Perceptions of primary to secondary school transitions: Challenge or threat?
Erin Mackenzie, Anne McMaugh and Kerry-Ann O'Sullivan
Primary to secondary school transition has been identified as a significant and stressful event for young adolescent students. Recent research has focused on individual aspects of coping with the challenges of transition in order to determine features that may act as protective or harmful factors. This study employs a mixed-method design to examine student perceptions of transition in the pre- and post-transition period. Participants were 75 female students (28 in Year 6, 47 in Year 7) from an independent girls' school in Sydney, NSW. Perceptions of academic and social aspects of transition are explored using an online questionnaire and focus group interview. Results indicate both pre- and post-transition students have positive overall perceptions of the move to secondary school, although the pre-transition students reported a more positive perception than their post-transition counterparts. Having an older sibling at the secondary school was found to decrease social threat scores for pre-transition students. Results are discussed in terms of the cognitive-transactional theory of stress, and specific implications for educators are explored.
The transition from primary to secondary school has been identified as a significant issue for young adolescents (Vinson, 2006), as this period is associated with a range of behavioural problems (Howard & Johnson, 2004) and a substantial decline in academic performance (NTCOGSO, 2005). The reason for this is encapsulated by the following:
...this transition period involves stresses and anxiety for all pupils, even those who adjust well to secondary school. A poor transition is associated with concurrent psychological problems and a poor transition can set in motion chains of events that impact on future attainment and adjustment (Rice, Frederickson & Seymour, 2010, p. 3).The transition period has also been associated with mental health concerns (Gutman & Eccles, 2007; Zeedyk et al., 2003; Lord, Eccles & McCarthy, 1994), including the onset of eating disorders (Birchley, 2007) and declines in self-esteem (Jindal-Snape & Miller, 2008). Furthermore, the secondary school environment may not meet the developmental needs of young adolescents, causing negative educational and psychological outcomes (Eccles & Midgley, 1990).
Social concerns during the transition period are also paramount. Adolescence is a period when social acceptance is typically perceived by students to be of great importance (Gerner & Wilson, 2005). This is greatly intensified during primary to secondary transition, when the formation of new social groups is at its peak. In a study of English students, Chedzoy and Burden (2005) found that students identify 'fitting in' and making friends as being of utmost importance during the transition period. Similar findings have been made by Australian researchers (Howard & Johnson, 2004), who have concluded that the key transition challenges are making friends, 'fitting in' and dealing with bullying. At the same time, students are displaced from the top of the social hierarchy in primary school to the bottom in secondary school:
From being the oldest, most responsible, best known and most demonstrably able - both academically and physically - these children became the youngest, least knowing and least known members of the community in which they find themselves. (Summerfield, 1986, p. 11)This climate has the capacity to produce feelings of irrelevance and anonymity, which is supported by findings that indicate students' self-concept plunges over this period (Tonkin & Watt, 2003). The effects of these social concerns are heightened by their concurrent nature, producing an accumulation of stress factors (Griebel & Berwanger, 2006).
While these issues are extremely significant, it is important to remember that the primary to secondary school transition is systemic, and a necessary part of the journey through schooling. As a result, it has an effect on all students to a varying degree (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000). For some students, transition experiences are very negative, and have lasting ramifications on their academic performance and overall wellbeing. However, for the majority of students, negative effects are relatively short term (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000). It is for this reason that transition research has focussed on the identification of factors that may improve transition outcomes and facilitate positive transition experiences.
Transition research has also focussed on identification of student characteristics that may facilitate successful transition experiences. A key meta-analysis by Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm and Splittgerber (2000) has suggested that such characteristics include having the appropriate knowledge and thinking skills to cope with the academic challenges of high school, as well as being conscientious and having the ability to work independently. In addition to this, students should have a range of coping strategies that they can employ during times of difficulty. As a result of conflicting findings regarding transition effects, recent research has focussed on individual aspects of coping with the challenges of transition in order to determine features that may act as protective or harmful factors (Vanlede, Little & Card, 2006; Frydenberg & Lewis, 2004; Lohaus, Elben, Ball & Klein-Hessling, 2004).
Coping theorists recognise that loss is central to any concept of stress, and while there can be loss or gain from a stressful situation, loss is more severe (Frydenberg, 2008). Transition from primary to secondary school is seen as stressful, and this could be because of the perceived academic and social losses associated with this period. Individual perceptions play a vital role in the nature of the outcome of a stressful situation, with negative stress stemming from the perception that the demands of the new situation will exceed their resources. By reinterpreting a threat as a challenge, individuals can reduce the negative emotions associated with a stressful situation (Frydenberg, 2008). This concept is central to the work of researchers who have approached individual differences in transition outcomes as being a product of the student's perception of transition (for example, Rice, Frederickson & Seymour, 2010; Sirsch, 2003).
