The transition from middle school to high school is a critical time for eighth graders. Several studies have shown that ninth grade academic performance can predict on-time and college-ready graduation (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Balfanz, Herzog, & Mac Iver, 2007). Ample evidence shows that family engagement is linked to positive high school student outcomes (Epstein & Sheldon, 2006; Sheldon, 2007, Sheldon & Epstein, 2004). However, there has been a lack of attention by schools and districts on engaging families in secondary schools, especially those from diverse and low SES backgrounds, and family engagement tends to decline once adolescents enter high school (Mac Iver et al., 2018).
Several factors can affect adolescents’ transitions from middle school to high school. Brain and physical development rapidly change as adolescents progress through puberty (for more information, see the resources section). Incoming freshmen often face an increase in school size as typical high school populations are much larger than those in middle schools. There are also increased academic demands in high school and adolescents have more responsibility in making sure they complete their coursework and fulfill graduation requirements. Social transitions and relationships with peers also assume greater importance for teens. As Felmlee et al. (2018) found, students can experience loss of friendships and difficulty in establishing new ones as they transition to high school. Social integration, an important component for positive student academic outcomes and overall well being, can be challenging. These challenges can be the result of reduced time spent with familiar peers and more time with unfamiliar faces, as well as social status associated with class standing hierarchy (Felmlee et al., 2018). High school students begin to navigate how to balance their academic demands, family obligations, social life, extracurricular activities, and jobs, and may need parental or teacher support to do so (see the “Wandering Through High School” TED Talk under the resources tab).
The beginning of ninth grade often includes emerging dialogue around adolescents’ futures following high school. Educators, families, and students begin to more concretely consider possible options such as entering a four-year university, enrolling in community college, beginning a trade or technical program, or entering the workforce upon graduation.
This lesson describes strategies teachers can use to to support families and students during this critical transition, as well as ideas for opportunities to increase family engagement. Resources are also provided that can be utilized by schools, educators and families. While there may be some overlap between this lesson and the transitioning from elementary to middle school lesson, both can be valuable in providing helpful information to teachers and families.
Allensworth, E. (2013). The use of ninth grade early warning indicators to improve Chicago schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 18, 68–83.
Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., & Mac Iver, D. (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keep- ing students on the graduation track in high-poverty middle-grades schools: Early identifi- cation and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42, 223–235.
Epstein J. L., & Sheldon, S. B. (2006). Moving forward: Ideas for research on school, fam- ily, and community partnerships. In C. F. Conrad & R. Serlin (Eds.), SAGE handbook for research in education: Engaging ideas and enriching inquiry (pp. 117–137). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Felmlee, D., McMillan, C., Rodis, P. I., & Osgood, D. W. (2018). Falling behind: Lingering costs of the high school transition for youth friendships and grades. Sociology of Education, 91(2), 159–182.
Mac Iver, M. A., Sheldon, S., Epstein, J., Rice, E., Mac Iver, D., & Simmons, A. (2018). Engaging families in the high school transition: Initial findings from a continuous improvement initiative. The School Community Journal, 28(1), 37–66.
Sheldon, S. B. (2007). Improving student attendance with a school-wide approach to school– family–community partnerships. Journal of Educational Research, 100(5), 267–275.
Sheldon, S. B., & Epstein, J. L. (2004). Getting students to school: Using family and com- munity involvement to reduce chronic absenteeism. School Community Journal, 14, 39–56.
“Inside the Teenage Brain” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/inside-the-teenage-brain/
“The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain” https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_jayne_blakemore_the_mysterious_workings_of_the_adolescent_brain?language=en
“The Neuroscience of the Teenage Brain” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQXhFa8dRCI
Hawai‘i-P-20 reports on issues regarding transitioning from middle school to high school https://www.hawaiip20.org/p-20-initiatives/education-data/?tx_dashboard_education_ranges=middle-school-to-high-school#latest-reports
High school campus tour
It is important to create opportunities for graduating 8th graders to learn about their new high school. One opportunity is organizing a visit to the high school. Middle school and high school administrators and staff can coordinate a campus tour for incoming freshmen and invite families to attend. The visit could include opportunities to meet high school teachers, the principal, and school counselors. It could also include introducing 8th graders to what a high school class schedule looks like and how to understand it. Consider organizing a high school student panel where high school students can share their experiences with touring middle school students and help answer questions. Additionally, a high school parent panel could be organized for middle school parents that consists of a similar format. During the high school visit, hold an “activities fair” to introduce eighth graders and their families to extracurricular activities, clubs, athletics, band, choir, etc.
