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Transition: an overview of interesting research and what it means in practice for teachers

Written By: Bradley Busch
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4 min read
A digest of research on how teachers can help young people through a variety of school transitions

You are playing a memory and learning game. Which of these conditions would you find most stressful?

  • Option 1 – get any answers wrong and the game leader will give you an electric shock
  • Option 2 – get any answers wrong and the game leader might give you an electric shock.

If you chose option two, you are in good company. Research from University College London mocked up this experiment and found that students in the uncertain scenario experienced more stress – as measured by subjective feeling, pupil diameter and sweatiness of hands.

It turns out it’s not the worst-case scenario that stresses us most – it’s the not knowing. So if we want to reduce stress, we have to reduce uncertainty.

Students experience numerous transitions as they move through the educational system. Uncertainty accompanies many of these moves, which can have a detrimental impact on student wellbeing and outcomes. There’s a range of research that shows structural transitions – i.e. when you move through the school system, rather than experiencing a personal change – can lead to an initial reduction in student grades, self-esteem, satisfaction at school and attitude towards teachers (among other effects).

Each transition has its own challenges and uncertainties. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research on how students, parents and schools can help young people. Here is an overview:

Key stage 2 to key stage 3

The leap between primary and secondary school means having to make new friends, establishing multiple teacher-student relationships, finding your way around a bigger school and managing a variety of subjects. Research suggests that this is one of the most stressful transitions for students during their education.

In 2008, research by The Department for Children, Schools and Families examined what strategies schools and students employed for a successful transition from primary to secondary schools. Their investigation involved more than 500 children and families, and found that uncertainty could be lowered using some of the following techniques:

  • Teachers from the new secondary school visiting students while they are still in primary school
  • Secondary school taster days and social events for prospective students and parents
  • Information booklets and the use of bridging materials.

This research was fascinating as it also highlighted child voice. The children who felt they adapted well mentioned the booklets and taster days as particularly helpful. They also reported the value of spending time learning how to move around their new (and often much larger) school between classes, as well as a relaxing of the rules in their first few weeks.

Key stage 3, 4 and 5

As students get older, there is an increasing emphasis on independent study. The gap between year 11 and 12 sees students studying fewer subjects, but in more depth. This, coupled with the fact that the teenage brain is undergoing large changes, means transition and the way students learn and work can be different.

Researchers from Columbia University and Stanford University have examined why some students cope better than others with change and uncertainty. They tracked teenagers over two years and found that a student’s mindset affected how well they managed these transitions. Students with an incremental mindset (i.e. a growth mindset) were more likely to get higher grades, adopt learning goals, value effort, adopt positive coping strategies and were less likely to feel helpless compared with students with an entity mindset (i.e. a fixed mindset).

This is because if you believe you have a set amount of ability or intelligence, new situations are stressful because you don’t know if you will be able to cope. If you think you can improve, there is less ambiguity and stress as you think that even though you do not have enough ability at the moment, you will develop it.

The good news for teachers is that these same researchers also conducted a follow-up study which found that this attitude can be taught and developed, reversing the previous decline in students with a fixed mindset. One of the main problems is how to effectively teach growth mindset. These articles herehere and here might be a good starting point.

Secondary school to further or higher education

Transitioning from secondary school to higher or further education often brings more independence – maybe a move away from home, studying and entering adulthood.

This requires resilience from young people. A recent overview by leading researchers highlights that for an environment to facilitate resilience it needs to be high in both challenge and support. Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation. Too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom.

A recent study on university undergraduates offered some clues about how to manage this transition. The researchers found that keeping a sense of perspective was a key factor in how students developed their resilience. The trick is to keep an eye on the big picture as well as the small details. The end goal helps maintain motivation on tough days, while also focusing on the smaller details helps maintain focus and concentration. This study also highlighted the importance of creating and maintaining support networks (which, interestingly, echoes some of the suggestions from the research into students transitioning from primary to secondary school).

Final Thought

Uncertainty breeds stress: equipping students with knowledge and information, offering taster days and using bridging materials will help your students go from primary to secondary school. Teaching students proactive coping strategies and developing a growth mindset culture will help them in their teenage years. And finally, providing both high expectations and high levels of support – alongside balancing that with a sense of perspective and a wide social support – will help equip them with the skills needed to be resilient learner.

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