Transition to Middle School
By Peter Lorain, retired high school teacher and middle school principal, Beaverton, Oregon
A key indicator of a successful middle school experience is a positive transition from elementary school. Unfortunately, positive anything is difficult for soon-to-be middle school students, if all they can think about is:
"Will there really be that much more homework?"
"What if I can't find the bathroom in that big school?"
"Will I be able to open my locker?"
"Do the big kids beat you up?"
"Do they really give swirlies?"
These questions and more pour through the minds of incoming middle school students the summer before school begins. They are the cause for many sleepless nights and a summer of anxiety and anticipation. (Notice there is no mention of academics or learning.)
Most schools provide some sort of transition program for students in their final year of elementary school consisting of a parent/student night, followed by a tour of the school for students sometime in the spring. These are excellent activities, but only two activities in an overall transition plan. Plus, they do not address the questions and anxieties these students have.
In a series of student focus groups I conducted with sixth grade students in the middle schools, I was surprised to find out that they formed most of their impressions from what elementary school teachers and older siblings and neighbors said. Their elementary school teachers made such comments as:
"You better learn this now because next year your middle school teachers will expect you to know it."
"You better do your homework this year because next year you'll have so much that if you don't know how to study, you'll fail."
"Go ahead and act that way now if you have to, but next year the teachers will not put up with it."
Older neighbors and brothers and sisters (usually brothers) said in fun (as part of some rite of passage) things like:
"Wait till next year. You'll love the swirlies. They put your head in the toilet and flush!"
"Next year when you little sixth graders walk down those crowded halls, the eighth graders will just push you out of the way."
"Next year you'll have teachers that are really mean and won't put up with your baby stuff."
You get the picture.
While none of the feared events and conditions actually take place, or at least rarely do, it's important for the schools to have a comprehensive "Transition to Middle School" program to help incoming middle school students be positive and look forward to the coming year. A comprehensive program includes:
- Helping students form a realistic expectation of what middle school will be like
- Providing a positive and successful first impression
- Insuring a successful introduction to the middle school experience
Parents, too, have concerns and questions about their children's transition from elementary to middle school, so any transition program must include the extensive participation of parents.
A well-planned, systematic transition program involves all the stakeholders: students, school personnel, and parents. Here are some things to consider:
- Incoming middle school students should be involved in a variety of activities preparing them for middle school. They should have the opportunity to meet middle school students and teachers in their elementary school. They should have the opportunity to visit the middle school in the spring and meet the staff and students, particularly their homeroom teacher and classmates. Educators in both the elementary and the middle school should provide activities for students that lessen their concerns, build their confidence, and reduce their anxiety.
- Current middle school students also should be prepared for and included in orientation presentations -- through a leadership/student government class, a “buddy” system, or other planned ways.
- School leaders should plan and provide for several events that involve students, teachers, and parents. These events should focus on providing a positive message about middle school, that it is safe and fun. They should also focus on providing information about the changes that early adolescents will be experiencing.
- Elementary teachers, counselors, and other licensed staff members should be aware of the concerns of their students and the anxieties of moving into middle schools. They should be upbeat and reassuring -- and they should not use middle schools as a "threat" or misplaced motivational tool. They should know about the developmental issues, indeed, some of their students in the elementary schools will already be experiencing some of these changes.
- Middle school teachers should be well versed in the developmental issues of their students. They also should be aware that students will experience anxieties associated with the change and they should begin before school starts to work to neutralize these anxieties. Visiting elementary schools in the spring, so the students know the teachers, and addressing any questions or concerns on the first day of the school year are two ways to facilitate this easing into the year.
- Parents should attend the spring incoming parent night to meet homeroom teachers and begin to establish a relationship with the teachers.
- Parents should attend school meetings to learn about the concerns and questions their children have and will have. They should talk with their children about the upcoming school year and emphasize the positive aspects of attending middle school. Parents should watch for signs of depression and be ready to address them.
- Parents need to learn about young adolescents and their developmental issues and stages so that they will understand better this new and wonderful person with whom they live, and be able to interact with them in positive ways that build relationships.
Making the transition into middle school is the first and most significant step to insuring a successful middle school experience. It is one that deserves time and attention. A well-planned transition program helps parents and students have a greater peace of mind by taking some of the stress out of the summer before middle school and providing the groundwork for a successful beginning of the middle school adventure.
Baenen, Judith. 1991. H.E.L.P. How to Enjoy Living with a Preadolescent -- Two pamphlets with resources for families with preadolescents. Westerville, Ohio: National Middle School Association.
Supporting Students in Their Transition to Middle School ( PDF, 53.4 KB, 5 pgs.) -- A position paper jointly adopted by the National Middle School Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals. March 2002.
Other Articles by Pete Lorain
- Brain Development in Young Adolescents -- Good news for middle school teachers.
- Can't Stop Talking -- Social needs of students in the middle.
- Squirming Comes Naturally to Middle School Students -- Physical changes trigger behavioral changes.
About the Author
Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997.