After the visit, the middle and high school staff can jointly survey students and families about their visit to the high school. What went well? What could be improved? What additional questions do they have?
1. Provide parents with this questionnaire as they prepare for touring their children’s future high school https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/the-school-visit-what-to-look-for-what-to-ask/
2. “High School Secrets to Success: A Closely Connected Middle School” highlights how partnerships between middle schools and high schools contribute to positive student outcomes. https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/high-school-success-connected-middle-school
Back to school night
High school administrators and staff can host a “Back to School Night” where students and their families have an additional opportunity to visit the high school. Students can be given their class schedules (if they have registered for courses) and practice locating the order of their classrooms. This event could include a time and place for parents and educators to interact with one another to ask questions and share their expertise. Documents such as school handbooks and other necessary forms could also be distributed at this time. Have translators and interpreters available to help families understand any documents and ensure their questions and concerns are addressed.
Another model for a back to school night is to hold an abbreviated school day in the evenings so parents could experience their children’s sequence of classes and have an opportunity to interact with each teacher. Teachers could give short presentations about class content and parents could ask questions.
1.“A More Engaging Back to School Night” https://www.edutopia.org/article/more-engaging-back-school-night
*While this is an example of an elementary school changing their traditional back to school night, high schools staff may find these ideas useful.
Helping parents support high school students' learning at home
As discussed in the overview, students face an increased academic demand upon entering high school. During this time, adolescents develop the skills needed for transitioning into adulthood. Independent thinking is encouraged as they apply classroom knowledge to real-world situations. Courses involve more in-depth topics across a wide range of disciplines, and assignments and projects are increasingly complex compared to those in middle school.
The following strategies for teachers can assist them in helping parents understand increased academic demands in high school, as well as how to support students’ learning at home. For additional strategies, view the “resources” section below.
- Consider sending families a letter at the beginning of the year to introduce yourself, provide an overview of your course, any special information about the course that families should know in advance, as well as your contact information. Additional topics to include are how to access online resources and materials, how grades will be calculated, and opportunities for tutoring or homework help. Remind parents that you are available to help support them and answer any questions.
- Suggest to parents the following strategies to support their children’s learning at home
- Stick to a Routine. Although older adolescents strongly desire independence, having a consistent routine can help parents maintain boundaries and expectations for homework completion. For example, parents and children might agree that they watch TV after 5pm if their work for the day is finished.
- Designate a Workspace. Similar to younger children, older adolescents benefit from having an established workspace. Having materials such as a planner/organizer can help students keep track of their assignments, activities, work schedule, and social life.
- Setting Boundaries and Building Independence. It is important for parents to offer homework guidance and support to their high schoolers. Encourage families to model organizational and problem-solving skills to facilitate homework independence instead of providing the correct answers. Examples of organizational skills include using a planner, using a 3-ring binder to organize printed materials with tabs, using individual notebooks to take notes for each class, and adding into their planner adequate lead time to complete assignments. Problem-solving skills include knowing where to go or who to ask for help on assignments, teaching students to use textbooks as a resource, and helping students break down larger projects into more manageable parts. Offering enough support for teens to solve the current task and then gradually reducing that support helps teens build independence.
- Home Chores + Responsibilities. Having a role in the family household through chores and certain duties helps teenagers learn responsibility and accountability, and provides them with opportunities to contribute to the family. Encourage parents to talk with their high schooler about ways they can contribute to the household through chores, errands, assisting/supporting kupuna (including grandparents), or helping cook a family meal.
- Addressing Conflict Between Adolescents and Parents. Research has shown that while adolescents may appear not to be listening to parents, they do pay attention to what parents have to say. Therefore, it is important for parents to provide active guidance throughout high school. Conflict between parents and teenagers is normal and should be expected to some degree. For example, there may be arguments when there is a difficult assignment at hand or when the student does not want to complete a task. However, parents can avoid having the same argument multiple times by asking their child to take a break and then discussing ways to break the task down into smaller components so it seems less overwhelming. When parents notice that students are taking small steps toward progress, encourage them to recognize and reward their child’s efforts.
*These resources are for teachers to provide to families to help them learn more about how to support their high school student’s learning at home.
