School transitions signify students’ entries into new schools. They are important milestones that lead to both positive and negative events that affect young people’s lives. There are two broad categories of school transitions: (1) normative school transitions (e.g., the transition into elementary school, from elementary to junior high school, from junior high to high school); (2) non normative school transitions or school transfers.
This entry discusses the causes and consequences of school transitions. Schools are one of the primary social institutions in which young people spend time. Therefore, changes in school life can be particularly disrupting, both academically and socially.
Normative School Transitions
The types, number, and levels of schools in a district vary markedly and are primarily determined by a district’s physical size and the number of students that it serves. In rare instances in the US, a student remains in the same school from kindergarten through grade twelve, and some students only make one school transition. Most students today, though, experience two transitions – from elementary to junior high school and from junior high into high school.
Normative school transitions lead to many physical, social, and academic changes. Stu dents begin attending school in a new location and building, which is usually much larger than their original school. In addition, peer relationships become more complicated, students become the youngest rather than the oldest students within the school’s hierarchy, and the racial and ethnic composition of a school’s students may change (French et al. 2000). Young people’s interactions with school officials also change and often become more anonymous. Finally, the level and difficulty of coursework increases. Therefore, normative school transitions can be high risk periods when students are vulnerable to negative academic and social consequences.
The educational consequences include declining academic achievement (Seidman et al. 1996; Reyes et al. 2000), lower school attendance (Seidman et al. 1996), and lower school engagement and attachment (Barber & Olsen 2004). In addition, the likelihood of school dropout and stop out rises during the transition from junior high to high school (Roderick 1993).
Negative social consequences include lower levels of overall student functioning (Barber & Olsen 2004), decreased self-esteem (Reyes et al. 2000), and less rewarding and more impersonal interactions with school personnel (Barber & Olsen 2004).
There is some evidence that school transitions can be positive (or at least neutral). For instance, students who were “nerds,” unpopular, or isolated can reinvent themselves (Kinney 1993).
A host of factors can influence how easy or difficult normative school transitions are for students. Gender, race and ethnicity, academic ability, school location, and students’ ages all influence how well students make normative school transitions. In addition, teachers, peers, and parents can all provide valuable support to students as they make school transitions. This helps to minimize the negative consequences of normal school mobility.
School transfers are not a common event when compared to normative school transitions. This is one reason why researchers posit that transfers are more disruptive to students’ academic and social lives than normative school transitions. Students usually experience this transition without peers and often also undergo other changes – such as a residential move or change in family structure – simultaneously. Transfers also result from school choice programs, which may or may not decrease the amount of isolation adolescents experience as they change school environments.
There is less sociological research on school transfers than on normative school transitions, most likely because transfers are often viewed as an unavoidable consequence of residential mobility or family structure change. Nonetheless, transferring has been associated with negative academic and social consequences, including behavioral problems, decreased mathematics test score gains, and an increased risk of school dropping out and stop out (Astone & McLanahan 1994; Swanson & Schneider 1999). Transferring also changes the composition of students’ friendship networks and may lead them to lower status positions within these networks (South & Haynie 2004).
In recent decades, one specific type of school transfer has become its own area of study: school choice. It is a relatively new type of school mobility and there is great variability in school choice policies from school district to school district. There is also no clear answer as to whether school choice programs lead to positive or negative social and academic consequences for American students.
Sociologists who study education are beginning to understand school mobility. Nonetheless, we know far more about school transitions earlier as opposed to later in students’ educational careers. Researchers must continue to investigate the causes and consequences (both negative and positive) of school mobility, the support systems that help students make these transitions, and the best ways to meet the educational needs of students who undergo abrupt changes in schooling experiences.
Greater investigation of school transfers is particularly needed. For instance, sociologists still only have limited knowledge about complex relationships and interactions between school mobility, residential mobility, and changing family structure. The effects of transfers that result from different forces (e.g., school choice versus a residential move) are also not well understood. Findings from these areas of inquiry will help policymakers develop programs that help students cope with changing school environments that disrupt their lives academically and socially.
- Astone, N. & McLanahan, S. (1994) Family Structure, Residential Mobility, and School Dropout: A Research Note. Demography 31: 575-84.
- Barber, B. K. & Olsen, J. A. (2004) Assessing the Transition to Middle and High School. Journal of Adolescent Research 19(1): 3-30.
- French, S. E., Seidman, E., Allen, L., & Aber, J. L. (2000) Racial/Ethnic Identity, Congruence with the Social Context, and the Transition to High School. Journal of Adolescent Research 15: 587-602.
- Kinney, D. A. (1993) From Nerds to Normals: The Recovery of Identity among Adolescents from Middle School to High School. Sociology of Education 66: 21-40.
- Reyes, O., Gillock, K., Kobus, K., & Sanchez, B. (2000) Adolescents from Urban, Low-Income Status, and Predominantly Minority Backgrounds. American Journal of Community Psychology 28: 519-44.
- Roderick, M. (1993) The Path to Dropping Out: Evidence for Intervention. Auburn House, Westport.
- Seidman, E., Aber, J. L., Allen, L., & French, S. E. (1996) The Impact of the Transition to High School on the Self-System and Perceived Social Context of Poor Urban Youth. American Journal of Community Psychology 24: 489-515.
- South, S. J. & Haynie, D. L. (2004) Friendship Networks of Mobile Adolescents. Social Forces 83: 315-50.
- Swanson, C. & Schneider, B. (1999) Students on the Move: Residential and Educational Mobility in America’s Schools. Sociology of Education 72: 54-67.