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December 2022 – Link Lines

Moving to Middle School with Confidence: Preparing for the Elementary to Middle School Transition
By Mackenzie Turbeville-McCorry, Ed.D.


Facilitating Successful Transitions from Elementary to Middle School
By Cathy Buyrn, M.Ed.

School leaders who supervise special education services in a school building focus much of their energies on services and supports at the elementary, middle, or high school level. The need to close skill gaps, build independence, and provide access to the general education curriculum within an individual school building is a complex challenge. While it is important to build a program that works for students within an elementary, middle, or high school setting, it is also important to consider special education services and supports designed for transitions between these school levels.

The transition from elementary to middle school is daunting for all students, but for students with disabilities there are unique challenges that need to be considered (Cauley & Jovanovich, 2006). Elementary and middle school administrators should collaborate to ensure that students with disabilities are set up for successful transitions. Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) during transition years should be collaboratively developed by elementary teachers, middle school teachers, guidance counselors, students, and their families to plan for a smooth transition. Students with disabilities should be included in visits and tours of the middle school with their peers and should participate in additional meetings and visits focused on their individual needs well in advance of their transition.

Middle school administrators are responsible for ensuring that any changes in supports and services are driven by student need instead of logistical convenience. An effective and proactive strategy for making sure students with disabilities receive appropriate supports and services is first scheduling special education services and then building the rest of the master schedule around those services. Administrators should also monitor the progress of students with disabilities during their transitions and throughout their time in middle school. If insufficient progress is being made, structural changes should be made to prevent students from falling behind and disengaging. Three key areas that should be monitored are:

  • Procedural
    • Transitions between classes
    • Locker management
    • Attendance and discipline
  • Academic
    • Test scores
    • Grades
    • Course enrollment
  • Social
    • Peer relationships
    • Teacher relationships
    • Activity participation (e.g., sports, clubs)

(Cauley & Jovanovich, 2006)

Middle schools routinely attend to the procedural and academic challenges faced by students transitioning from elementary schools. The most effective middle schools also include interventions focused on social concerns and challenges faced by students (Cauley & Jovanovich, 2006; Wormeli, 2011).

Rising middle school students with and without disabilities demonstrate greater academic gains when they feel like they belong and have strong peer relationships (Bellmore, 2011; Wormeli, 2011). For many students with disabilities these social factors can be addressed by functional IEP goals and specially designed instruction that help students build communication skills, self-determination, and social skills. Students who need IEP goals focused on these functional skills will also benefit from school-wide inclusive programming designed to help all middle schoolers transition from elementary schools (Forgan & Vaughn, 2000).

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) provides several resources through the I’m Determined project that can be used to support transitions from elementary to middle school. The tools available support the development of critical self-determination skills (i.e., choice making, decision making, problem solving, goal setting & attainment, self-regulation, self-advocacy, internal locus of control, self-efficacy, self-awareness). These resources can be used with individual students or school-wide to improve outcomes for all students.


Bellmore, A. (2011). Peer rejection and unpopularity: Associations with GPAs across the transition to middle school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(2), 282–295.

Cauley, K. M., & Jovanovich, D. (2006). Developing an effective transition program for students entering middle school or high school. Clearing House, 80(1), 15–25.

Forgan, J. W., & Vaughn, S. (2000). Adolescents with and without LD make the transition to middle school. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(1), 33–43.

Wormeli, R. (2011). Movin’ up to the middle. Educational Leadership, 68(7), 48-53.

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