of both Simmons and Eccles noted academic changes such as stricter grading standards and structural changes common to high schools such as more impersonal environments and larger schools that increase anonymity of students. Goodenow found that students' feelings of belongingness in their school positively affected their motivation for school, effort, level of participation, and eventual achievement in school. Finally, Resnick and colleagues, reporting on the first wave of the Add Health data (a longitudinal study of adolescent health involving some 90,000 students in grades 7–12), found that both older and younger students who felt connected to their school reported less emotional distress and violent behavior. These researchers also found that a sense of connection to school protected youth from cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use, and was associated with delay of first sexual intercourse. Both the structural and academic changes in high schools compared to middle schools alienate adolescents from school.


Among the factors considered that predict school transition adjustment, the consensus is that a myriad of variables interact to explain variability (and resiliency) across populations of students. The main variables that have been found to predict adjustment are parent, peer, and teacher support, and development of effective coping strategies. Social class and ethnicity have also been variables identified as important mediators of adolescent adjustment. Each of these variables is considered below.

Gender differences in coping have been found that support consideration of the complexity of experience for particular adolescents. For example, Phelps and Jarvis found that females tended to use emotion-focused coping such as seeking social support; yet faced with a new, more impersonal high school environment, this coping style may not work if close friends are not present to support the adolescent in times of stress. Either new friends are needed or effective coping styles must be used. This view presumes adolescents do not make school transitions with their friends. In some instances (especially in private schools), such transitions are made from school to school as a group, and problems are less pronounced. Phelps and Jarvis also found that adolescents identified humor and religion as possible coping strategies but did not indicate that they had used such strategies when faced with stressors; thus, one intervention option is to encourage and support the development and use of adaptive coping strategies (generally defined in the coping literature as active problem solving or seeking instrumental support more than emotional support with solvable problems) in these adolescents.

Furthermore, the role of peers is less clear if one considers the peer group's orientation toward school. Generally, peers provide support for adolescents as they face new challenges. Felner and colleagues found that the level of social support from peers and teachers was positively related to school adjustment after the transition to high school for students involved in a support project. Compared to students not involved in the project, the students in the project had higher GPAs, better attendance, more positive self-concepts, and viewed school more favorably.

Some schools have mentorship programs to help students adjust to high school transitions whereby senior students accepted into the program via an application process serve as mentors for entering freshmen (even meeting with new students before the first day of school to help them find their classes). The students then meet with their mentors (one mentor per three incoming students) weekly to acclimate to the new environment with an experienced partner. The overall effectiveness of such programs has not been adequately studied however.

Parents also play an important role in school adjustment for high school students. Fuligni and Eccles found that parents who treat their adolescents in a more adultlike fashion and grant more autonomy than in childhood ease the transition to high school more than parents who restrict opportunities for growth and development in this transitional stage. Steinberg and colleagues also noted that some parents may be experiencing midlife identity issues of their own and as a result restrict their adolescents' life choices such that their adolescents actually experience greater dependency rather than the more healthy process of becoming autonomous adults.

The role of social class must be considered as well as it is generally concluded in literature on schooling in the United States that the rich get richer and the poor stay the same or fall further behind. Similarly, in school transition literature regarding large urban schools that were resource poor, students showed increasing disengagement from school. Seidman and colleagues documented the same declines in school engagement and academics with more ethnically diverse students at such schools as had been documented previously with more middle class, less diverse, samples but also found an increase in daily hassles for poor adolescents in poor schools that turned such adolescents even more toward their peers and gravitated toward more antisocial values. It is fairly well documented that students of color are alienated and marginalized in schools in which they are the minority and/or where tracking places them in inferior classes. Taylor and colleagues and Midgley and her colleagues argue that high schools can and must do more to support rather than undermine school engagement and motivation in students, and doing so especially needed for students who are in a racial minority in their school and even more for those minority students who also experience impoverished living conditions. Overall, poor students in poor schools in poor communities suffer the most during times of stress such as a school or life transition and are the most at risk for developmental problems associated with such stressors.


Academic problems are the most common difficulties students experience after school transitions followed by psychological and interpersonal adjustment difficulties. These findings have been replicated across many studies in the United States as well as in Australia (see the work of Cotterell with adolescents in Australia). Some students recover from transition losses as they develop positive coping skills and if they receive parental, peer, and teacher support while other students fall further behind over the high school years and may even drop out of school. It has been difficult to adequately study such students over time as students who fell too far behind dropped out and are thus not represented in such samples.

Identifying students experiencing school transition stressors early in the first year of high school may guide interventions to prevent greater problems later. For example, students who do not feel they are a part of their school (lower sense of school membership, according to Goodenow) evince misbehavior, decreased motivation, and academic problems during high school. Although a successful transition into high school implies forming social networks with one's peers and increased support from friends may improve feelings of belongingness in the school, such support may also lead to lower academic achievement if students are distracted from academic work by spending too much time with peers.

A compromise position is to set limits such that it is clearly defined which nights of the week an adolescent may spend time with friends and which nights must be devoted to school work (this would include limits on computer and cell phone usage). Both parents and teachers should foster ongoing communication with transitioning adolescents regarding school progress.

Finally, school administrators and teachers who reach out to students suffering from anonymity and provide “a school within a school,” as termed by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, such that these students form appropriate close relationships with at least one adult in the school may reverse negative trajectories for such students. It is considered fundamental for intellectual and personal growth that adolescents have stable, close, mutually respectful relationships with adults and peers. Such relationships can develop best if schools support them through this or similar types of school-within-a-school contexts.


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