School Transitions: Can they be Harmful?

School Transitions: Can they be Harmful?

by Randall Adams, President, Academy of Notre Dame

Choosing a school for your children is a much more difficult task these days than it used to be. Many would say it’s a good problem to have because it reflects the fact that more school options exist than ever before. Predominantly parents look for “the right fit” for their child/family based on curriculum, learning style, values, and cost. However, one aspect of the school fit choice that can often be overlooked is that of grade level configuration.  What sort of grade level community does the school provide for your child? A community where children learn that they are part of something bigger, where they can grow roots and build a level of comfort that will lead to a strong sense of self-confidence has been shown to be just one of many benefits of a K-12 school community.  

How Transitions Affect Achievement

Switching schools for kindergarten, middle school and high school comes with stress which can lead to a loss of academic momentum. “As grade (span) configuration increases so does achievement. The more grade levels that a school services the better the students perform. The more transitions a student makes, the worse the student performs.” (Wren 2003, pp. 9-10). One study found “a significant achievement loss during each transition year, and that some students regain what is lost in the following year, but it would seem that students who make fewer transitions need fewer years to make up for achievement losses caused by transitions.” (Alspaugh, 1999) 

A Double Whammy

A school transition coupled with the onset of adolescence can prove to be a double whammy according to another study that finds early adolescence can exacerbate the situation. “Girls in early adolescence suffered from a drop in self-esteem, extracurricular participation, and leadership behaviors when they made the transition into middle school or junior high, but not if they remained in the same school setting.” (Simmons & Blyth, 1987) The same study found that while boys didn’t suffer from the same issues with regard to self-esteem, similar negative effects were seen in extracurricular participation and grades when they made the transition to middle school or junior high. “The relatively protected elementary school setting made the entry into adolescence less stressful for both boys and girls.” 

Benefits of a K-12 Campus 

There are a variety of other benefits associated with a K-12 school community:

  • More parent involvement from families with multiple children spanning multiple grades
  • More student interaction between age groups leading to the development of positive role models
  • Stronger connections developed between students and teachers who spend multiple years together in the same community
  • Potential for peer tutoring programs
  • Cross-grade activities providing opportunities for extended learning
  • Budgetary advantages associated with running the program as one entity
  • A greater sense of school community and community involvement

At the Academy

The Academy of Notre Dame (NDA) is a single-campus community for students in Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12.  Our structure delivers the benefits of a K-12 environment while also providing age appropriate learning clusters for distinct school levels within our community: Early Years for Pre-K through K2, Lower School for Grades 1-5, Middle School for Grades 6-8, and Upper School for girls in Grades 9-12. 

Most of our students derive comfort in knowing what to expect when they step up to the next school level in an environment that has already proven to be nurturing and supportive. The changes that are inherent to advancement through the school levels helps our students develop the coping skills they need to adjust to new situations.

The vibrancy of our school would not occur in a stand-alone high school, middle school, elementary, or preschool campus.  Our inclusive campus provides students of all ages the opportunity to interact with students from multiple grade levels from preschool through grade twelve. Our peer tutoring, grade level buddies, and cultural bridge programs are examples of the many opportunities for social and academic interaction among our students.  Our school social events, performances, and club activities also involve and engage students from varying grade levels, leading to an experience that is uniquely NDA.


Alspaugh, John W. (1999). The interaction effect of transition grade to high school with gender and grade level upon dropout rates. Montreal: American Educational Research Association. (ERIC Document No.ED431066)

Simmons, R., & Blyth, D. (1987). Moving into adolescence: The impact of pubertal change and school context. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Wren, S. (2003). The effect of grade span configuration and school-to-school transition on student achievement. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.