Our ‘Bermuda Triangle’: The Elementary to Middle School Transition Experience (Pt. 3)

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.


Two weeks ago, we focused on students’ academic concerns. Last week, we put the spotlight on students’ social and procedural concerns. This week, we’ll highlight how to improve your students’ elementary school experiences and create an effective elementary to middle transition program to build excitement and overcome nerves.


Relationships with Elementary School


Students are excited, nervous, doubtful, and hopeful as they enter middle school. School leaders have the power to tread these emotions into a meaningful path. Comprehensive elementary to middle school transition programs—well within school leaders’ capacities—can build on excitement while endowing parents and students with adequate information to surmount apprehension. Clearly, then, transition programs are high stakes. Students who have difficulty making the transition to middle school tend to have school-related difficulties throughout later adolescence as well.


These transition programs, however, will not succeed unless they encompass all three types of concerns clarified above. While one student may be most concerned about procedural issues (What if I can’t open my locker before the bell rings, and I get in trouble for missing class?), another student may be most concerned about academic obstacles (Will my teachers help me?). The programs also must recognize that different students will require vastly different lengths of time to adjust to the school transition.


While the research above primarily applies to the middle school transition, school leaders will benefit from measuring concerns, behaviors, and potential stage-environment fit in elementary school. According to one set of researchers, “The elementary classroom is a critical starting point for […] intervention programs, but they need not stop there.”


For instance,


  • Students who already begin to show worry for academic, social, and procedural adjustments in middle school while enrolled in elementary school are at greater risk of seeing these worries manifest. This is consequential because worries are negatively related to social acceptance and positively with school disengagement.

  • The quality of friendships prior to the middle school transition predicted more durable friendships through transition, which, as a result, led to more positive post-transition school adjustments, including the belief that it was essential to succeed in school and more positive attitudes about school.

  • Peer acceptance, mutual friends, and friendship quality during elementary school are significantly related to post-transition academic achievement, loneliness, sense of belonging, and extent of school involvement. Students with high pretransition acceptance have a network of peers they can rely on for support, advice, validation, companionship, reassurance, a sense of security, and academic task assistance during and through the transition.

  • Peer rejection is hardly inconsequential. Students who are rejected by their peers have reduced academic achievement and engagement, more negative attitudes toward school, increased loneliness, greater rates of absenteeism and school avoidance, and lower levels of classroom participation—factors that carry into later adolescence.

  • As students seek popularity, teachers should attempt to create a context for popularity that rewards positive school and peer culture. In other words, the “popular” kids are the ones who follow norms of appropriate behavior.

  • Curiosity and motivation to learn are natural in infancy, early childhood, and through to early adolescence. However, low tolerances for failure, an atmosphere of disapproval, and/or a heavy focus on academic skills and abilities gut curiosity and motivation. For students to be successful in early adolescence, early childhood should include social-emotional strengths in addition to academic skills.

  • The early elementary years are, obviously, formative. Children who like school and become involved in school benefit from these educational experiences, whereas negative attitudes toward school disrupt children’s academic and developmental processes.


Individuals, including children, experience adjustment challenges when a new environment

does not meet their psychological or developmental needs. The academic, social, and procedural changes children confront as they enter middle school do not mesh with developmental factors, such as growing aspirations for autonomy, exacerbated self-consciousness, maturing cognitive abilities, and fluctuating relationships with peers. Getting this fit right is weighty: middle school experiences correlate strongly with high school graduation rates.


Not only are pretransition factors predictors of middle school transition, but elementary students are highly adept at ascertaining transition difficulties. School leaders who do not take into account feedback from their students do so at their own peril. Students worry about having more homework and more challenging classes (i.e., academic concerns); finding their way around school (i.e., procedural concerns); and making new friends, getting along with peers, and fitting in (i.e., social concerns).


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. Data from these surveys will help you understand how to improve your students’ elementary school experiences and also enables you to create an effective elementary to middle transition program to build excitement and overcome nerves—for students and parents. 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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