Our ‘Bermuda Triangle’: The Elementary to Middle School Transition Experience (Pt. 1)

If high school success, navigating the larger world, and discovering the direction we want our lives to take all have roots in young adolescence, why would anyone leave the transition into this impressionable phase to chance? - Rick Wormeli


The Storm


The transition from elementary to middle school is one of the most consequential development points in children’s progression into young adulthood, especially those who are historically underserved. In fact, students are not just transitioning to a middle school; they are simultaneously transitioning both cognitively and physically. The experience of young adolescence is associated with:


  • A decline in grades and achievement, intrinsic motivation, self-perceived academic competence, school engagement, attitudes toward school, and academic interest.

  • A deterioration in self-views, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and global self-worth.

  • An escalation in anxiety, absenteeism, and general psychological distress.

The middle school years have been deemed the “Bermuda Triangle” of America’s education system: low achievement, behavioral issues, and teen alienation. Some prominent researchers have gone so far as to argue that America’s “experiment” with the middle school should end. Moving to middle school damages student outcomes. Students who transition to middle schools do not catch up with students who remained in a K-8 school; drop out of school 18 percent more often; and underperform on math and reading assessments—regardless of whether the middle school is an urban, suburban, or rural area. Further, the effects are felt at the point of transition, regardless of what grade the transition occurs.


Despite these jarring findings, middle schools are likely here to stay. The repercussion is that school leaders and community stakeholders have a strong obligation to improve the elementary to middle school experience for students, as middle school students are in the early stages of demanding and establishing independence from their parents and families. Additionally, as adolescent students claim more autonomy, their well-being is more closely attached to their school functioning.


Simply put, middle school is vastly different from elementary school. Still, there are specific characteristics of the middle school environment that contrast substantially from the elementary school environment. Concerns about the transition between the two school environments can be grouped into three categories: academic, social, and procedural. However, the concerns can and do overlap.


This week, we’ll be focusing on students’ academic concerns.


Academic Concerns


Academic concerns relate to the nature of tasks in class and at home, evaluation systems, and teacher relationships.


Middle school students underperform elementary school students with respect to achievement, interest in school, and self-competence. Students experience stress as they seek to understand new, more demanding teaching styles and evaluation methods while hopefully preserving their positive elementary school performance.


Student achievement is impacted by the change in perceived levels of teacher support that adolescents experience. For instance, adolescents who perceived that their mathematics teachers were less supportive than their previous teachers were less likely to find math valuable and interesting. In general, new middle school students benefit from teachers whom they perceive trust and care about them, provide scaffolded but challenging instruction, and who are fair. When this is the case and students receive high-quality instruction, achievement and self-evaluations are comparable to elementary school peers.


Not only can teacher support impact student achievement, it can also impact students’ mental health several years later, as students prepare to enter high school. A lack of support from teachers early in middle school is associated with psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, depression, self-appraisal), whereas supportive teachers provide protection against this adversity.


Teachers also have a role to play in the ways they establish goals for students. To middle school students’ detriment, middle school teachers underscore normative student performance, whole-class instruction, and competition; are more controlling; provide fewer opportunities for choice; and have more performance-aligned (as opposed to mastery) goals, all of which can increase exam anxiety, disruptive behaviors, learned helplessness, procrastination, cheating, and depressive symptoms. However, mastery goals, more common in elementary settings, improve students’ self-efficacy, motivation, school engagement, and academic perseverance while reducing depressive symptoms.


Students need teacher support no less than elementary school students; they do, however, need different support. Amid early dating, puberty, and changes in family dynamics, students move into schools that do not align with their developmental needs, a discrepancy encompassed in theories of stage-environment fit. At the point when adolescents seek greater autonomy, teachers are less likely to plan lessons that grant it. At a point when adolescents are at peak concern with peer opinions, teachers are more likely to plan lessons that increase feelings of competition. Middle school students, yearning for autonomy, benefit when they are given space to be curious and help drive the curriculum. However, adolescents who do not believe that their academic successes are under their control feel under-equipped to manage more difficult middle school material, higher academic standards, and more demanding grading arrangements. Analogous to elementary students, middle school students benefit when lessons incorporate creative thinking, consideration of multiple ideas, and application of personal experiences. They do not, however, benefit from solely independent work requiring high degrees of concentration.


Students who worry about their academic progress during their elementary to middle school transition are prone to engage only in particular learning activities that avoid poor performance or negative judgment. Work avoidance is a slippery slope: it can lead to diminished motivation, self-efficacy, and future performance—including dropping out.


Next week, we’ll highlight students’ social and procedural concerns. In the meantime, contact us at info@schoolperceptions.com or 262.644.4300 to learn more about student transition surveys, support, or survey customization needs. The data from this survey will help you understand how to improve your students’ elementary school experiences and enables you to create an effective elementary to middle transition program to build excitement and overcome nerves—for students and parents.

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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