Moving from Elementary to Middle School: Supporting a Smooth Transition for Students with Severe Disabilities

By Carter, Erik W.; Clark, Nitasha M. et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview
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Moving from Elementary to Middle School: Supporting a Smooth Transition for Students with Severe Disabilities


Carter, Erik W., Clark, Nitasha M., Cushing, Lisa S., Kennedy, Craig H., Teaching Exceptional Children


Excitement, apprehension, curiosity, and concern-the transition to middle school is often accompanied by a mix of such emotions. For some students, middle school represents a new milestone-an indicator that they are approaching young adulthood. Simultaneously, it can be a time that evokes anxiety, uneasiness, and worry (Akos, 2002; Mullins & Irvin, 2000). Parents wonder what middle school will be like for their children:

* How will they adjust to social pressures?

* Will they be able to keep up academically?

* Will they make friends?

* Will they be excited about going to school each day?

For students with severe disabilities, adjusting to a new school environment can be particularly stressful and even more challenging. In this article, we draw from the research literature to illustrate how educators can support students with severe disabilities and their families as they make the transition from elementary to middle school.

Changes in Middle School

The middle school years are accompanied by a number of changes for students and their families (Chung, Elias, & Schneider, 1998; Schumacher, 1998). What makes middle school so different from elementary school? What changes might students and their families expect?

Although variations exist across schools and districts, the transition from elementary to middle school typically involves moving from a smaller, tight-knit school community to one that is substantially larger and sometimes less personal (Irvin, 1997). In many elementary schools, students spend the majority of their school day with just one or two educators and a familiar cohort of peers. Upon entering middle school, however, students experience rotating classes, during which they may encounter different classmates and teachers each class period. Moreover, teachers' expectations and rules sometimes fluctuate from one class period to the next, requiring students to adjust their behavior to changing expectations.

The instructional context changes in middle school as well (Clements & Seidman, 2002; Midgley, Middleton, Gheen, & Kumar, 2002). Classes become more demanding, requiring coverage of more course content, a heavier emphasis on grades, and, of course, more homework. Educators expect students to assume increased responsibility for their own academic and behavioral performance while providing less individualized attention than students received during the elementary years. At the same time, the gap between the academic performance of students with severe disabilities and their classmates without disabilities widens, increasing the challenges associated with ensuring that all students are accessing the general curriculum.

As adolescence approaches, students also experience rapid social, emotional, cognitive, and physical growth. These developmental changes make the middle school years an especially awkward and complicated time for students. For example, relationships with peers take on increasing importance during adolescence, and students experience growing concerns about making friends, fitting in, and avoiding teasing (Pelligrini & Long, 2002). For students with severe disabilities, who characteristically exhibit social skills deficits compared with their peers (Downing, 1999), any sense of belonging enjoyed during elementary school may give way to feelings of isolation. Moreover, as general education students become more preoccupied with fitting in among peer groups, they may be less inclined to maintain or develop friendships with students with disabilities (e.g., Kishi & Meyer, 1994)

Importance of Addressing Hie Middle School Transition

Although the transition to middle school can pose a challenge for any student (Chung et al, 1998), children with disabilities are at particular risk for difficulties (Weldy, 1995). Elementary and middle school educators must find effective and meaningful ways of supporting these students' transitions to ensure that all students are confident, knowledgeable, and well prepared as they begin their new school experience.

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