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Easing Fears About Shift to Middle School Can Pay Off in Behavior, Grades

New sixth grade students who participate in a social intervention designed to relieve their transition-related fears are more likely to have better grades and attendance and fewer behavioral problems throughout middle school, according to a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The interventions, taught in the form of reading and writing exercises, are targeted to ease sixth graders’ fears about “fitting in” at their new schools with a message that the angst they’re feeling is “both temporary and normal,” and that help is available from school staff.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that students experienced a boost in attitude and well-being after only two brief classroom interventions.

“It’s saying, ‘There’s not something unusual or different about you, but this is just an issue that is difficult for a lot of kids when they make the transition to middle school,'” said lead author Dr. Geoffrey D. Borman.

“And that there’s support available, both academically and socially. You’ll make new friends, you’ll discover that you fit in, and teachers and other adults in the building are there to help you.”

Previous research has shown that the transition to middle school is a high stakes one, Borman notes. When new middle schoolers get a rocky start it can lead to a marked and lasting decline in their academic performance.

The study involved 1,304 sixth graders at 11 middle schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District, a diverse, K-12 system in Wisconsin.

The overall findings show that, compared to a control group of sixth graders that received a neutral reading and writing activity, students in the treatment group experienced post-intervention effects that:

  • reduced disciplinary incidents by 34 percent;
  • increased attendance by 12 percent;
  • reduced the number of failing grades by 18 percent.

“The kids internalized this message, they worried about tests less, they trusted their teachers more and sought help from adults,” Borman says.

“They also felt like they belonged in the school more, and because they felt more comfortable, they didn’t act out as often and they showed up more. All of those things explain how this intervention (finally) affects kids’ grades.”

Borman and his team developed the intervention based on previous work by social psychologists. They brainstormed how sixth graders feel about fitting in socially and succeeding academically in middle school. The team then tested the wording and presentation of their proposed messaging with student focus groups.

Educators know that the upheavals of moving to a new school don’t mix well with the high self-awareness, greater sensitivity to social acceptance and other physical and psychological changes that young teens already are experiencing.

Surprisingly, though, few interventions have been developed to address it, Borman says.

“This is a near-universal experience of young adolescents,” he notes. “They’re forced to make this transition from the more comfortable and familiar neighborhood elementary school, where they were under the care of mainly one teacher, to this much larger school with a larger number of teachers with whom they have to interact and new classmates from around the city.”

Furthermore, the intervention is cost-effective and can be easily replicated throughout the district.

“Rather than wholesale changes, or closing down all the middle schools, this intervention is a productive, targeted way to help kids more effectively and productively negotiate this transition, and for only a couple of dollars per kid,” said Borman, who is currently working on replication studies in two other districts. “Schools could easily replicate this kind of intervention across the country.”

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Easing Fears About Shift to Middle School Can Pay Off in Behavior, Grades

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Easing Fears About Shift to Middle School Can Pay Off in Behavior, Grades. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 31 Jul 2019 (Originally: 1 Aug 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 31 Jul 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.