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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

Navigating High School

Students say relationships with caring adults are what help them most in making the adjustment from middle school to high school.

Navigating High School - thumbnail
Why is the move from middle school to high school treacherous for so many students? Are we as teachers, counselors, and administrators doing enough to support this transition?
Research shows that the transition from one level of schooling to another is a process that unfolds over time. Schools have a responsibility to provide students with comprehensive supports for the normal, predictable challenges they face during these extended periods of transition (Popadiuk, 2009).

Multifaceted Problems

In our experience, educators often underestimate the nature, duration, and intensity of school transitions. The period leading up to and following a school transition can be as difficult as the move itself (Johnstone, 2001). The anticipation of the change creates stress, which does not necessarily dissipate once the student makes the move to a new school. Benner and Graham (2009) found that throughout the transition to high school, students maintained high levels of anxiety. Isakson and Jarvis (1999) observed a marked increase in stress in the first term after the transition, and this stress did not level off until near the end of the first year. These studies support the idea that the middle school to high school transition is a long process, which typically extends from the last year of middle school through the first year of high school.
  • Personal and developmental—for example, a mismatch between a student's readiness and the demands of the school environment; difficulty adjusting to the rapid physical and emotional changes of puberty.
  • Academic—for example, a significant decrease in grade point average; school dropout immediately following the first year of high school.
  • Social—for example, a disruption in friendships and social support; increased loneliness and isolation; a diminished sense of belonging.
  • Psychological—for example, lower self-esteem; increased depressive symptoms; increased problem behavior.
  • Organizational—for example, challenges connected with school size and length of class periods.
Despite the many needs identified in the research, schools have done little to help smooth the transition to high school (Jordan, 2001). Comprehensive, integrated programs that recognize this transition as a long-term process are all but nonexistent. To help schools design and implement such programs, the study described here provides information about the way students experience this significant passage in their school lives.

Asking the Students

Educators—in fact, all adults—often fall into the trap of believing that we know what is best for students without having any meaningful conversations with them about their experiences and needs. To address this gap, we conducted a study in which we interviewed high school students about their experiences with the transition from middle to high school. We conducted the research in a school district that serves approximately 22,000 students in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. The middle schools in the district served students in grades 7–9, and the senior secondary schools served students in grades 10–12.
Using the critical incident technique (Butterfield, Borgen, Amundson, & Maglio, 2005), we asked 31 students (27 in grade 10 and 4 in grade 11) about critical incidents that had been helpful or unhelpful in their own transition. The interviews lasted 45 to 60 minutes and were held in the schools that the students attended.
At the beginning of each interview, we asked, "I want you to think back to the last few months of grade 9 and the first few months of grade 10. What are the things that helped you with this transition?" We asked careful, nonleading questions ("Could you tell me more about this? How was this helpful to you?") to encourage the students to provide further details. This process continued until the student could not think of any new positive events. We then asked, "Again, think back to the last few months of grade 9 and the first few months of grade 10. What made this transition more difficult?" After transcribing all the interviews, we analyzed the responses to identify 203 facilitating and hindering critical incidents affecting students' transition from middle school to high school.

