In the transition to secondary school, various stakeholders, who have an interest in a successful transition, are involved. All stakeholders—the children and their parents, primary- and secondary schools—have their own approaches to smoothen the transition. It was clear that the selected articles could be linked to the stakeholders and to their characteristics. Consequently, this classification is used to organise this review. We distinguished the factors that can contribute to a smooth transition and describe if and how they can lead to interventions to facilitate a successful transition.
An overview of the reviewed studies and their characteristics is presented in Table 1. Table 1 shows, in alphabetical order, per author the theme and the main results of each study. The sample sizes and measures are also indicated.
The transition from primary to secondary school represents a significant challenge to the stakeholders who are involved in the process. The children, parents and teachers have to adapt to the new circumstances. While this process may be stressful, positive interrelationships can help to improve many of the challenges (Coffey 2013).
Factors Influencing the Transition
All stakeholders have their own approaches to smoothen the transition, as is shown in Fig. 1. In this figure we distinguish the three stakeholders, with their background characteristics, who influence the transition and hence the development of the child. For children, it is important that their development continues in accordance with their capabilities. Schools have an interest in a smooth transition because it demonstrates the ability to anticipate the capacity of the feeding/primary school and the adaptive capacity of the secondary/receiving school. Primary schools prepare children to realize their academic potential at secondary school and secondary schools are responsible for curriculum continuity and continuity in attainment. The parents are positioned in the circle of the child because they are inextricably linked with the child. They are the constant factor in all development stages of the child and are ultimately responsible for the education of the child and for the choices involved (Bosch et al. 2008).
Child- and Family Characteristics
Adjustment difficulties to both school and peer social systems at the beginning of secondary school are related to the personal characteristics of the child (West et al. 2010). Changing school, especially if the child moves to a secondary school with fewer children with a similar ethnical background, may have a negative impact on children’s school career. Even children who are doing well in primary school can experience transition disruptions if their ethnic group is smaller at the secondary school (Benner and Graham 2009, in Hanewald 2013). The transition can pose specific problems and concerns for children from minority cultures and can make them vulnerable for a poor transition. Socio-economic factors, socio-ethnic factors/race, gender, prior problem behavior and low academic achievement can all have an impact on the transition to secondary school (Anderson et al. 2000).
The factor age does not seem to influence the transition process but self-confidence and academic support do. McGee et al., find that, regardless of age, there appears to be evidence that the transition may lead to a decrease in academic attainment. This seems to be caused by the transition itself (McGee et al. 2004). Children, who believe that they cannot exert much influence over their success in school and who experience little academic support, report more school related stress and become more depressed when they experience a transition into secondary school, but not when they remain in the same school (Rudolph et al. 2001).
Personal factors, such as socioeconomic status (SES) and gender, particulary seem to be predictive factors for the perceived threat to the transition to secondary school (Sirsch 2003). A lower SES may lead to lower achievement (Vaz et al. 2014). Among children from low socio-economic (SES) households, 72% did not get used to the routines at secondary school and 58% did not settle in very well (Evangelou et al. 2008). Children from higher SES households had the highest score for academic competence while children from socially disadvantaged households were having the lowest scores.
Gender differences are related to subject area. Girls perceive that close friend support and school support declines during the transition period, boys self-report an increase in school problems during that period. School functioning during the transition period is a greater challenge for boys than for girls, while girls struggle to form new friendships with a new set of girls (Martinez et al. 2011, in Hanewald 2013). The majority of children moving to secondary school look forward to more freedom, new challenges, other subjects, different teachers and the opportunity to make new friends. Overall, girls make the transition more easily than boys and seem to be more settled after transition (Marston 2008, in Hanewald 2013).
School climate and school attachment as perceived by children themselves is correlated with misbehavior and aggressiveness. Violence and delinquency are related to negative perceptions of the school climate. Children’s positive perceptions of school climate and academic motivation are linked to teacher support (Hanewald 2013). Familiarity with the new school makes the transition easier (Sirsch 2003). Teachers and children have different perceptions of where problems lie (Topping 2011). Children tend to think there is a problem with the delivery of the programs while teachers tend to think that the students bring the problems with them (McGee et al. 2004).
