Transitioning to high school during the pandemic: issues and actions

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Published on July 2, 2020


By Roch Chouinard, Ph.D., honorary professor in the Department of Psychopedagogy and Andragogy, Université de Montréal.

Réseau réussite Montréal is seeking researchers studying various aspects of school perseverance as it relates to the current health crisis. We thank them for contributing to our special section on COVID-19 and educational success.

The transition to high school – a challenging timeThe lockdown – a new risk factor | Avenues of interventionSummary | About the author | References

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While many students are not negatively affected by the transition from elementary to high school, numerous studies indicate that the school experience of most students (about 70%) is significantly altered following this transition (Chouinard et al., 2014, Eccles, 2007).


Problems related to the transition to high school can take one or more forms:

  • A significant drop in academic performance (Benner and Graham, 2009)
  • A reduction in interest and intrinsic motivation for school and academic subjects (Benner, 2011; Shunk & Pajares, 2005)
  • Increased performance anxiety and avoidance of learning situations (Barber & Olsen, 2004)
  • Emergence of more negative attitudes toward school and teachers (Chouinard, Roy, Archambault, & Smith, 2017)

This situation has led many to believe that at-risk students first consider dropping out during the transition to high school (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm, & Splittgerber, 2000; MELS, 2009).


Many researchers have for years argued that the transition per se is not the problem, but rather the context in which it takes place.

It would appear that problems arise because high school is not always well adapted to the psychological development of young people aged 11 to 14, especially with respect to their changing needs for autonomy, self-esteem, and belonging (Eccles & Roeser, 2009).

For example, many young people appear to have great difficulty in rebuilding social networks with their peers after the transition to high school (Juvonen, 2007).

Teacher-student relationships also appear to deteriorate after the transition to high school because of the qualitative and quantitative reduction in contact with teachers, which translates into greater control by teachers and more conflicts. (Pianta, 1999). These changes occur at a very bad time, since at this age, students have a greater need of support from adults and of exercising their autonomy (Wentzel, 1999).

Similarly, young people who experience a greater deterioration in the quality of their relationships with teachers or peers also report having the most difficulty after transitioning to high school (Chouinard et al., 2017; Mullins and Irvin, 2000).


Students who are already significantly behind when they start high school, who were already having psychosocial adaptation or behavioural issues in elementary school, or who come from families offering little in the way of academic support are especially at risk of having a difficult transition to high school (Anderson et al., 2000 ; Wentzel, 1999).

In addition, because girls are more sensitive to social discontinuity and tend to place a higher value on academic success, they would appear to be more vulnerable during the transition to high school (Chouinard et al., 2014; West & Sweeting, 2003).


Lockdown measures implemented in response to the pandemic constitute, without a doubt, an additional risk factor for students transitioning to high school this year.

These students will be starting a new level of instruction without having fully completed their primary schooling. High schools will thus be in overdrive at the start of the year to catch up and fill the gaps, at least for the core subjects.

Furthermore, since learning was not evaluated during lockdown and end-of-primary exams were cancelled, high schools will be working hard to evaluate these students’ knowledge and needs upon arrival.

And because academic monitoring by elementary school teachers and parents since the start of the lockdown has varied in nature, it is to be expected that the disparity in academic skills typically observed among students entering high school will be greater than usual this year. As a result, it might be tempting for schools to group students based on knowledge level.

It is our view that high schools should not focus on accelerated catch up of academic material, intensive assessment, or classification based on knowledge. Greeting new students this way will only increase their anxiety, make it even harder to reconstruct social networks, and negatively affect the self-esteem of many.

Instead, it should be remembered that the main source of problems when transitioning to high school is the destruction of the social networks that students had established with peers and adults in elementary school and that, this year, this destruction was sudden and further aggravated by many months of lockdown at home.


More than ever, stakeholders should be considering administrative and pedagogical measures to facilitate the transition from elementary to high school. However, such measures will only be effective if they help students better satisfy their need for autonomy, self-esteem, and belonging.

Among the measures typically recommended for facilitating the transition to high school, we feel that those below are particularly appropriate.


In the classroom, we suggest giving students options regarding their schoolwork and how to carry it out, encouraging them to plan their own work schedule, and giving them a role in decisions about how the class should function and about their school experience.

One important measure would be to guide students toward setting short- and medium-term goals regarding their behaviour and learning.


New students need to quickly experience success and understand that they can succeed in high school. Thus, it is advisable to form heterogeneous groups rather than classifying students according to knowledge level, to approach content gradually and slowly, to value personal achievement rather than class rank, to encourage students to set realistic learning goals, and to highlight effort, progress, and success at both the collective and individual levels.

One important measure would be to evaluate without discouraging (i.e., in a varied and progressive manner), emphasizing success and progress and offering constructive feedback on areas that need improvement.


As mentioned above, high schools should prioritize students’ socialization and the reconstruction of their social networks with peers and adults at the school, at least in the months after they start school.

Allocating dedicated areas of the school to secondary 1 students, keeping classes together for at least the core subjects, encouraging cooperation rather than competition among students, and reducing the number of teachers working with any one class to a minimum (3 to 5) would be ways to help students build a sense of belonging.

One important measure would be to implement a personalized, regular, and frequent monitoring system. In such a system, each student would be matched with one of their teachers, who would personally supervise their progress and integration into the high school. This teacher would help the student set behavioural and academic goals, suggest means of achieving those goals, and work with the student to assess their progress. The teacher would also be responsible for overseeing the student’s tardiness and absences, managing contact with the family, and acting as a sort of ombudsman with other members of the staff.


Research on this subject tells us that the transition to high school represents a challenge for most students. The significance of that challenge is directly related to risk factors that are individual to each student and to the ability of the new school to help their students meet their psychological needs for autonomy, self-esteem, and belonging during the transition.

The lockdown brought about by the pandemic will prove to be a not insignificant additional risk factor. Students entering high school this fall will likely find the transition more challenging both quantitively and qualitatively.

Even if these students have fallen behind in their learning, schools should focus more on helping them reconstruct their social networks with peers and adults at the school rather than quickly catching up on curriculum content.


Roch Chouinard

Honorary professor
Université de Montréal, Faculty of Education,
Department of Psychopedagogy and Andragogy

Groupe de recherche sur les environnements scolaires




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Benner, A. D. & S. Graham (2009). “The Transition to High School as a Developmental Process Among Multi-ethnic Urban Youth.” Child Development80, 356–376. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01265.x

Chouinard, R., F, Bowen, J.-S. Fallu, P. Lefrançois & L. Poirier (2014). La transition au secondaire et l’incidence de mesures de soutien sur la motivation, l’adaptation psycho-sociale et les apprentissages des élèves. Research report submitted to the Fonds de recherche québécois : société et culture and to the ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport.

Chouinard, R., N. Roy, I. Archambault & J. Smith (2017). “Relationships with Teachers and Achievement Motivation in the Context of the Transition to Secondary School.” Interdisciplinary Education and Psychology, 2(1), 1–15.

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