Tips for surviving — and thriving during — school transitions

Experts in psychology and education share what makes students thrive during the difficult transition to a higher level of schooling.

Experts weigh in on making a successful leap to middle, secondary or post-secondary school

Students are shown in downtown Toronto during frosh week, which wrapped up at campuses across Canada this week. Now comes the tough part. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Moving up to middle school, high school or onto post-secondary can create significant angst for young people making the transition — especially since they're at a period in their lives when, statistically, they're most likely to experience anxiety or depression.

But recent evidence shows there are steps that educators, parents and the students themselves can take to reduce the risk of a hard landing at a new school.

Mitigating middle-school malaise

The transition from elementary to middle school is "extraordinary," according to Geoffrey Borman, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, because students are leaving behind what's become a comfortable, "caring" environment for an unknown school, which can often seem "imposing."

Borman and his colleagues have published research demonstrating how problems with adjustment can be successfully addressed in the school curriculum, based on a double-blind study at 11 Wisconsin middle schools.

To conduct the study, some new students were asked to complete writing exercises that discussed the perceived difficulties of entering middle schools. They also heard from older students at the schools who offered them reassurance.

The transition from the 'caring' environment of elementary school to the 'unknown' of middle school can be especially daunting, one expert says. (Robert Short/CBC)

The researchers compared that to a control group, which received no intervention, and found that school attendance for those that received support increased by 12 per cent, while disciplinary incidents went down by 34 per cent and the number of failing grades dropped by 18 per cent.

"Kids listen to peers, and listen to other kids like them, with a lot more ease than an adult," Borman said.

After the intervention, the students also "felt they got along better and felt like they really belonged more with their friends in school and with teachers. They felt like they could trust them and go to them with their problems," he said.

"They also reported that they were less anxious about taking big tests."

Getting parents involved

Being a bit of a helicopter parent — a parent who hovers too much — also can't hurt, according to York University's John Ippolito — at least at the grade school level.

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"This is a tough balance, and it needs to be struck between parents and families in conversations with teachers," he said.

Ippolito, a professor of education, focuses his research on minority families and their role in an education system that is not in their native language.

He was also involved in developing a community-oriented model of education called Gathering Under One Tree, in which parents and their children regularly attend social events together at the school, "because learning and education is inherently a social practice," he said.

Parents should be strategic in their contact with teachers, he said, by forming "alliances" with those teachers whose classes their children enjoy.

"Give them a call, send them an email — and that first email shouldn't be a crisis email or a complaint," Ippolito said. "That email should be, 'You know what? My kid loves your class. He didn't think he liked mathematics. He loves mathematics now and it's really opening up his eyes to what's possible for him in high school and beyond.'"

Ippolito is also a proponent of encouraging that middle schools and high schools host future students before September rolls around.

Resilience after high school

For the past few years, the Canadian Federation of Students has called for more student access to counsellors to deal with the mental health issues at college and university campuses across the country.

How students cope — and why some are struggling — during these post-secondary years is the focus of Erin Barker's research at Concordia University.

The psychology professor and her research colleagues found that students in Canada who were involved in extracurricular activities in high school and university were more likely to do well academically, while also maintaining emotional well-being.

"They feel connected to the university, are more likely to feel better and be able to cope with the stress and challenges," she said.

Students at the University of British Columbia sit and chat in the Student Union Building. The Canadian Federation of Students says students on university and college campuses across the country need more access to mental health counsellors. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

There are a few theories as to why it seems rising levels of young people are experiencing depressive episodes at college and university, Barker said. Aside from pressure to achieve academic success, one reason is the sheer number of students attending post-secondary institutions from a broader variety of social classes compared to past years.

"As a group, they may be more vulnerable, in the sense that they may not have the supports and the knowledge of what university is all about," Barker said.

Another theory is that young people today aren't as experienced at facing new challenges or adversity alone. It's the down side to helicopter parenting, she acknowledged.

"When parents are doing too much for young people," she said. "So when they make this transition out to university on their own, they're actually not able to take on the full level of responsibility, or they find it overwhelming when they do make that transition."


Vik Adhopia is a senior reporter with the Health Unit at CBC News. He joined CBC National Radio News in Toronto in 1995 and then began his coast-to-coast-to-coast journalistic odyssey, reporting from Iqaluit, Prince George, B.C., Vancouver, St. John's, N.L., and finally back to Toronto again.