Most students approach the transition to middle school with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. They look forward to enjoying more freedom, meeting new people, and making new friends. At the same time, they worry about having more homework and harder classes, losing their way between classes, and having to negotiate relationships with multiple teachers. Above all, they worry about fitting in socially.
The challenge of adjusting to a new school and peer group comes at a time when, developmentally, adolescents are also moving toward greater autonomy. The combination of new challenges and opportunities for independence makes this a particularly weighty period of development, laden with potential for both accomplishment and disappointment. Students learn much about self-efficacy as they enter this new environment and succeed or fail.
To explore the everyday concerns of students as they enter middle school, we analyzed in-depth interviews with eight students from the Adolescent Lives in Transition Project.1
We talked with students both before they entered middle school and after they had made the transition. The school in the study was a regional middle school serving students in grades 7–8, located in a rural area in the northeastern United States. Students transitioned to the regional middle school from elementary schools in six culturally and socioeconomically diverse towns, with different rates of poverty, special education rates, test scores, and unemployment rates. A better understanding of their concerns, discussed below, can suggest strategies for schools to support students during this challenging period.
Will I Meet Academic Demands?
At the most basic level, students said they needed practical knowledge—how to find the right school bus, how to get to their classes on time, how to open their lockers, and so on. A secondary concern was increased academic demands. On the one hand, they anticipated this challenge with some enthusiasm. Harder work and higher expectations represented getting older and being more capable. As one student explained,
I think every year teachers expect your brain to be working better because you've been going to school for more time. … I think it's good that they're pushing us to use our heads.
But increased academic demands also worried some students. They envisioned themselves having to stretch to function effectively, and they often wondered whether their level of skill and knowledge would be adequate to succeed in the new classroom environment. Some low-income students voiced concerns that students from more affluent communities would be better prepared academically. As one student predicted,
Some kids will make fun of other kids from other towns, if the things they were taught aren't really relevant.
Students also anxiously anticipated having to speak up in class more. One shy student stated,
You have to be able to share what you're thinking. If you don't raise your hand and don't share anything … you can't do that well.
Will I Fit In Socially?
Positive peer relationships are vital to students' overall well-being, and the most pressing concern for the students in our study involved relationships and the new social sphere. As they prepared to leave the comfort zone of their familiar elementary schools and enter the bigger, more diverse world of a regional middle school, they wondered whether they had the interpersonal skills and necessary social capital to make it.
Students recognized that the possibility of new relationships had implications for elementary school friendships. They pondered, often for the first time, the need to address nuanced interpersonal challenges. One student said,
I think my best friend … from 1st grade … might expect me to be her best friend again, and I might not want that; she might not know how I've changed over the years.
Also noting the likelihood of changed social dynamics, one 6th grade girl gleefully anticipated the shift that she hoped awaited
the popular people who are like jerks or they're mean to other people and put down other people; I just can't wait to see the look on their faces as they end up not being as popular as they used to be.
Students worried about the power and place of popularity and exclusivity in their new school. They imagined social situations in which they might fail. For example, one student commented on the subtleties of telling a joke to a group of peers:
It might change from something wicked funny to something really bad in just a matter of seconds.
Several students actively rejected the notion of popularity and railed against the pressures of social success:
People try and be perfect, and I wish people would realize that nobody is perfect and nobody ever will be perfect. … Me and my friends try to include everybody.
Some students regarded pressure to be popular as a trap and argued that "being themselves" was more important than "trying to be all the same."
In this school, which enrolls students from both low-income and wealthy communities, students were savvy about social class differences and concerned that some students would be socially privileged. One entering 7th grader pointed out that his middle school teachers resided in the wealthier areas of the school district. Thus, they were more likely to know his new classmates from that same community:
Some of the teachers probably pay more attention to the kids from the same town. … They know the kids, the kids' families. They know lots about them, so they can talk to them more.
Students from the low-income communities recognized the importance of this kind of social capital, and they worried about the stereotypes and assumptions that might affect them in middle school. One student addressed this problem with pointed insight: "People think if you live in a trailer home you are nothing but trailer trash."
Many students in our study raised bullying as another social concern. As 7th graders, students described increased instances of bullying when they entered middle school, and they expressed a wish for a school environment in which they could feel safe. One student suggested that teachers needed to send a strong message:
Somebody needs to sit down with the kids, explain to them that this is not right; not only does it hurt people's feelings, it just makes them feel even more different and more hopeless and worthless.
