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Transitions to High School
November 2019


What does the research say about evidence-based practices to support successful transitions to high school?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Benner, A. D., Boyle, A. E., & Bakhtiari, F. (2017). Understanding students' transition to high school: Demographic variation and the role of supportive relationships. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(10), 2129–2142. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The transition to high school is disruptive for many adolescents, yet little is known about the supportive relational processes that might attenuate the challenges students face as they move from middle to high school, particularly for students from more diverse backgrounds. Identifying potential buffers that protect youth across this critical educational transition is important for informing more effective support services for youth. In this study, we investigated how personal characteristics (gender, nativity, parent education level) and changes in support from family, friends, and school influenced changes in socioemotional adjustment and academic outcomes across the transition from middle to high school. The data were drawn from 252 students (50% females, 85% Latina/o). The results revealed declines in students' grades and increases in depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness across the high school transition, with key variation by student nativity and gender. Additionally, stable/increasing friend support and school belonging were both linked to less socioemotional disruptions as students moved from middle to high school as compared to experiencing decreases in these sources of support. Increasing/stable school belonging was also linked to increases in school engagement across the high school transition. These findings suggest that when high school transitions disrupt supportive relationships with important others in adolescents' lives, adolescents' socioemotional well-being and, to a lesser extent, their academic engagement are also compromised. Thus, in designing transition support activities, particularly for schools serving more low-income and race/ethnic minority youth, such efforts should strive to acclimate new high school students by providing inclusive, caring environments and positive connections with educators and peers."

Ellerbrock, C. R., Abbas, B., & DiCicco, M. (2014). Developmentally responsive teacher practices across the middle-to-high-school transition. Journal of Research in Education, 24(1), 17–37.

From the Abstract:
"In this year-long qualitative multi-site case study, researchers identified how eighth and ninth-grade teacher practices may support students' basic and developmental needs across the middle-to-high-school transition. Data were collected throughout 2009, including individual interviews, focus group interviews, observations, and artifact data of 23 participants. Findings suggest relational and academic teacher practices may help to meet students' needs across the transition but these practices were not consistent from one school site to the other and the responsiveness of these practices also varied across sites. Practices consistent with the warm demanding teaching stance may have promise for supporting students' needs during this period of schooling."

Langenkamp, A. (2009). Following different pathways: Social integration, achievement, and the transition to high school. American Journal of Education 116(1), 69–97. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This study expands research on an academic and social turning point for adolescents, the transition to high school, by analyzing how students' level of social integration into school can affect high school academic performance. Using nationally representative data, three different pathways emerged as students transition to high school, characterized by varying amounts of disruption and opportunity for new social relationships upon entering high school. Findings suggest that elements of middle school social integration, including teacher bonding, popularity, and extracurricular participation, affect academic achievement when students enter high school. However, the association between integration into school and academic performance appears to be contingent upon the pathway students follow."

Langenkamp, A. G. (2010). Academic vulnerability and resilience during the transition to high school: The role of social relationships and district context. Sociology of Education, 83(1), 1–19. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The transition to high school is a critical stage in students' academic trajectories and can be especially difficult for middle school students who struggle academically. Starting high school on a low academic track and with low academic performance often leads to dropping out of high school. This study investigates what might protect academically vulnerable students during the transition to high school by exploring the potential effects social relationships and changing context have on academic outcomes in high school. As students move from middle school to high school, their social relationships are transformed."

Parrish, T., Poland, L., Arellanes, M., Ernandes, J., & Viloria, J. (2011). Making the move: Transition strategies at California schools with high graduation rates. California Comprehensive Center at WestEd.

From the Abstract:
"Education practitioners and policymakers grapple with ways to ensure that students are adequately prepared for college and careers. An important step is ensuring that students graduate from high school. A number of studies indicate that programs and strategies designed to assist middle grades students' transition to high school can contribute toward graduation. To better understand the factors that make such transition programs successful, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), as a partner in the California Comprehensive Center (CA CC) at WestEd, worked with the California Department of Education (CDE) K-12 Innovation and Improvement Office (formerly the Middle Grades Improvement Office) to identify and gather information from schools with high graduation rates. Using publicly available data, the authors identified high schools with graduation rates that were substantially higher than statistically predicted given certain characteristics of their student population (such as the percentage of low-income students). The authors selected nine of these schools, seeking variation in factors such as urbanicity, district type, and size. They then conducted screening interviews with the principals of the nine high schools, and with nine administrators from the high schools' respective districts, to learn about the strategies the schools implemented and the challenges the schools faced in achieving high graduation rates and in helping middle grades students transition to high school. Based on these interviews, the authors selected four high schools, along with their predominant middle grades feeder school, to visit, where the authors conducted interviews and focus groups with staff and students. States and county offices of education could encourage collaboration within and across schools, facilitating and encouraging teachers and administrators to form communities of practice to examine data, share information about members' strengths and challenges, and learn from one another."

Other Resources

Balfanz, R. (2009). Putting middle grades students on the graduation path. John Hopkins University. Retrieved from

From the Document:
"This brief, drawing on our research and field work, illuminates key policy and practice implications of the middle grades playing a stronger role in achieving our national goal of graduating all students from high school prepared for college or career and civic life. The brief is based on more than a decade of research and development work at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University."

Bottoms, G. (2010). Summer strategies for successful transitions from middle to high school. Retrieved from:

From the Abstract:
"This article published by the Southern Regional Education Board offers strategies and best practices for teachers and district practitioners to use to prepare students for the transition from middle to high school. Intended for use in the summer before high school, these strategies include engaging a cross-disciplinary planning team, involving parents, fostering a supportive environment, providing an accelerated curriculum, and teaching habits of success."

Chang, W. H., & Rusher, D. (2018). Middle school transition planning practices. National Technical Assistance Center on Transition.

From the Abstract:
"Students with disabilities experience higher unemployment, attend postsecondary environments less often, and engage less in their communities after graduating from high school compared to their peers without disabilities (Newman, Wagner, Knokey, Marder, Nagle, Shaver, & Schwarting, 2011). In middle school, young adolescents with disabilities are 50% more likely than their counterparts without disabilities to drop out of school (President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). Researchers and policymakers at the federal level have been trying to address these disparities. At the federal level, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments (IDEA) of 2004 mandated a transition component be included in the Individual Education Program (IEP) for students with disabilities at no later than age 16. Each transition component must be based on students' transition strengths, needs, interests, and preferences. This legislation also requires students with disabilities to participate, at an appropriate individual level, in the IEP planning process. This requirement encourages educators to beginning preparing students with disabilities at an early age. The purpose of this Annotated Bibliography is to identify and summarize: (1) what interventions have been used based on experimental studies about preparing students in middle school (ages 11-13) for transition to post-school environments and activities; (2) what else educators are doing now based on descriptive and correlational studies; and (3) what might educators do based on discussion articles."

Ellerbrock, C. R., & Kiefer, S. M. (2014). Supporting young adolescents' middle-to-high-school transition by creating a ninth grade community of care: Implications for middle grades educators. Middle School Journal, 45(3), 3–10. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The middle-to-high-school transition and the first year of high school are critical periods in students' lives. According to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), "The passage of students from the middle grades to high school is the most difficult transition point in education" (2002, p. 24). Although there are many different types of grade configurations, most students make the transition into high school between eighth and ninth grade. Regardless of grade configuration, many incoming high school students are deciding whether to stay or leave school during the first weeks of the school year (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999). In this article, authors discuss the importance of middle-to-high school transitions and highlight the importance of collaboration between middle and high school teachers as essential for healthy adolescent development beyond the middle grades."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Middle school, Transitions, High school

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.