Planning for Elementary to Middle School Transition - Steve Barkley

Planning for Elementary to Middle School Transition

I had the opportunity to spend four days in a school district exploring how a purposeful transition plan between elementary and middle schools could increase student success in middle grades. Many years ago a state department official shared with me that he could look at districts’ testing data and identify the grade level where students transitioned out of the elementary school. Whether it happened at the end of 5th or 6th or 7th, students’ scores plateaued that first year in their new school.

In a document posted by the Georgia DOE I found this research summary:

“ …. students moving from grade 5 into middle school environments show a “sharp drop” in math and language arts achievement in the transition year that continues to have significance as far out as 10th grade, even jeopardizing their ability to graduate from high school and go on to college.  Meanwhile, students who participated in intentional transition efforts and as a result make a smooth transition into 6th grade are absent less often than students who did not, experience less disruption in their academic achievement and maintain higher levels of engagement in school.

 “…. Following the transition into middle school, many students feel less positive about their own potential and the importance of schooling. They may put forth less effort and give up more quickly.”

Here is the purpose we established for our work: How can educators working with grade 5 and 6 students, increase students’ middle school success?  How can grade 5 teachers best prepare students for entering the middle school social and academic environment? How can grade 6 teachers scaffold students’ successful entry into middle grades?

Sixth grade teachers, along with instructional coaches and principals, observed in several fifth grade classrooms at elementary schools and then met back at the middle school to debrief. Later in the same week, fifth grade teachers came to the middle school and with the coaches and principals observed in the classrooms of the sixth grade teachers who had been in their classrooms. The debrief with the fifth grade teachers had an added element as they had observed and spoke with students who had been in their classrooms the previous year.


Participants initially observed for the similarities and difference between grades 5 and 6 under the categories:


Social /Emotional

Academic/Learning Behaviors

These questions were used to facilitate the conversations following the exchange of observed similarities and differences:

What student learning production behaviors practiced and experienced in grade 5 would build student success in grade 6?

What experiences would help build the attitudes and beliefs that support students’ entry into middle school?

What academic content mastery are the priorities for 6th grade success?

What scaffolding processes can 6th grade teachers provide to assist learners in building the needed skills and strategies for middle school success?

What information do grade 5 teachers have about exiting students that would assist grade 6 teachers in planning for opening of the year student support? How much of that information is currently being shared? What could be created to increase the flow of that information?

What information do grade 6 teachers have about the preparedness of current grade 6 students that could be shared with grade 5 teachers? What could be created to increase the flow of that information and the use of the information for grade 5 teachers’ decision-making?

How might middle school and elementary principals and coaches work jointly to support teachers in building for the strongest possible transition for students?

Transition word cloud concept

The work of these educators created more focused questions to examine than decisions about “what to do.” Here are some of those:

What are expectations for desired student learning behaviors at end of fifth: stamina in writing, stamina in reading, focus time for working independently?

Can we develop more common language between elementary and middle schools for processes, academic content, and expectations?

What are expectations as to collaborative skills students should have entering and develop during grade 6?

What is too much or too little scaffolding for students?  When might grade 5 provide too much and when might grade 6 provide too little for some students?

Can a team of 5th and 6th grade teachers design a template for a transition folder? What items would be most helpful to 6th grade teacher decision making? Should early grade 6 student learning results be provided to grade 5 teachers as feedback?

Teachers involved expressed interest in continued dialogue. Discussion emerged about a google/online process for ongoing questions and discussion. (I suggested the possibility of 5th and 6th teachers changing positions for a day, teaching each other’s classes. Several teachers expressed interest.)

I learned a lot during these observations and debriefing sessions. I would recommend this activity to principals and coaches. Several times I found myself enjoying watching the teachers observing each other.

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