Supporting Students During Transition Years

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership

Transition years represent a critical topic for discussion among educators in the pre-kindergarten through grade 12 sector. Transition years may best be described as school grades in which students will experience the most significant changes both academically and environmentally. The most obvious transition years include the shift from pre-school to kindergarten; elementary school to middle school; middle school to high school; and finally high school graduation. While a number of best practices exist surrounding these critical transition periods, certain approaches are better applied to specific age and developmental levels than others.

The Transition to Kindergarten

Kindergarten is perhaps the most critical transition year for students, as it represents the first opportunity for school systems to interact with students. During this period of time, schools should conduct a variety of screenings for incoming students in order to determine their prior educational experiences and also identify students who may have special needs. Screening incoming new kindergartners can be challenging because some students may have already attended a year or more of pre-school, while other may be struggling with basic language acquisition.

As a result, school personnel must be as diligent as possible in conducting pre-screenings surrounding cognitive development and basic physical examinations such as vision and hearing tests in order to address potential barriers to student learning at the very beginning of students’ educational journeys. Additionally, as is the case with all transitional years, physical orientations and introductions to classrooms and staff members should be conducted to familiarize incoming students with the environment in which they will learn.

The Transition to Middle School

The middle school transition year often varies from school to school. Some school districts consider middle school as the fifth through eighth grade span. Others continue with elementary school through grade six and then transition students to a “junior high school” for grades seven and eight. The middle-level transition often represents a challenging season of life for students as they again prepare to enter a new learning environment typically in a different building and with different faculty and staff members.

Beyond the environmental changes and greater autonomy and responsibility for their academic success, middle level students typically begin to experience the physical and chemical changes in their growth and development as a result of puberty. In addition to assisting students with their academic transition, of equal importance is providing them with information about why their bodies are changing along with instruction in good personal hygiene habits and social interaction. Additionally, a variety of academic screening assessments should be employed during the elementary to middle-level transition in order to ensure that students are learning at their full potential.

The Transition to High School

As students transition into their high school years, planning for their postsecondary goals becomes the most critical consideration. In order to assist students with this transition, schools should administer aptitude tests and interest inventories in order to help students discover the paths they will choose for adulthood. Appropriate transitional activities include presenting students with the academic tracks they may choose that will best support their future goals. This may include a college track, vocational track, and general studies track among others.

One of the best transitional approaches is to engage students in taking on the central role in determining the post-secondary outcomes they will pursue. Additionally, high school is a time during which students should become more polished speakers and become acclimated to appropriate social interaction norms. One of the positive traits of high school is the number of extra-curricular programs available to students. Whether sports, clubs, musical ensembles, or other activities, a solid transition program should encourage students to become involved in activities beyond the classroom in order to promote social, physical, and interest-based development. Once students reach high school, they stand figuratively on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood, and this time should be maximized in order to prepare them to become contributing and successful society and community members.

Graduation: The Transition to the “Real World”

The senior year represents the last opportunity for direct interaction that schools have with their students. During the senior year, the role of guidance and career counselors should increase in prominence in order to assist students with the college application process, job placement, and/or military enlistment. As high school seniors approach graduation, it is critical that schools do everything in their power to lay the final blocks in the foundations for their students’ futures. As such, school personnel must be exceptionally attentive to students’ needs and be willing to go the extra mile in providing solid guidance and assistance.

Ultimately, every year of school could be considered a “transition year;” however, the transitional periods that were identified represent the most critical grades and ages at which students may fall behind if schools become lax in their screening and monitoring processes. Assuming that most students will be fortunate to live somewhere between 80 and 100 years, educators must realize that they have only approximately 15% of their students’ life spans in which to create a profound and positive lifelong impact.

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