Transitioning to middle school

Transitioning to middle school

During adolescence self-awareness and independence typically increase and sensitivity to social acceptance heightens. Transitioning to a new environment during adolescence may increase the risk of poor grades and behavioral problems in school.

The physical transition from elementary to middle school can exacerbate the stress and adversity experienced during this critical life stage. Middle school students often struggle to find social and emotional support, and many students experience a decreased sense of belonging in school, diverting students from promising academic and career trajectories. 

Researchers recruited 1,304 middle school students in the midwestern United States to determine whether an intervention that included advice, reassurance that social and academic adversity in middle school was temporary, and confirmation that support was available at school could ease the transition from elementary to middle school.

The authors surveyed the students at the beginning of the school year in September—2 weeks before starting the intervention—and at the end of the school year in May. Across the entire school district, the intervention increased students’ sense of social belonging, reduced disciplinary incidents by 34%, reduced the number of failing grades by 18%, and reduced class absences by 12%.

Differences in benefits across demographic groups were not statistically significant, but some impacts were descriptively larger for historically underserved minority students and boys.  The intervention was particularly successful for male students and underrepresented ethnic and racial minority students.

A mediational analysis suggested 80% of long-term intervention effects on students’ grade point averages were accounted for by changes in students’ attitudes and behaviors. These results demonstrate the long-term benefits of psychologically reappraising stressful experiences during critical transitions and the psychological and behavioral mechanisms that support them. Furthermore, this brief intervention is a highly cost-effective and scalable approach that schools may use to help address the troubling decline in positive attitudes and academic outcomes typically accompanying adolescence and the middle school transition.

The majority of long-term academic benefits of the intervention resulted from changes in students’ academic engagement and attitudes toward school, such as anxiety and social belonging, according to the authors.