Children showing high levels of psychological distress prior to transition are at a greater risk than their peers for a stressful school transition (Chung et al. 1998; Riglin et al. 2013). Boys at risk tend to show adjustment problems (academic achievement and school behavior) whereas girls at risk show more generalized adaptive difficulties following the transition (Chung et al. 1998). Self-esteem is related to children’s perceived social, physical and cognitive competence (Nottelmann 1987).
Children with lower ability and lower self-esteem have more negative school transition experiences which leads to lower levels of attainment and to higher levels of depression. Of all children 3–5% experienced depression and 3–6% was anxious (Lester et al. 2012a). Anxious children experience peer victimization and thus poorer peer transition more frequently, which leads to lower self-esteem, more depression and anti-social behavior and therefore to a poor transition to secondary school (West et al. 2010). Of the children who were victimized 12–21% experienced depression and 16–22% anxiety. Increased victimization at the end of primary school led to increased depression at the beginning of secondary school. Increased depression at the end of primary school leads to increased victimization for boys (Lester et al. 2012a).
Evangelou et al. (2008) found that children who experience a successful transition have developed friendships and boosted their self-esteem and confidence after moving to secondary school. These children have received more help from their secondary school to settle in. Most of their primary school friends move with them to the same school and they have one or more older sibling(s) at the same school. They find that the older children at their school are friendly. Children are at risk of not expanding their friendships and boosting their self-esteem and confidence if they experience bullying while in secondary school. Problems with bullying are most acute among children with special education needs (SEN) (Vaz et al. 2014). Of them, 37% has problems with bullying, compared with 25% of the children without SEN (Evangelou et al. 2008).
Children from low or medium socio-economic status (SES) households are also vulnerable for a less smooth transition into school life if they experience bullying while at secondary school (Evangelou et al. 2008) and are less academically competent (Vaz et al. 2014). Three of every ten children have experienced bullying during their live (Evangelou et al. 2008). Pellegrini and Long (2002) found disruptions in peer affiliations during transition to secondary school, peer victimization and increased use of aggression by boys possibly to establish peer status. The factors gender, prior problem behavior, low academic achievement, low SES and ethnicity are not independent of one another. They can be combined (and are) in many ways (Evangelou et al. 2008). Boys with a high level of psychological distress showed a significant decline in academic attainment and an increase in psychological distress while girls showed a significant increase in only psychological distress (Chung et al. 1998).
Parental involvement can affect the transition process and the school achievement before and after the transition. It can be categorized into three dimensions: direct participation, academic encouragement and expectations for attainment (Chen and Gregory 2009, in Hanewald 2013). Children have a smooth transition from primary to secondary school if their parents remain a constant support, monitor their activities and intervene positively (Hanewald 2013). Studies in the US have shown the importance of factors at home, such as the presence of books and a place to study, for a successful transition. Parental involvement is seen as important in the transition. Parents need to maintain rules, check on homework, discuss the schoolwork, and monitor their child’s social life and academic progress (McGee et al. 2004). This affects children’s school achievement. If parents and schools are not on line parental support is less likely to be effective (McGee 2004).
Family support is also linked to achievement after transition. Both school and family should create and keep an environment for reinforcing and renewing children’s academic motivation (Kakavoulis 1998). Children from lower SES households often lack parental support including parental interest and participation in the school process, the extent to which they talk with their children about school, and the extent to which parents supplement the learning process with educational activities (Anderson et al. 2000).
Children living with both biological parents seem to perceive fewer concerns about the transition to secondary school than their peers from single-parent or blended families. It may be that intact families often have a higher quality of interactions that may prepare the children better to stressful events like the transition to secondary school (Duchesne et al. 2009, in Hanewald 2013).