Relationships Are Essential

One major theme ran through our findings: Developing positive relationships with others in the school, especially with teachers, is fundamental. Students who knew that their teachers were interested in them and who felt that their teachers genuinely cared about them reported more positive school transition experiences.
Teachers often expressed this sense of caring by working with students to solve problems, set goals, and develop greater accountability. As they begin high school, students are confronted with the need to find a new balance between greater freedom and opportunities, on the one hand, and more accountability and responsibility on the other. Students said they appreciated classroom teachers who openly discussed these issues with them and supported their growing sense of identity as emerging young adults. They felt that these teachers played a key role in helping them develop skills and strategies for success.
In discussing the importance of these teachers, students emphasized the relational nature of the interaction (the level of caring, the patience, and the time spent). They perceived that the transition process was eased by teachers who made an extra effort to build rapport with them through discussions, who modeled respectful and positive relationships in the classroom, and who made time for them early in the transition.
Although strong relationships are the basis for learning in any context, teachers' practice often fails to recognize this fact. We have seen many examples of high school teachers who believe students "should have already learned how to do these things in middle school" and who therefore refuse to review material with the group or provide individual support to students who have gaps in learning. Such teachers make statements like, "I'm not going to spoon-feed you like your middle school teachers did." Students in our study described such teachers as unhelpful and believed that they showed a lack of caring and support. Although these teachers may intend to help students gain greater independence and maturity, the actual effect may be to make students feel ashamed of their need for connection and care—a need that is universal regardless of age.
In addition to teacher-student relationships, students in our study described the benefits of other relational connections before, during, and after the transition to high school. For example, having a relationship before the move with an older person who was already connected to the high school (such as a student, counselor, or coach) helped alleviate much of their anxiety. Echoing the resiliency literature, our study found that students who reported having at least one ongoing, caring, trusting relationship with an adult in the school were able to manage the transition more successfully—they knew someone, and someone knew them.

An Effective Transition Program

The student statements in this study confirm that a comprehensive, integrated transition program should focus on creating mutually caring relationships among teachers, students, and all others in the school, creating a school culture based on respect, relationships, and reciprocity of care. To provide inspiration to teachers who may feel exhausted and overburdened, who wonder about their personal influence on students, or who tend to shy away from developing close relationships, such a program should include professional development about the current research that clearly demonstrates the direct link between positive relationships and emotional and physical health and well-being.
  • Help students stay connected to peers they knew in middle school. For example, use moderated social networking technology to enable students to stay in touch with other students going to different high schools. Provide opportunities for groups of students from specific feeder middle schools to come together in the high school for a social event, such as a games afternoon or skating party.
  • Give students easy access to adults (counselors, teachers, and administrators) who can provide information and answer questions before and after school, as well as at lunch and during other breaks. Some students in our study mentioned that it was difficult to find a teacher or counselor at lunchtime because they took their lunch break at the same time.
  • Provide a safe and comfortable physical space where students can connect with and support one another during the day.
  • Set up a peer mentoring program in which older students connect with new students.

An Opportunity for Growth and Success

Our research suggests that schools need to view student transition as a process that is rolled out over a two-year period, rather than as a one-time event that can be addressed with a couple of interventions in June and September. Students in our study highlighted the fact that schools often pay lip service to the importance of transition, providing few interventions and supports along the way.
We advocate that staff members from middle schools and high schools review current practices and work together to develop a coordinated, comprehensive program of support before, during, and after the school transition. The findings of this study strongly demonstrate that developing caring, mutual, and respectful relationships should be the essential focus of such a program. With a foundation of caring relationships, we can give our students opportunities for growth and success during the transition into high school and beyond.

Butterfield, L. D., Borgen, W. A., Amundson, N. E., & Maglio, A. T. (2005). Fifty years of the critical incident technique: 1954–2004 and beyond. Qualitative Research, 5, 475–497.

Benner, A. D., & Graham, S. (2009). The transition to high school as a developmental process among multiethnic urban youth. Child Development, 80(2), 356–376.

Isakson, K., & Jarvis, P. (1999). The adjustment of adolescents during the transition into high school: A short-term longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 28(1), 1–26.

Johnstone, K. (2001, December). The lived reality of the transition to high school for rural students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Fremantle, Australia. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 468 506)

Jordan, W. J. (2001, April). At-risk students during the first year of high school: Navigating treacherous waters. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 452 314)

Mizelle, N. B., & Irvin, J. L. (2000). Transition from middle school into high school. Middle School Journal, 31(5), 57–61.

Popadiuk, N. E. (2009). Unaccompanied Asian secondary students in Canada. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 31(4), 229–243.

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