Bigger campus, more complex classes, new students, changing hormones—the transition to middle school sets most incoming students back on their heels. Worst of all, students often think they are the only ones feeling out of step.
“Students typically attribute [difficulties] to personality or intelligence rather than the transition,” said Geoffrey Borman, a quantitative methodologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They need to realize it is a common, short-lived stress due to external, temporary causes rather than internal shortcomings.”
Prior studies have found a difficult transition into middle school can set students back by 3.5 to 7 months of learning. Helping students understand that they are not alone can go a long way to buffering that risk, finds a forthcoming study Borman previewed last week at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in Washington, D.C.
In an expansion of previous research on building positive mindsets for learning, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Borman and Jaymes Pyne worked with seven Arizona middle schools, which start in grade 7, rather than grade 6. About half of their more than 2,300 students entering in the 2016-17 school year were randomly assigned to participate in a writing exercise.
Students who were chosen for the exercise did two 15-minute writing tasks, one at the start of school and one a month later. In each they were asked to reflect on a fictional survey, purportedly of prior students who had struggled in their first months of school, felt as though they didn’t belong, and reached out for help from teachers and other students. The fictional quotes, adapted from actual middle school focus groups, noted that the students found their footing and felt better over time. The initial writing task focused on questions of academic belonging; students learning to cope with rigorous classes and manage more complex schedules. The second writing session focused on students’ sense of social belonging and learning to navigate new friend groups.
As in a prior study of Wisconsin 6th graders, the 7th graders who participated in the writing exercise had fewer failing grades and better overall GPAs at the end of the school year than their peers who had not participated. The researchers found no changes in attendance or discipline, but did find that students who had participated in the writing test valued “doing well in school” more at the end of the year than their peers.
The researchers plan to follow the students for two more years to gauge whether the initial benefits can create a “positive recursive cycle” that also eases their transition to high school. Borman noted that the cost for the writing task was about $1.35 per student, while other social-emotional learning transition programs used in the schools averaged more than $580.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.