Our ‘Bermuda Triangle’: The Elementary to Middle School Transition Experience (Pt. 2)

Updated: Feb 10

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. The middle school years have been deemed the “Bermuda Triangle” of America’s education system: low achievement, behavioral issues, and teen alienation.


Simply put, middle school is vastly different from elementary school, but 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.


Last week, we focused on students’ academic concerns. This week, we’ll spotlight students’ social and procedural concerns.


Social Concerns


Social concerns relate to peer interpersonal relationships, the ease or difficulty in making new friends, and bullying fears.

Social and academic realms fuse regarding classroom norms and structures. If students perceive that complying with academic and behavior expectations is the norm among their classmates, students will be more likely to participate in class, listen to teachers, and refrain from disobeying. On the other hand, if students perceive rule-breaking as the norm, they are more likely to participate in antisocial behavior, such as damaging school property and bullying other children. Participation, particularly in earlier years of school, is crucial to establish, on the grounds that the most direct avenue to student achievement is via the levels of participation.


Middle school students strongly benefit from properly structured extracurricular activities. These activities improve psychological well-being and mental health outcomes in adolescents. From an academic perspective, extracurricular participation improves students’ GPAs and feelings of school connectedness. However, to prevent interference with peer relationships, these activities should be noncompetitive.


Students who do not have strong peer relationships often do not understand that other students are also feeling the same way. For example, a student who cannot find someone to play with at recess, partner with during an activity, or sit with at a lunch table may feel they possess “permanent inadequacies” with regard to school belonging and ability to make new friends.


Transition difficulties can differ by gender. Some research suggests that girls’ psychological adjustments and self-esteem are more negatively affected than boys’. Other research indicates that rates of anxiety issues are similar across genders but that a disproportionate number of girls experience anxiety symptoms earlier in adolescence. Boys, meanwhile, show a more severe drop in academic achievement outcomes than do girls.


Regardless of gender, adolescents who do not have a robust social support foundation as they leave elementary school have more difficulty in overcoming academic concerns (above) and procedural concerns (below). A strong foundation helps provide emotional support, instrumental aid, a greater sense of school belonging, and resilience for developmental challenges encountered in middle school. Taken together, relationships that help students feel included and nurtured are related to academic achievement, academic engagement, academic motivation, attitudes toward school, greater chances of grade-level advancement, reduced absenteeism, positive identity development, and a decreased likelihood of dropping out. These foundations are long-lasting: friendships in the sixth grade transition year predicted emotional distress at the end of middle school.


Procedural Concerns


Procedural concerns relate to classroom rules and routines, school structures, academic progress, and school layouts. These concerns are more conceptually straight forward but are no less important than academic and social concerns.


Middle school students must also meet their new academic and social demands while navigating effective studying practices, note-taking, test-taking strategies, eating in a new cafeteria, opening lockers, and not getting lost in new hallways filled with new faces.


While elementary students typically spend a large portion of the day with one classroom teacher, middle school students are, for the first time, switching teachers every hour and, in conjunction, experiences different classmates, rules, expectations, and behavior policies. As a result, students have lower-quality relationships with their teachers and feel less support from both teachers and administration. Just as middle school students are pulling away from their parents and families, occasions for building positive relationships with teachers diminish. This is a lamentable wasted opportunity since teachers can substantially impact students' academic and social-emotional adjustments when given a chance.


Variation in behavior expectations is particularly detrimental for Students of Color who are not only more likely to receive harsher sanctions but are also punished for more subjective infractions than White students. This punishment trajectory can be especially harmful. Suspensions in sixth grade predict suspensions later in middle school, which, in turn, are a strong predictor of dropping out.


Next week, we’ll focus specifically on elementary students as they prepare for the middle school transition. 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 transition students make as they enter middle school is one of the most challenging and traumatic points in their life. Understanding what types of support are needed—and how these supports are different than the elementary years—are critical to students’ success.

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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