1. “Homework Challenges: How to Help Your Child” at https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/homework-study-skills/homework-strategies
2. “Grades 10-12: Tips for Supporting Learning at Home” from the Child Mind Institute at https://childmind.org/article/grade-10-12-tips-for-supporting-learning-at-home/
3. “Tips for Communicating with Your Teen” from the Child Mind Institute at tips-communicating-with-teen
4. “6 Great Activities to Help You Communicate with Your Teenager” at https://educateempowerkids.org/6-great-activities-help-communicate-teenager/
5. “Parent/Adolescent Conflict – Fighting to Communicate by Dr. Carl Pickhardt at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/200908/parentadolescent-conflict-fighting-communicate
Tips for parents to help their children with school + work + life balance
As teens enter high school, they often begin to navigate balancing multiple life domains. In addition to increased academic demands, high school students often participate in extracurricular activities including sports, jobs, a growing social life, family time, and their need for alone/relaxation time. Feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted can negatively impact teens’ mental health. There is often conversation around work-life balance in professional settings, but high school students experience these challenges as well. Additionally, while some parents prefer their children not have a job while they are in high school, other children may have to work at least part-time in order to contribute to meeting their family’s needs. Some children work in their family’s business after school not only to assist with various tasks, but also with the intent of one day inheriting the business.
Research shows that many teens, especially those who are high achieving, do not get enough sleep because they are too busy. Homework, AP classes, social commitments and social media may consume students well into the night. If teenagers are not supervised, they may develop poor sleep habits that can affect their schoolwork, and mental and physical health.
How can teachers help families support their children’s school + life + work balance?
- Encourage parents to work together with their children to create a daily schedule to help organize their work, homework, social life, and activities. Tools for this can include a daily planner/notebook, a wall/desk calendar, a phone calendar with set reminders, or an online platform such as Google Calendars or Microsoft Outlook Calendar. Online platforms may be most convenient because families can create shared calendars which can allow for more efficient communication between parents and children.
- Ensure that parents know about homework help and tutoring opportunities for students who need extra assistance. These opportunities can be communicated through letters sent home, emails, the school website, and/or online class platforms and resources.
- Suggest to families that they make sure to connect with their children each day, if only for a few minutes. Nurturing relationships with their children can positively impact their youth’s mental health and creates opportunities for teens to share about their joys and concerns with their families. Research shows that even if teens don’t look like they are listening, they do hear what parents tell them and want to make their parents happy. It is beneficial to both parents and teens to nurture the relationship.
- Remind families of the importance of their children’s abilities to establish boundaries while maintaining their commitments. For example, a student’s boss or manager may frequently ask them to work extra hours. In this situation, families can encourage their children to be firm with their responses to protect their work-life balance while they may want to fulfill their work commitments, they also need to make time for school, family, activities, and themselves.
1. “School-Life Balance” from Johns Hopkins at https://jhsap.org/self_help_resources/school-life_balance/
*Although this was written for college students, high school students and their families may also find this information useful. It also includes warning signs of too much stress and ways to relieve stress by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Parents supporting their teens in trying different identities
Adolescence is a time when young people develop their identities through experimentation. These identities can address sexuality, race, culture, school, religion, work, hobbies or interests, and style, such as that relating to clothing, hair, or language. Young people may change their ideas about who they are frequently, or may discover early on what identities make them feel most comfortable. To learn more about adolescent development of identity, see resource #1, below. Different identities may emerge in specific contexts such as home, school, church and social situations. The role of parents and teachers is to support and encourage teens as they try out different roles and identities. To learn more about the role of the school in identity development, see resource #2, below.
The development of sexual identity is discussed further in the lesson on “LGBTQ+ Mafia” in Module 4. Sexual identity often emerges earlier than high school, but teens may not feel comfortable expressing it until high school, or even later. Sexual minorities make up between 4 and 8% of all teens. This incidence varies depending on geographic location, age, and race. To learn more about sexual identity development, see Lesson 4 in this website, or see resource #3, below.
Teachers can help parents address their children’s sexual or other identities through making written or multimedia materials available. A school counselor could also help parents come to terms with a child’s identity that does not fit the parents’ expectations. Teachers can model acceptance of teen identity, even though this may not affect how parents respond to teens at home. To learn more about the theory around identity development, see resource #4, below.
Holding an evening event focusing on teen identity development could help parents better understand and support their children’s experimentation. Families could learn communication strategies and have the opportunity to apply their new skills through simulated conversations. Guest speakers could include school counselors, local leaders in the LGBTQ+ community, and parents could share their experiences, concerns, and knowledge in supporting their children as they try different identities.
1. “Developing Adolescent Identity” at https://parentandteen.com/developing-adolescent-identity/
2. “The Role of School in Adolescents’ Identity Development” at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-018-9457-3
3. “Youth with Diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression in Child Welfare: A Review of Best Practices” at https://qiclgbtq2s.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2018/05/LGBTQ2S-Lit-Review_-5-14-18.pdf
4. “Identity Development Theory” at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/adolescent/chapter/identity-development-theory/