Preparing for a Successful Transition and Support
In many school systems, in the final grade of primary school children and their parents are advised which secondary school is the most suitable. In making this decision, three parties with desires or preferences are involved: the children, their parents and the teachers. The choice for a secondary school is determined by cognitive competences (performance, and test results), non-cognitive factors (attitudes, motivation, and interests) and the teacher’s judgments (Driessen et al. 2008).
Children must be prepared for a successful transition. Children who have the knowledge and skills to succeed at the next level (academic preparedness) and who are able to work by themselves and stay at the task (independence and industriousness) as well as children who conform to adult standards of behavior and effort and children who are able to cope with problems and difficulties are more likely to be successful at the next school level (Simmons and Blyth 1987; Ward et al. 1982; Snow et al. 1986; Timmins 1989, in Anderson et al. 2000).
The literature shows that the environmental context has a stronger effect on the success or failure of a school transition than developmental characteristics (Anderson et al. 2000). The relative importance of the environmental context suggests the possibility that educators can contribute greatly to facilitate successful school transitions. However, few efforts have been made to do so (Anderson et al. 2000). One of the main features affecting a successful transition is whether children received considerable help from their secondary school. Help can include procedures to help the children to adapt and to know their way at secondary school. Schools organize induction and taster days, and offer information support and assistance by lessons and homework to help children adapt (Evangelou et al. 2008).
During the transition children pass through two types of discontinuities: organizational/formal (departmentalization) and social (fear of getting lost, and being victimized) (Anderson et al. 2000). The greater the discontinuity the child perceives, the greater the support that is needed. To help vulnerable children cope with, and even benefit from, the period of transition, we need to focus more on the social and personal experiences at this time (Jindal-Snape and Miller 2008). There is a need for interventions to improve social and mental health outcomes (Lester et al. 2013). Waters et al., (2012) suggest early detection of children who are vulnerable to a poor transition to enable support, tailored to their particular needs, to increase their connection to the new school environment to minimize the potential of long-term negative implications (Waters et al. 2012). Support can be informational, tangible, emotional and social. Regardless of the type of support, parents, peers and/or teachers can provide it (Anderson et al. 2000).
There is a consensus in the literature that well designed and implemented transition approaches can assist in the process of supporting students, their families and school staff (Hanewald 2013). Most schools have developed systems to ease the transition process. Their emphasis is often on administrative and organizational procedures, in contrast with children and their parents who are especially concerned with personal and social issues (Jindal-Snape and Miller 2008). Head teachers frequently pay little attention to peer relationships or the importance of friendship during the transition process (Pratt and George 2005). The sensitivity of secondary school teachers to the children’s psychosocial transfer and their awareness of the importance of social relations may well play a significant role in helping children (Chedzoy and Burden 2005). Attention should be paid to facilitate the formation of interpersonal relationships between children in the new school (Coffey 2013; Tobbell and O’Donnell 2013).
An important aspect in the adjustment to a new school is the students’ sense of belonging and their socio-emotional functioning (Cueto et al. 2010, in Hanewald 2013). Children who feel supported by teachers are found to have a positive motivational orientation to schoolwork and to experience positive social and emotional wellbeing (Bru et al. 2010). Teachers’ ability to support students is a crucial element for better learning.
The Relationship Between Primary and Secondary School
Coffey (2013) finds that positive relationships and good communication channels amongst and between the stakeholders before, during and after transition are crucial to improve the transition (Coffey 2013). For a smooth transition, the teacher plays a critical role (Coffey 2013; Topping 2011) and sharing information concerning the child is valuable to support transitions (Chedzoy and Burden 2005; Green 1997). Nevertheless, information shared between schools is usually generic information on the curriculum rather than information about individual children (Topping 2011). Schools generally pay little attention to peer relationships or the importance of friendships (Pratt and George 2005). Information from primary to secondary school also needs to provide personal and social factors to make secondary schools alert to children who may be more vulnerable when they move (Jindal-Snape and Miller 2008). Although it is known that sharing information, between primary and secondary school, focused on personal and social factors smoothens the transition, less is known about the results when children receive the opportunity to participate actively during the transition trajectory by sharing information with their secondary school teachers.
