In education, the term transition typically refers to the three major transitional points in the public-education system: when students move from elementary school to middle school, from middle school to high school, and from high school to college. While students experience other “transitions” during their educational journey—such as advancing from one grade level to the next—the three “major” transition points are a particular focus of educators and school reformers because transitioning students often experience significant academic, social, emotional, physical, or developmental changes that may adversely affect their educational performance. During these transitions, for example, students may move from a familiar school to an unfamiliar school, where they encounter new teachers, peers, academic expectations, social issues, and school configurations that increase the likelihood they will feel overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or insecure.

As more and more school districts and schools consolidate throughout the United States, the likelihood of students experiencing multiple school-to-school transitions has increased—it is now more common for students to spend only a few grade levels in a particular public school before transitioning to another one (in fact, students may even transition multiple times during their elementary years alone).

While the changes that students may experience during a transition are numerous, the following are a few representative examples:

  • School facilities: A new school building may be much larger, located farther from home, or organized in a different way, and students may experience longer commutes or difficulties navigating a new school.
  • Academic expectations: During a transition, students may encounter a significant change or increase in academic expectations, and less-prepared students may struggle to keep up with their coursework, acquire new skills, or learn at a more accelerated pace.
  • Class schedules:  Students may shift from remaining in one room for most of the day (as in elementary school) to changing classrooms multiple times a day for different courses, and they may struggle with disorganization and time management. Variation in school schedules may also require students to change classes more frequently or less frequently, or to attend them for shorter or longer periods of time.
  • Different teachers: In elementary school, students typically remain with one teacher for most of the day, while in middle school and high school they often have different teachers for each subject. In these situations, students must become accustomed to having different teachers throughout the day who may have their own rules, expectations, or teaching style.
  • Increased independence: With each successive transition, students are typically expected to become more self-reliant and assume more responsibility for things such as being organized, planning ahead, or meeting deadlines without assistance or reminders from teachers.
  • Peer groups: When several smaller student populations are combined at the middle school level and then again at the high school level—a common occurrence—the consolidation process brings together larger populations of students who do not know each other, which can significantly affect student friendships, social groups, behaviors, self-confidence, self-perceptions, and feelings of belonging.
  • Family involvement: While parents often volunteer in the classroom or have frequent contact with teachers in elementary schools, parent and guardian involvement in school activities, their communication with teachers, and their awareness of their child’s academic performance often decreases as students grow older and progress in their education.


During the major transitional periods, typically in the year or two after a student has made the “transition,” schools often see increased behavioral issues and absences, higher dropout rates, and more course failures and academic problems among students. For this reason, many school-improvement strategies are designed to create organizational and instructional conditions that can help students transition more successfully. The following are a few representative examples of common strategies:

  • Early warning systems: Middle schools and high schools may develop “early warning systems” that proactively identify students who may be at greater risk of dropping out or struggling academically, socially, and emotionally. Most early warning systems consist of educators collecting and analyzing student data—e.g., test scores, course grades, failure rates, absences, behavioral incidences—before students make a transition, and then determining the most appropriate programming, services, counseling, instructional strategies, and academic support for identified at-risk students after they transition.
  • Summer bridge programs: Some high schools create transition experiences called “summer bridge programs,” “jump-start programs,” or “kick-start programs” (among other possible names) that are offered to students during the summer before their ninth-grade year. Summer bridge programs are typically a blend of summer school and high school orientation—i.e., they are intensive, often multiweek programs designed to prepare students academically, socially, and practically for ninth grade. In these programs, students will typically receive instruction targeting identified academic deficits and learning gaps; learn practical academic skills, such as how to plan, study, write, or conduct research; receive an orientation to high school life, including guidance on behaviors or situations to avoid; and participate in a variety of confidence-building or team-building activities. Early warning systems may be used to identify students most likely to benefit from such programs.
  • Enhanced orientation programs: Modifying or enhancing orientation experiences is another way that schools can strengthen educational transitions. Instead of providing a single half-day or daylong orientation, for example, schools may create more intensive multiday or weeklong orientations offered during the summer. In addition to providing tours of the school and going over academic options, enhanced orientation programs may employ a variety of strategies intended to prepare students academically, socially, and emotionally. For example, recently arrived immigrant and refugee students may be given a much more intensive introduction to a school, including guidance on the new cultural experiences and expectations they will encounter. In this case, the parents and families of students may also be invited to participate in the orientation, where they may learn how to navigate the school system and make appropriate academic choices for their children.
  • Early college experiences: High schools and collegiate institutions may also create programs or experiences designed to “bridge” high school and collegiate education. While these programs come in a wide variety of forms, they are generally designed to provide students with collegiate-level learning experiences while they are still in high school and possibly give them the opportunity to earn college credit or postsecondary certifications—both of which may improve their chances of enrolling in and completing a postsecondary program. “Early college high schools,” for example, typically allow students to graduate from high school in five years with both a high school diploma and an associate degree. High schools or colleges may also offer students dual-enrollment opportunities, career and technical education centers may help students earn industry certifications in certain trades, or schools may partner with postsecondary institutions in a variety of ways to increase postsecondary aspirations, preparation, and enrollments.
  • Teaming strategies: Middle schools and high schools may use teaming, or the pairing a group of teachers with a group of students for a year or longer (e.g., a group of six or eight teachers may be paired with sixty or eighty students). Such grouping strategies allow teachers to discuss the students they have in common and to establish stronger teacher-student relationships based on an improved understanding of the students and their specific learning needs. Team teachers, for example, may meet to review student-performance data, discuss which teaching methods are working for some students and which are not, plan appropriate support strategies for students, and develop lessons and projects collaboratively. When designed and executed successfully, teaming can also foster greater collaboration among teachers, provide mentoring and a sense of continuity for students, and create a stronger sense of community and belonging among students.
  • Advisory programs: An advisory or advisory period is typically a regularly scheduled period of time during the school day for teachers to meet with small groups of students for the purpose of advising them on academic, social, and future-planning issues. The broad purpose of advisory periods is to ensure that at least one adult in the school is getting to know each student well, making sure their learning needs are met, and encouraging them to make good academic choices and plan for their future. Advisories are designed to foster stronger teacher-student relationships and a stronger sense of community and belonging in students.
  • Mentors and liaisons: In some cases, schools may pair incoming students with peer mentors who meet with the students regularly and help them navigate academic options and social situations. Schools may also have “parent liaisons,”or students, teachers, and staff who are paired with parents and families, such as recently arrived immigrant or refugee families or families who do not speak English, who may need more frequent contact and assistance from the school to acclimate to a new culture and make appropriate choices for their children.
  • Senior-year strategies: During their last year of high school, many twelfth-grade students elect to take a reduced course load or leave school after half a day, which can potentially lead to learning loss and decrease preparation for postsecondary education. If students complete their credit requirements in math during eleventh grade, for example, and they do not elect to take a math class during twelfth grade, they could be at a disadvantage when taking placement tests and math courses during their first year of college. To keep students learning, engaged, and motivated during their senior year, schools may use a variety of strategies, including increased graduation requirements or capstone projects.


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