Right now, about four million kids across the country are getting ready to go back to school as ninth graders. The transition from middle school to high school is a big deal for the student, the student’s family, and for sending and receiving teachers. Research strongly suggests that ninth-grade grades may be the best predictor of students’ high school outcomes. In other words, ninth grade matters. And it matters a lot. So how can students and their families prepare for ninth grade? I taught high school freshmen at four schools for several years, visited schools across the country, and with my husband, got three boys through high school. In this post, I’m sharing from that experience to help make the high school transition smoother for all parties.
Some parents tell their kids that high school will be pretty much like middle school, just with older kids. In my experience, that’s not typically the case, academically, socially, or otherwise. High school really is different from middle school, maybe more so now than in the past. A theme that underlies many of the differences between most middle schools and high schools is a decrease in structure provided by school and a corresponding increase in expectations for self-regulation by the student. Students who have been monitored very closely in middle school may not have the skills or self-discipline to manage their new-found freedom. Here are some examples of how that difference may affect students.
In middle school, single- and multiple-grade level academic teams (or houses or families or cabins—the terminology varies) often include teachers from the major subject areas. English, math, social studies, and science teachers, for example, may plan as a team and then meet with their subject-area peers to be sure they are all on the same page. As a result, teachers know what’s going on in multiple content areas within their teams, and teachers and students get to know everyone on their team. If Teacher A notices that a student is having a rough day or some behavior issue, Teacher B may get a heads up before the student even gets to class.
In high school, that kind of team approach is less common. For example, in high school, students, including ninth graders, often choose classes. As a result, a student might have one or two classes with one group of kids, then another class or two with an entirely different group of kids, and so on. That difference matters, both academically and socially. On the academic side, for example, high school teachers are less likely to know what’s going on in students’ other classes, since academic departments—English, science, humanities, etc.—are more common than cross-curricular teams.
This difference can affect students directly because they will have to manage their own learning a bit more—no more relying on the teachers to know what’s happening in other classes. Take something as common as assessments—formative, summative, you name it. In middle schools, summative assessments in particular are often spread out over days and weeks to avoid overloading students. In most high schools, it’s not realistic for every teacher to schedule assessments that way. Students may have no assessments for a stretch and then have more than one on the same day. That kind of pileup happens close to the end of grading periods especially. Students will need to make a study plan to suit their own schedule.
Homework is another area where major changes may occur. Some high school teachers assign homework, and some don’t. Some high school teachers who assign homework collect it, grade it, and award credit for it, and some don’t. Sometimes, homework will be collected and graded for completion, but not for accuracy. What’s a confused ninth grader to do, given all these different policies?
Just knowing policies differ is a start. But to manage those differences effectively, students will need to refer to the syllabus. High school students nearly always get a copy of a syllabus, which is sort of a contract between the student and the teacher. The syllabus is the starting point for knowing what’s going on in the class.
After getting the syllabus—whether in print or online—the student should actually read it. The whole thing. The syllabus will include not just rules about homework, but goals for the class, objectives, policies on behavior, late work, and more. If there’s anything confusing, the student should ask the teacher for clarification at a time that is convenient for the teacher, which means not during lunch or when teachers are supervising students’ departure for the day. Finally, the student should put a physical copy of that document and other important papers in a three-ring binder, a system that has proven itself time and time again. Keeping that binder handy with all the critical course information available will be worth the effort.
Over the years, I’ve concluded there’s really nothing better than a three-ring binder for keeping up with important papers, including school papers. I’ve also learned that starting out each semester with a calendar and putting important dates on it right away—tests, exams, meetings, band concerts and competitions, athletic events, days out of school, and so on—helps set the tone for the entire semester. Most of my highly successful students also used three-ring binders for syllabi, updated calendars, and other important documents rather than just taking photos and keeping calendars on their phones.
Knowing what is due, when, will help students plan their studying over the days and weeks of each semester. However, students may still need help from teachers and other adults as they learn to keep up with their studying rather than procrastinating until close to the test. Adults who are trying to help kids build those skills and other research-supported learning skills and strategies can find support in free online from sources like The Learning Scientists.
That’s quite a lot of information about the academic transition, but it’s probably a little easier to envision—and maybe even for many adults to remember—the social transition from middle school to high school and its impact. Many of our own memories vividly include our experiences as ninth graders, going from being the oldest kids in middle school, which includes sixth graders who are 11 or 12, to being the youngest kids in high school, which includes twelfth graders who are 17 or 18. Entering ninth grade, students go from being the default leaders in the school to being the default followers. Whoa.
Not surprisingly, things like age differences and changes in social status seem to be best navigated by students who have more experience managing their own behavior. That’s not to say they’ve had free rein to do whatever they want to do. Quite the contrary. Rather, they are students who understand limits and can keep themselves within the limits without close supervision. High school students typically have considerably more freedom and get to make more choices than middle school students. Students who cannot manage their freedom end up making bad choices.
Take, for example, students who have been allowed to go to the school library or a computer lab only with their class rather than on their own in middle school. When those students get to high school and discover that, at least in some cases, they can get a pass to the library, computer lab, the restroom, or wherever else if they simply ask the teacher for permission, it’s as if they’ve been set free. If students don’t know how to manage that freedom or they feel compelled to act the way they think kids with freedom act, they are much more likely to make bad choices. Unfortunately, those bad choices sometimes transcend the confines of school and make their way into out-of-school behavior.
Specific parenting decisions like how to manage cell phones, curfews, time spent with friends, and so on are not the point here. A theme that often arises across all aspects of students’ lives, though, is the gradual release of control, also known as a gradual release of responsibility, a self-explanatory term. How and when a family decides to begin transferring control from the adults to an individual child depends on a host of factors, just as it does within schools. Discussing that process as a series of thoughtful choices likely sets the student up as an independent decision maker, both in and out of school.
The takeaway lesson in terms of preparing for the transition to ninth grade is probably this: kids are different, families are different, schools are different, and teachers are different. But the more confident your student is as a decision-maker and the more capable your student is of regulating personal behavior, the better prepared your student will, not just for the transition from middle school to high school but on to whatever exciting opportunities and choices await in the future.