McGee et al. (2004) examined schools in New Zealand and found disappointingly few contacts between primary- and secondary schools to manage the transition effectively. In schools where there was contact, it mainly concerned the transfer of information about students, familiarizing students and their parents with the secondary school, sharing facilities and teacher contacts about curriculum and teaching (McGee et al. 2004). One of the issues facing secondary school teachers is how much they want to know or should know about their students coming from primary school. Is it best to know very little so as to give students “a fresh start”, or is it best to be well briefed on each student? Teachers at secondary school, faced with children from a variety of feeder schools, tended to start on the same level for all children regardless of previous achievement. This resulted in a loss of continuity in the curriculum because of the transition (Huggins and Knight 1997, in McGee et al. 2004).
McGee et al. (2004) found that teachers’ expectations often differ between primary and secondary school. Once at secondary school, the children experience the workload as lower, including less homework, than they had expected at primary school. This raises the question of whether primary and secondary teachers understand each other’s work and whether steps should be taken to ensure that they do (Green 1997) because previous experience or achievement is often disregarded by secondary schools. This corresponds to the findings from Evangelou et al. (2008) that secondary schools do not appear to trust the data on children provided by primary schools.
The Formal and the Informal Context: School Characteristics and Peers
There is no consensus about children’s experiences with the transition. On the one hand, the literature shows that most children make the transition to secondary school without difficulties but it can be stressful for some children. Most children report they expected to like going to secondary school, 15% does not expect to like their secondary school (Nottelmann 1987). Cedzoy and Burden found 92% of the children looking forward to the transition (Cedzoy and Burden 2005). Midway the first term at secondary school, 88% of the children reported to be settled (Coffey 2013) and at the end of the first term at secondary school one in ten children did not enjoy the transfer (Cedzoy and Burden 2005).
On the other hand, West et al. (2010) found that the majority of children had some difficulties in dealing effectively with the start of secondary school. A quarter found the experience very difficult. In contrast to other studies (McGee et al. 2004) more concerns were expressed about the formal school system than the informal system of peer relations (West et al. 2010). McGee et al. (2004) found that continuity of peer group appears to be associated with continuity of achievement. Low achievers at primary school may do better with a new peer group at secondary school when they are influenced positively by their new peers (McGee et al. 2004).
Ashton (2008) and West et al. (2010), describe that children’s school and peer concerns constitute two dimensions during the transition, the formal school-system (size of school, different teachers, work volume) and the informal social peer-system (different kids, older teenagers, bullying). Children can be successful in one area but not in the other and higher factor scores on the two dimensions represent poorer transitions.
Children in secondary schools often report a decrease in the sense of school belonging and perceived quality of school life. Children who were bully victims at primary school are more likely to feel less connected in primary school and may expect to feel less connectedness in secondary school (Lester et al. 2012a). Green (1997) found that all children at secondary school expressed concerns about making friends. Having friends is important for the security of walking into different rooms as well as who to sit next to. When a child moves to secondary school with some known friends, knows older children at school or has sibling at the same school, some of the anxiety about making friends is alleviated (Green 1997). This corresponds to the findings of Pratt and George (2005), who found that the continuity and development of peer group relations and friendships was the most important factor for children.
