Not so very long ago, your child was entering middle school and was tied up in knots worrying about how he would find his way in the huge new school, if he would have any friends, and if the classes would be too tough. Now he’s facing high school, and guess what he’s worried about? The same things. Plus he knows that now it really counts. He needs to decide if he’s aiming for college or the workforce. He definitely must accumulate enough credits to graduate and may need to pass a state-mandated exit exam. And then there’s dating, getting a driver license, and his first job.

OK. Slow down, just a bit. High school is a time of great change and numerous “firsts” and transitions. Luckily, you and your student don’t have to cope with all of them at once, and certainly not all during his first few weeks as a freshman. So let’s take a relaxed look at what is important during the transition from middle school to high school, and what extra concerns may crop up for your child with learning difficulties.

A sophomore looks back

Scott*, a 16-year-old sophomore with learning difficulties, reflects on his early weeks in high school: “I was a little worried about finding my way around the new school. But I knew I had managed to get around OK in junior high and I had done the whole locker thing already, so I figured I’d get where I needed to be. After a couple days, it was no problem.”

Scott didn’t just make the move from junior high to high school, he also transferred from a private school to the local public high school. He credits friends and sports with helping make the transition easier. “I already knew people from my neighborhood and the swim team and seeing familiar faces helped a lot. That made me more comfortable. I met even more people by trying out for water polo.”

The classes, on the other hand, were more of a concern. Says Scott: “The workload increased dramatically. Junior high was much more relaxed. In high school, the teachers are stricter and there are more deadlines.” He says his parents were (and still are) a great help. “When I get discouraged, they remind me that things will get better and help me to keep going.”

Scott’s experience confirms formal research findings: Kids moving into high school rely heavily on friends and are, at least at first, caught off guard by the academic workload (Letrello, T., 2002; Mizelle, N, 2000; Akos, P., 2004). This applies to students with learning problems as well as those without. Scott’s participation in swimming and water polo probably contributed to his smooth transition. Studies reveal that students who feel they are a part of the school community are more motivated and show higher academic achievement (Isakson & Jarvis, 1999). Parents should also know that the transition period is more than just the first few weeks of school. Many schools treat the transition as a long-term process, beginning in the 8th grade and continuing through the 9th, and provide multiple avenues of support and information to help freshmen settle in socially and academically (ERIC Development Team 2006; Isakson & Jarvis, 1999; National Network of Partnership Schools, 2005).

Choosing freshman courses: The first transition step

Students know that what happens in high school really counts. Course selection and grades help determine which paths are open immediately after high school. That’s a good reason for you and your child to thoroughly understand the choices offered by the high school as you register for freshman classes during eighth grade.

Freshman courses are largely limited to those that meet graduation requirements, without a lot of space for extras. At Scott’s school, freshmen had only one class period open for an elective. He and his parents chose to fill that slot with a foreign language, to get that requirement out of the way early. In hindsight, Scott’s mother says, that might not have been the best choice. “By including Spanish as his elective, all of Scott’s freshman classes were academic. He ended up having to work so hard in every course that it might have been better to have a more creative elective in that spot, to give him a break.”

You and your student need to be aware of any flexibility or “tracks” available within the required freshman course work. For instance, does one version of freshman algebra lead on to trigonometry and calculus, whereas another version fulfills the math requirement but doesn’t prepare the student for more advanced courses? Understanding these details allows you to choose the ninth-grade courses most appropriate for your child without inadvertently closing off some academic pathways as he moves through high school.

It’s a tricky task for students and parents to choose courses that maximize post-high school options. The average eighth-grader doesn’t know for certain if he’s headed to college, vocational training, or to a job after high school. That natural uncertainty makes leaving many paths open all the more important. Work with your student’s guidance counselor to come up with an appropriate balance of academic and elective courses for your child’s freshman year.

Be prepared to make changes

Once the high school workload takes hold, you may find that the study strategies and accommodations that have worked well up to this point are no longer adequate. This is because continued cognitive development means your adolescent is beginning to think more abstractly, use more complex reasoning, and form his own opinions. His school work all through high school reflects this and becomes increasingly demanding.

Scott’s mother recalls, “We always knew that Scott had to work twice as hard as other kids to get through his assignments. But not too long into his freshman year it was obvious that sheer hard work and determination weren’t going to cut it any more. He was exhausted. I was exhausted. That’s when we began meetings with his counselor and started talking about accommodations. Scott now gets extra time on tests and sometimes gets tested separately from the rest of his class. It helps, but he still has to work extraordinarily hard.”

  • Keep a close eye on how well your child is managing his workload.
  • Help him improve his study skills to meet the demands of high school.
  • Do the increased reading demands warrant the use of digital textbooks and other assistive technology tools?
  • Would your child be able improve his note-taking and writing by using a laptop computer or other assistive technology tools?

Changing approaches and adding strategies as your child progresses through his first year and beyond will help keep things on track. Stay in touch with his counselor and, if your student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), review it frequently to make sure it continues to meet his needs.

There’s more to high school than classes

Extracurricular activities, sports, and social functions are just as much a part of the high school experience as classes. Research shows that involvement in activities makes the high school transition easier for freshmen with learning disabilities as well as for those without (Letrello, T., 2002). And, since the high school years are a remarkable period of self-exploration and identity development, extracurricular activities are a great way for your student to try new things, show off his strengths, and connect with peers with similar interests.

High schools offer many special-interest clubs, such as computers, drama, debate, and photography. There is usually a broader range of sports available than in middle school, and many sports teams need students to help with support functions, such as scorekeeping. Your child can get involved in student government, activity planning (dances, rallies, etc.), leadership, and community volunteering.

Encourage your child to participate. Scott plays water polo and swims on the school team. He knows that he has to maintain a certain grade-point average to be on these teams, which is an extra motivator when the going gets tough. He also goes with friends to football games and dances and stays connected to what’s going on at school overall. He doesn’t let his learning difficulties set him apart from his peers.

Stay involved

Your involvement in the high school transition is just as important as your child’s involvement in school activities. Your student is entering a phase of great change, and support from parents is essential. Scott knows he can count on his parents and acknowledges the critical role their support plays in his schooling. Even if your student seems more likely to push you away than ask for guidance, keep the lines of communication open. Get to know your child’s friends. Be aware of school functions and encourage your child to join in. Find out where the school needs parent volunteers.

Your active support and participation will help ensure a successful transition into high school. Use our downloadable “High School Transition Tips for Parents” as a checklist, so you can keep the basics in mind as you set the stage for all of those other transitions and “firsts” that are on the horizon in the next few years.

*”Scott” is based on a real-life teenager in the author’s extended family. The conversations recounted here, with Scott and his mother, are accurate representations of actual conversations the author had with them.


  • Akos, Patrick. “Middle and High School Transitions as Viewed by Students, Parents, and Teachers.” Professional School Counseling, April 2004.
  • ERIC Development Team, “Helping Middle School Students Make the Transition into High School. ERIC Digest, ED432411.
  • Isakson, Kristen, and Jarvis, Patricia. “The Adjustment of Adolescents During the Transition into High School: A Short-term Longitudinal Study.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, February 1999.
  • Letrello, Thesea M. “The Transition from Middle School to High School: Students with and without Learning Disabilities Share their Perceptions.” The Clearing House,March/April,2002.
  • Mizelle, Nancy B. “Transition from Middle School into High School.” Middle School Journal,May, 2000.
  • National Network of Partnership Schools. “Middle and High School Report: Plan to Help Incoming Freshmen and their Parents Transition to High school.” Type 2 Spring 2005, Issue 2.