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‘It made me feel like nothing’: The impact of the ninth-grade transition (Pt. 2)

For many students, ninth grade is the chance to experience the first prom, the first comprehensive range of electives, and the first taste of adult-like independence. At the same time, ninth grade has been referred to as “the bulge,” the “holding tank,” and the point in the path to adulthood at which there are a vast number of problems all coalescing simultaneously.

Unfortunately, these monikers are truthful. Ninth-grade students experience high school environments that do not always match their developmental needs, struggle, and are retained. The latest data on eighth- through twelfth-grade enrollments show that the ninth grade encompasses the largest proportion of students and has regularly over the few decades. Meanwhile, the “tenth-grade dip” in enrollments results because students are not promoted or choose to drop out of school.

The likelihood of dropping out of school is greater than at any other time in the student’s high school experience, and the decision is often made in the very first few weeks. Researchers do not mince their words when discussing ninth grade: “If students do not have a good experience that freshman year, the decision to drop out of high school is either consciously or subconsciously made at that time.” “The passage of students from middle grades to high school is the most difficult transition point in education.”

Three categories of ninth-grade issues are discussed in this series of white papers, though all are interrelated and overlapping.

1. Educational practices

2. School climate

3. Social structures

Last week, our paper focused on educational practices. This week, we’ll highlight school climate and social structures. If you are interested in implementing a middle school exit or high school entrance transition survey in your district, contact us to get started!

School Climate

One mechanism by which to improve ninth-grade outcomes is increasing a sense of student connectedness and belonging. Students who feel connected to their schools have fewer attendance and discipline issues, stay in school longer, have higher grades, and produce improved classroom test scores. Furthermore, the need to feel connected is higher than at any other point in a person’s life.

Here, too, ninth-grade students struggle. Students in ninth grade feel less connected to high school than they did to their middle schools, have a diminished sense of belonging, and more depressive symptoms. By definition, first-year high school students are bound to feel less connected with a departmentalized environment filled with new peers, new teachers, new hallways, and new routines. Ninth-grade students have legitimate concerns about everything from opening lockers and getting lost in a hallway to being bullied, harassed, and tease by older students and feeling less safe—concerns that result in decreased performance on math and science assessments. Adolescents do not necessarily experience more stress than people at other life stages. Still, the jarring high school transitions result in students feeling like they have fewer people to whom to turn to work through these issues, as described above.

Pubertal changes, referenced below, occur in an environment with discipline policies and practices that do not appropriately reflect the development of 14- and 15-year-olds. High school administrators and teachers are stricter, more controlling, more impersonal, and less nurturing, which substantially change from the more lenient middle school policies students just recently left. The cumulation of these mismatched discipline procedures is a spike in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and expulsions that are higher than any other high school grade.

Social Structures

Amid the challenges of educational practices and school climates, ninth-grade students are experiencing a developmentally precarious time. In earlier elementary years, parents are highly motivated to be active in their children’s education. However, parents’ motivations decrease throughout middle and high school because 1) parents see the high school transition as a time when their children should begin to experience greater independence and choice-making in young adulthood and 2) parents can feel intimidated by academic subjects with which they are unfamiliar and do not feel capable of supporting. This does not diminish the importance of parental involvement, but the manner of parental involvement must change as students develop. Parent involvement for students experiencing poverty improved the middle-to-high school transition and improved students’ feelings of safety at school. (To help gauge your district’s parent involvement, School Perceptions offers a parent survey, which can measure parents’ involvement, planning priorities, and school evaluations.)

Decreased parental supervision is accompanied by increased influence from peers. However, students who struggle to form positive bonds with peers during their ninth-grade year are more likely to make decisions substantially detrimental to their future. Students lose academic motivation, search for replacement bonds in places external to the school, oppose the school environment, and experience serious drops in attendance—a strong predictor of high school completion. On the other hand, positive peer relationships can increase feelings of connectedness and belonging—the importance of which were discussed above—and improved attendance, which encourages participation in and engagement with school-related activities. In turn, students who participate in school activities upon entering high school experience a host of monumental benefits, including:

  • “Enduring” psychological attachment to and engagement with the school

  • Likelihood of graduation

  • Likelihood of tenth-grade promotion

  • Improved GPAs

  • Lower rates of absences

  • High rates of college attendance

  • Lower likelihood of feeling overwhelmed and socially marginalized

Positive peer relationships can be difficult to maintain because students feel intimidated in a new environment. At the same time, they are yearning for acceptance, new friends, and confidence. Meanwhile, the list of psychological and physical developmental challenges is long but includes, in part:

  • Heightened feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts in a more anonymous environment

  • Fewer coping skills

  • Pubertal changes that affect self-image, self-perception, self-esteem

  • Feelings of poor physical appearance, job competence, romantic appeal, behavioral conduct, and self-worth.

  • Physiological changes that result in erratic behavioral impulses

  • Intellectual, emotional, and social transformations that result in repulsion from authority figures

We would love to help you get the data you need from your students who are exiting middle school or entering high school. Contact us to learn more information and get started!


The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Rob DeMeuse, Project Manager & Research Director.


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