Five recommendations for improving transitions to high school

iStock_000020259358XSmallWhen students transition to high school, academic achievement declines as a result, says a recent study in Preventing School Failure, and it can take students up to a year to return to their previous level of academic achievement.

Most schools provide minimal support to students before and during the transition. The 3 most common support practices are, having students tour a new school, arranging for educators from both schools to meet and for counselors from both schools to meet. Schools also arrange for students to attend classes in the new school before transitioning, hold summer meetings between students and high school teachers over the summer and provide a buddy program during the first semester to help students adjust to the new school.

“Oftentimes a difficult transition can result in decreased attendance, and the combination of low attendance and low academic performance is associated with increased dropout rates,” according to the study.

There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of transition supports. But, based on a review of current research and practices, the researchers make 5 recommendations for improving transitions to high school.

Develop a transition curriculum

Students have reported that when they transition to a new school they are concerned about 3 areas:

  • Academic—Homework, new teachers and expectations, difficult coursework
  • Procedural—Layout of the new school, managing multiple classes and teachers
  • Social—adjusting to new classmates, making new friends, learning social expectations

A transition curriculum should focus on these 3 major concerns and also on increasing connectedness between teachers and students. This could help reduce the potential for poor academic performance and attendance for some students after a transition.

Support academic development

To help prevent the negative impact of transitions on academic performance, provide academic supports in each class. Ask teachers to promote the use of academic strategies in their classes. During the first month of school, classroom teachers can incorporate teaching study skills and strategies in the teaching of content. This can help support students as they adjust to a new level of academic difficulty and teacher demands.

Encourage school connectedness

Previous research has found that students report a decrease in perceived teacher support every year after Grade 6. Increased connections between students and staff should be a focus of transition programming because students who feel a greater sense of connectedness are less likely to drop out, engage in drug and alcohol use or be absent from school. Group advisory periods can give students in school access to caring adults and social and academic supports. Schoolwide positive behavior support is a proven approach for improving school climate by creating an environment where adults frequently acknowledge students for meeting behavioral expectations.

Examine your school structure

In your long-term planning, consider the effects that multiple transitions have on student learning. If possible, make structural changes to minimize those transitions. Students who attend a K-8 school only need to make one transition during their school career if they stay in the same school system, while many students need to make two transitions—one to middle school and another to high school.

If large-scale structural changes are not possible, think about a schools-within-schools approach to create the feel of a smaller school. The terms schools-within-schools generally refers to efforts to keep a core group of students and faculty together for most classes within a larger school setting, according to the researchers. They caution that there is little research on whether this mitigates the negative effects of transitions, but it is reasonable to assume that it would be easier for students to transition into a more intimate group. Obviously, this must be backed up with future research.

Identify students experiencing multiple stressors

Students transitioning to a new school may already be dealing with multiple stressors in their lives. The added stress of attending a new school may increase the student’s risk for dropping out. Develop ways to gather input about transitioning students so that you can identify which students are experiencing multiple stressors. Once you identify them, you can provide intensive supports and preventative services to ensure that they stay in school.

One way to gather input is through surveys of students before and after a transition. In this study, researchers surveyed approximately 360 8th-grade students at an urban mid-western junior high school. Surveyed students  said the most helpful transition supports were the self-guided tour of the school and help from classmates and other students. The least helpful were team-building activities and advising programs.

“Improving Transitions to High School: A Review of Current Research and Practice,” by Trina Uvaas and Brian McKevitt, Preventing School Failure, 2013, Volume 57, Number 2, pp. 70-76.

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