Having friends of your own is important because loyal, “real” friends are a protection against being bullied (Mellor and Delamont 2011). Mellor and Delamont distinguish rational anxieties (being separated from current friends, anxieties about the curriculum, the buildings and the range of different teachers) and irrational anxieties: myths or scary stories heard from older children. Friendship can serve as a social support. Green (1997) also reports that some children were concerned about being bullied by older students. Such fears were based on rumors, spread by older students. In reality such bullying did not occur (Green 1997). In contrast to the findings of Green (1997), a large scale survey in 40 countries revealed 10.7% of adolescents reporting involvement in bullying (as perpetrators), 12.6% as victimized and 3.6% as bully victims (Craig et al. 2009, in Lester et al. 2012a). Behind the rational anxieties lies the children’s culture with irrational fears, often spread by the stories of older students (Mellor and Delamont 2011). The children were particularly concerned about the way in which their behavior at secondary school was perceived by their peers. They did not want to be seen as “a nerd” but rather aimed to seen as being “cool” (Green 1997).
Interventions to Facilitate Successful Transitions
To help children who are at risk for a poor transition, interventions that provide adequate information and social support activities, that help forming friendship networks, could be crucial. They could help children coping. Prior to the transition, at primary school, children need to be prepared for holding more responsibility for their learning. They need to learn to think about strategies for learning independently in a more challenging curriculum with clear goals of academic achievement like at secondary school (McGee et al. 2004). When children enter secondary school, motivation increases significantly. Both school and family should care for creating and maintaining a highly motivating environment for reinforcing and renewing children’s academic motivation (Kakavoulis 1998).
According to Anderson et al. (2000), interventions to facilitate a successful transition should be comprehensive, should involve parents, and receiving schools should make every effort to create a sense of community belonging (Anderson et al. 2000). Parents can contribute to a smooth transition by participating in their child’s schooling. When they do so the child should achieve at a higher level (Coffey 2013). Pellegrini and Long (2002) suggest fostering relationships during the first year of middle school by organizing social and interest-specific events. Effective lines of communication need to be established between parents and the school so that both can work effectively together for the benefit of the children (Coffey 2013). Green (1997) recommends an ongoing information exchange between primary and secondary teachers to facilitate the transition process and to reduce unnecessary discontinuity (Green 1997).
Children struggling with the transition need support, provided by multiple groups. Parents can provide support with respect to homework (Coffey 2013; Jindale-Sape and; Miller 2008; Kakavoulis 1998; Pellegrini and Long 2002). Takeing into account of existing friendships, when classifying the children, can also support children (Green 1997). Teachers at secondary school that are more accessible to students facilitate successful transitions. Simply being available to students is a form of teacher support. Positive peer relationships promote adjustment to the new environment, the secondary school. In supporting these peer relationships teachers can play an important role. Hamm et al. (2011) in Hanewald (2013) found that teachers more attuned to peer group affiliations promote more positive contexts and have students with improved views of their school’s social climate and adjustment during the school transition period. Coffey (2013) noted that the teacher is the key person in helping the child settle.
Lester et al. (2012a) conclude that there is a need for transition programs with a focus on early-targeted interventions to minimize health risks to children from bullying and to minimize the impact on the school environment. They suggest a critical time to implement bullying intervention programs (that address peer support, connectedness to school, pro- victim attitudes and negative outcome expectancies around perpetration) is prior to the transition to, and within the first year of secondary school (Lester et al. 2012a). Waters et al. (2012) suggest to develop an intervention based on best practice guidelines, to help children to negotiate the transition.
Many school transition interventions have a single and relatively narrow focus. Essential components of a transition model are: developing a planning team, generating goals and identifying problems, developing a written transition plan, acquiring the support of all those involved in the transition process and evaluating the process (Anderson et al. 2000). A focus on relationships and empathic school personnel can ensure that both child and parent concerns are acknowledged and accounted for when planning transition programs (Coffey 2013). Topping found that having an external supporting network is crucial for a successful transition (Topping 2011).
Some children are vulnerable to poor academic progression and disengagement during the first year of secondary school. Especially children with conduct problems and children who do not like school as well as boys with depressive symptoms and school concerns may need special support (Riglin et al. 2013). Preventively oriented school psychologists need to understand different paths of adaption to the school transition in order to identify the characteristics of children at risk and provide them with early intervention services for their specific needs (Chung et al. 1998).