In my last post, I discussed the many obstacles that middle schoolers face, particularly when transitioning from elementary school.  This transition is arguably the most difficult of the schooling phases, as so many developmental changes are occurring in a relatively short period of time.

The good news is that by the time kids finish 8th grade, many of them have developed sufficient executive function skills that allow them to manage their own academic, emotional, and behavioral functioning.  Nevertheless, as we consider how to successfully transition to high school, further challenges remain.

Today I want to examine the main hurdles to a successful high school transition and outline some steps to ensure a smooth and successful entry into and advancement through the high school world.

What are the biggest challenges?

Larger Environment

For many students, the jump to high school includes a HUGE upgrade in the physical size of the school.  Most public middle schools here in Austin are designed to house around 1,000 students, while the typical high school is designed to hold twice that.  For some students, the shear size of their new environment can be overwhelming.  I remember doing an accreditation visit at a large public high school, and I felt that exact same way.

Challenging Curriculum

Although many middle schools offer advanced courses and advanced tracks, high school offers exponentially more academic opportunities and challenges for students.  As early as ninth grade, students can take both AP and dual credit (i.e., college-level) courses.  However, just because they can does not necessarily mean they should.  Academic rigor is important, but too often students bite off more than they can chew, especially when they are still figuring out the transition to high school.

Balancing Academics and Extracurriculars

As a middle school principal, I used to encourage all of my students to try as many activities as possible, even in conjunction with their acadmeics.  As academic rigor increases in high school and extracurricular activities become more selective and demanding, students can have a hard time finding the right balance.  This includes students who take on too many activities and students who shy away from activities due to a lack of confidence or some other reason.

High Stakes Assessments

Most elementary and middle school students will take some type of standardized test every few years.  For most, they are simply a benchmark assessment with very little at stake.  When entering high school, however, those standardized tests become much more important.  The PSAT, SAT, ACT, and AP exams are well-known in just about every school for their importance and stress-inducing nature.  While many colleges are making the ACT and SAT optional, these tests still matter.

Identity Formation

A couple of posts ago we examined the theoretical framework for adolescent development.  According to Erik Erikson, the teen years are defined by the conflict of Identity vs. Role Confusion.  High school is when an individual’s identity becomes solidified.  For ninth graders who are just scraping the surface of this conflict, it can be stressful and confusing.  Ninth graders are not expected to have it all figured out; but they are interacting with many twelfth graders who are.

Romantic Relationships

True, relationships are part of middle school culture.  But for the most part, relationships in middle school are more platonic than romantic.  That changes in high school.  We all remember our first high school significant other and how important that seemed at the time.  For many students in high school, romantic relationships have huge ups and downs.  Romantic relationships can also come at the expense of other friendships, as it can be difficult to balance the two.  And to make things more challenging, many teenagers do not possess the social and emotional skills necessary to handle an intense romantic relationship.

Anxiety/Depression

As I noted in my previous post, anxiety and depression begin to creep in during the middle school years. Unfortunately, high schoolers are much more susceptible to these conditions, particularly if they are prone to them to begin with.  Additionally, the majority of high school students I have worked with this year have some lingering emotional effects from the COVID isolation.  Kids are resilient, but we cannot overlook the impact of social media on kids’ mental health.

Learning Differences

Learning differences (and ADHD) are typically present prior to high school.  However, with the increased academic demands and less academic oversight in high school, students with learning differences often “hit the wall.”  Whereas middle school curriculum is often manageable with minimal support, many students with learning differences find high school curriculum difficult to manage.

How to Transition Successfully

Now that we are aware of some of the challenges in high school, there are many steps parents can take to help their children transition smoothly.  Similar to middle school transitions, it is imperative that parents are involved in their children’s lives.  Parents who make it a point to know what is going on are the ones that actually know what is going on.  And that helps kids stay on the best path for success.

Parents – Be Listeners

High school means more autonomy for students.  However, that does not mean parents should simply step into the background and let their kids take the reins.  Parents, make sure you listen to your children.  Listen to what they say.  Listen to what their friends say.  Listen to what their teachers say.  Parent intuition is usually right, so if you are hearing anything that gives you concern, check it out.

Know Your Child’s Friends and their Parents

Now that students are beginning to separate from their parents, it is easy for them to spend more and more time with their friends.  And that is great…as long as you know who their friends are.  Most parents will appreciate a phone call from a fellow parent just to check in on their child.  This means you care.  Do not ever feel that you are embarrassing your child; he or she will respect and appreciate you in the long run if you are involved.

Get Involved

Speaking of which…get involved!  Volunteer with the parent-teacher association.  Volunteer to chaperone prom.  Attend all the extracurricular activities you can with your child.  Lend your services in other ways.  As long as you know the boundaries, then your involvement will help create a healthy environment for your child and his or her school.

Provide Academic Support

The transition to ninth grade can be tough academically, especially for students with ADHD or a learning disorder.  The rigor is usually much higher, and some students simply are not prepared.  Additionally, as students advance through high school, they have opportunities to take very difficult courses, including AP and dual credit.  There is no harm in providing academic support even if you are not entirely sure it is necessary.  It is probably worth spending a couple hundred dollars to ensure your child’s academic success rather than assume he or she is doing fine.  An academic mentor can make all the difference for a child.

Community Service

Community service is one of the best activities students and their parents can do together.  Not only do you help your community, but you also form lasting bonds with your child and help teach him or her valuable life skills.  And in most communities, there are ample opportunities to volunteer.  The best place to start is with your school’s counselor or your church.  Ask for a list of service opportunities and set something up for you and your child.

Exposure

As high schoolers advance through the identify formation phase of their lives, it is important they be exposed to a wide variety of options for that exploration.  The world is a big place, and many students do not have an awareness of the myriad cultures out there.  And one does not even have to leave his or her city to experience culture.  Take your child to an Indian restaurant, go see a foreign film, attend a cultural fair, or drive an hour to a different community.  Kids are highly impressionable at this age and will soak up the new sights and sounds like sponges.

Begin a Resume

Before you know it, your ninth grader will be applying to college.  One of the most difficult aspects of the college application process is consolidating all the experiences and achievements.  But if you start building a resume in ninth grade, it will already be put together.  Additionally, if a child starts a resume in ninth grade, it is much easier to fill in gaps and holes along the way.  It can also give a child a sense of accomplishment to look back on all the activities he or she completed.

High school is a fast and furious four-year experience.  Kids enter as awkward 14-year-olds with a lot to prove and leave as mature 18-year-olds with a highly-developed sense of self.  Although there are many obstacles during these years, parents are still an invaluable source of support and strength.  Stay involved, provide support, and love your kids.  They will remember that for the rest of their lives!