As new 7th graders, some students lamented the loss of personal contact with their elementary school teachers, noting that in 7th grade,
We only have a year, and the teachers have like 100-something students, so they don't get to know you as well.
Along with having teachers who took the time to develop a personal interest in them, 7th grade students pointed out other factors that helped them feel that they fit in. Knowing older students, such as siblings and helpful 8th graders, was important. Although students stressed the benefit of getting to know other students through shared interests, they encountered barriers to joining sports teams and other after-school activities. The fact that middle school sports teams were selective made participation nearly impossible for students without prior experience (gained through summer sports camps or some other venue). For some students, transportation created another barrier to joining after-school activities in this multitown school district. Both of these factors disproportionally affected students from the lower-income communities.
Students repeatedly mentioned the importance of having a strong sense of self to weather the middle school transition. One student argued that what really mattered was "personality, the inner you." When asked what it means to do well, another student responded,
To be comfortable with yourself, to fit in with everybody, or people who are like you, to be successful in schoolwork and get good grades. To be happy with yourself.
What Schools Can Do
Self-confidence, organizational skills, academic preparation, social skills, the ability to express oneself, and resilience in the face of difficulty are all necessary ingredients for successful transition from a local elementary school to a regional middle school. School strategies that address students' academic, social, and emotional readiness can help them develop these competencies and build a strong sense of self. Here are some recommendations based on students' comments.
Help Students Navigate
When students do not know their way around their new school or cannot find the right bus at the end of the day, they can feel lost or overwhelmed. Pretransition visits to the middle school and guided tours by helpful older students go a long way to relieve anxiety. With increased use of cyberspace, an online virtual tour is possible and can be informative for transitioning students and their parents, too.
Enlist the Support of Others
Transition efforts are most successful when everyone is involved. Peers, siblings, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators all play a role in supporting this passage. Schools can
- Empower parents and students by arranging a series of pretransition visits to the new school and by providing written materials that outline expectations and supports that will be available to them.
- Enable elementary school and middle school teachers to share information, particularly about vulnerable students.
- Enlist support staff in making the school a welcoming place for new students. A warm smile from a crossing guard, the caring guidance of a custodian, and a helping hand from lunchroom staff are gestures that can make a difference.
Build Connections in Elementary School
In regional middle schools that draw students from diverse communities, giving students opportunities to get to know one another in elementary school can reduce the fear of the unknown that many students described before entering middle school. For example, some elementary schools use place-based education to help students build knowledge of and pride in their immediate community and learn more about the communities of their peers. Joint place-based projects among multiple elementary schools that integrate students into mixed groups can help them bond with students from other schools and build a shared community identity. Once the students reach middle school, these elementary school experiences could help eliminate the insider-outsider mentality between students from feeder schools.
Inspire a Sense of Community
Many strategies can help build a sense of community and camaraderie among new middle school students. Consider such activities as field days, all-school reading and discussion times during advisory periods, and an older buddy program to mentor incoming students. For more ideas about team-building activities, see
To break down social stratification and isolation, take steps to ensure that students from all communities can participate on sports teams and in other extracurricular activities. If teams, councils, and clubs have adequate representation among communities, they also help unite families across towns as they attend games, presentations, or exhibits together. Academically, rigid ability grouping can perpetuate stereotypes and negative feelings that threaten to reinforce social class divisions.
Identify and Support Students Who Might Have Difficulty
It is important to give students who face difficult academic, social, emotional, and physical challenges increased support. Potential strategies include more personalized, small-group visits to the middle school; close communication between elementary and middle school counselors and teachers; and summertime academic tutoring so students enter middle school with better organizational and academic skills. Without the additional support, social or academic gaps often grow larger in middle grades, leading to increased student disengagement.
Creating a Sense of Belonging
Knowing their peers helps middle school students build a social support network, and knowing their teachers fosters engagement within the school. In schools that draw students from diverse communities, creating a high level of comfort and a sense of belonging for all students can be challenging. Students want teachers to help them reach across social class lines to find common ground with their peers. When schools provide thoughtful guidance for transition and adjustment, middle school students learn that they can meet new challenges successfully, thus reinforcing their resilience and resourcefulness.
San Antonio, D. M. (2004). Adolescent lives in transition: How social class influences the adjustment to middle school. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Donna M. San Antonio is the executive director of the Appalachian Mountain Teen Project in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire; 603-569-5510.
Elizabeth Marcell is the director of special education at ReNEW Schools in New Orleans, Louisiana; 504-723-2066.
is a doctoral candidate and instructor in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Karen Wiener is a doctoral candidate in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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