California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

The importance of easing transitions for young adolescents

Change is never easy, particularly when the change involves moving from a secure environment to an unfamiliar one. External changes, such as the move from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school, combined with the internal changes of adolescence can be overwhelming for students if not handled with care and preparation.

Staff members of developmentally responsive middle schools understand the importance of easing the transition for young adolescents. Those schools use articulation agreements and transition programs from the elementary school, to the high school, and between classrooms and grade levels within the school.

Information and Resources

Essential Elements for Effective Middle Grades Transition Programs
The fall 2009 issue of Focus on Middle School (Outside Source) details a list of essential elements for effective middle grades transition programs. Dealing with the complexity of the transition experience requires a multi-faceted approach that includes ongoing communication with and input from all stakeholders involved and focuses on supporting the unique academic and social/emotional needs of young adolescents. The article emphasizes that the transition process for students is ongoing throughout the middle grades years demanding ongoing support versus a one-shot approach.

Creating Comprehensive Transition Programs: A Multi-Faceted Approach encourages educators to focus on the logistics behind program design, use developmentally appropriate practices, and address transition issues throughout the middle grades years. Focus on Middle School , published by the Association for Childhood Education International, is a quarterly publication that “brings together the voices of practitioners, administrators, researchers, and advocates around specific issues that impact teaching and learning for children ages 11 to 13.”

Transition programs and articulation agreements help minimize academic or social disruption by facilitating students’ adjustments to new surroundings. The UCLA School Mental Health Project lists transition programs as an effective strategy to reduce barriers to learning.1 In this document, the terms transition and articulation will be defined as follows:

  • Transition means passage from one place to another—thus referring to students and how well they can adapt to the change.

  • Articulation refers to aligning curriculum so that one concept builds on a prior concept. As a result, articulation refers more to teacher, school, and district responsibilities for coordinating course work between grade levels. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Outside Source), articulation is “the action or manner of joining or interrelating.”

Articulation agreements and transition programs are common between effective middle schools and local elementary and high schools.

In a follow-up report on low-income students making the transition [from middle school] to a large, urban high school, (Felner et al. 1993) found that a special counseling program led to a 50 percent reduction in dropout rates, as well as significant gains in school performance and attendance patterns. Furthermore, Hertzog and Morgan (1999), in a study of 56 Georgia and Florida high schools, found that schools that offered extensive transition programs had significantly lower failure and dropout rates than those that did not offer such programs. The authors concluded that the best programs were those that included a variety of activities, particularly counseling, school visits, and special summer courses to help introduce students to the new environment.2

Information and Resources

Strategies to Aid Student Transition from Middle to High School
The transition from eighth grade to high school results in a higher drop-out rate and more grade retentions than any other grade. A 2010 briefing paper from the Texas Comprehensive Center describes research that found when districts and schools develop and implement a sound transition program, the outcomes for ninth graders are improved.

A sound transition program involves developing a plan where some activities take place prior to high school, some at the beginning of the ninth-grade year, and others throughout the ninth-grade year and beyond to build resilience and to provide support for students all through high school.

Initial Action Steps for a Transition Program
In order for schools to develop strategies that prepare students for high school, this study suggests that the following three initial actions need to occur.

  • Organize a transition team.
    The transition process starts during the eighth-grade year and continues throughout the entire ninth-grade year. A multi-level transition team composed of representatives from the middle and high school levels should consider this entire time period while planning supports and interventions.
  • Develop a counseling team.
    In most high schools, the number of students assigned to a counselor often limits the time any one counselor can work with an individual student. The purpose of developing a counseling team, referred to as transition counselors, is to increase the amount of individual time each student receives. Transition counselors could include student peers, teachers, and other district and school staff, as well as parents and community volunteers.
  • Create special programs and initiatives to prepare students and their families for the transition to high school.
    Ongoing, specially designed programs offer greater support for sustained intervention; however, there is also value in providing single events.

Implementing a Transition Plan
In addition to the three initial action steps listed above, the following eight factors need to be considered when implementing a transition plan.

  • Involve parents and families in the transition process.
  • Promote collaboration among middle and high school staff to support the transition process.
  • Increase awareness of academic programs offered at the high school level.
  • Increase comfort and reduce anxiety through orientation activities.
  • Provide resources designed to make the transition easier.
  • Design activities for the first weeks of ninth grade.
  • Continue the use of counseling teams to maintain support throughout the ninth grade year.
  • Develop special interventions to support ninth graders who may be struggling academically or socially.

Supporting Student Transition From Middle to High School (PDF; Outside Source) provides strategies on how to implement each of the eight factors listed above in addition to an appendix that lists over 70 resources on middle-to-high-school transition.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals is a strong advocate for transition programs. In Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (PDF; Outside Source), Cornerstone Strategy number three calls on middle school administrators to “provide structured planning time for teachers to align curriculum across grades and schools and to map efforts that address the academic, developmental, social, and personal needs of students, especially at critical transition periods (e.g., elementary to middle grades to high school).” 3 According to a 2007 report called Balancing Act: Best Practices in the Middle Grades, effective middle schools focus on alignment in three key areas: with standards, between classrooms, and from grade level to grade level.4 In California, alignment is easier since the content standards build from year to year.

Short- and long-term articulation with feeder elementary schools and destination high schools is particularly important in nonunified districts. To ensure that students make a steady progression from one grade level to the next, teachers and administrators need to discuss the following questions:

  • What measures will best evaluate students’ proficiency of standards as they exit elementary school, enter the middle grades, and move to high school?
  • How will students be identified who need immediate and ongoing interventions?
  • How can business and community resources help in this effort?5

In the Spotlight

Bernice Ayer Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District, a 2005 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
Monthly meetings of school leaders from seven elementary schools, three middle schools, and San Clemente High School help the school provide for vertical articulation and planning.

Bernice Ayer DataQuest School Profile
Bernice Ayer Middle School (Outside Source)
Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School—Visitor's Guide: Bernice Ayer Middle School (PDF; Outside Source)
Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage

Recommendation 6 — Transitions

Articulation Agreements with Elementary Schools

1“Ideas into Practice: Helping New Students Overcome Barriers,” Addressing Barriers to Learning (Outside Source), Vol. 1, (2), (Spring 1996), 2.
2Academic Achievement in the Middle Grades: What Does the Research Tell Us? (PDF; Outside Source) Atlanta, Ga.: Southern Regional Education Board, 2003, 10.
3Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle Level Reform (Outside Source) Alexandria, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006, 8.
4Balancing Act: Best Practices in the Middle Grades (Executive Summary). San Francisco: Springboard Schools, 2007, 3.
5Taking Center Stage. Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2001, 27.

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