Transition from primary to secondary school has been shown to be a stressful event in the lives of all adolescents (Rice, Frederickson & Seymour, 2010), and it follows that Lazarus' theory can be used to investigate the situation. If a student were to perceive transition as a challenge, or an opportunity to master the situation, then emotions such as eagerness, happiness and excitement would follow (Sirsch, 2003). Conversely, those students who feel anxious or fearful of the transition would appraise it as an anticipated harm or loss. While Lazarus' work provides a strong framework for investigating any stressful event, it is also necessary to consider issues that are specific to primary to secondary school transition. It is a period that involves changes in social interactions, academic expectations and school environments, all of which occurring concurrently (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000).
An important study by Sirsch (2003) has approached primary to secondary school transition using the cognitive-transactional theory with Austrian schoolchildren. A questionnaire was developed specifically for this study (The Impending Transition to Secondary School Perceived as a Challenge and Threat (ITCT), which aimed to measure the attitudes of students to the transition from primary to secondary school as a challenge and/or threat. The ITCT was designed to explore student perceptions in terms of academic challenge/threat and social challenge/threat, and questionnaire items fit inside these four domains. Empirical data from Sirsch's study (2003) confirmed that this four-domain structure has a significantly better fit than when the items are divided into only two domains (challenge and threat). Findings from this study indicate that the predominant attitude towards transition from primary to secondary school is positive (challenging). Furthermore, personal factors (e.g. social anxiety and self-concept) were predictors of perceiving the transition as a threat.
In the present paper, Sirsch's theoretical framework is used to investigate the perceptions that students have of the transition period, both before and after they make the transition. This study will aim to identify the specific areas of transition (if any) that pre-transition students appraise as threatening (negative stress), to allow for transition programs to specifically target these areas to support students through the transition period. In addition, the overall perceptions of post-transition students will also be investigated using Sirsch's framework. The effect of two situational variables on challenge/threat perceptions in both groups is also considered.
The post-transition questionnaire included 26 items rated on the same 4-point scale. Minor modifications were also made to the post-transition questionnaire to make the items appropriate for students who had already made the transition to secondary school (e.g. "When I think of the fact that I will go to a new school next year then I look forward to it, because I can show what I have learnt" was changed to "I feel that I have enjoyed my first year of senior school because I have been able to show what I have learnt").
The modified ITCT questionnaires included items under the subscales of academic challenge, social challenge, academic threat and social threat. The challenge subscales were used to measure a positive appraisal of transition, while the threat subscales measured a negative perception of transition. In Sirsch's (2003) study, scores greater than 2.50 were described as 'high', and scores lower than 2.50 were designated as 'low'. In the challenge domains, 'high' scores denote positive stress perceptions of transition, while in the threat domains, 'high' scores indicate negative stress perceptions. This description was also used in the present study. Each subscale was found to have an acceptable level of internal consistency. The Cronbach's alpha for each subscale in this study are shown in Table 1.
|No. of items||Cronbach's alpha||No. of items||Cronbach's alpha|
The focus group was conducted to generate conversation about the aspects of transition Year 6 perceived as challenging and threatening, as well as investigating feelings of preparedness for senior school. The focus of this discussion was with Year 6 students in order to provide the school with potential programming directions for their transition program for the following year. Insights provided by the Year 6 students could then be used to support those students in their transition to secondary school. One focus group was conducted with Year 6 students, which took place during school hours. Students who participated in the questionnaire were invited to participate in the focus group at random, and the session was audio-recorded for later analysis. The focus group session ran for approximately forty minutes. All students in the Year 6 focus group were intending to move to the senior school component of their current school (rather than moving to an alternative school).
The focus group interviews were semi-structured, with the structured portion of the interview consisting of the following four questions.
|Subscale||Year 6 (N = 28)||Year 7 (N = 47)|
|Academic challenge||3.38 (0.37)||3.02 (0.54)|
|Social challenge||3.42 (0.40)||3.31 (0.56)|
|Academic threat||2.01 (0.52)||2.67 (0.58)|
|Social threat||1.79 (0.52)||2.12 (0.74)|
Percentages of high mean values for each domain and for each year group are presented in Figure 1. When Year 6 and Year 7 data is combined it emerges that 91% of students in this study consider the transition to high school as an academic challenge. 94% of students consider the new school environment as a social challenge. Approximately one-third of students regard the transition as an academic threat, while 21% view it as a social threat.
Figure 1: Comparison of Year 6 and Year 7 high mean values
T-tests were also used to examine differences between Year 7 students who attended the same school in Year 6 compared with those who came to the school from an alternative primary school. Of the 47 Year 7 students who participated, 28 had attended the same school for primary school. The primary school attended had no significant effect on any domain (p>0.05).
This conflict is also reflected in the questionnaire data gathered for this study, as many students reported some high challenge and threat scores for various aspects of transition. Indeed for many of the following themes, some students are conflicted between positive and negative aspects of transition.
The social issues that emerged from the focus group as being of importance to Year 6 students included aspects such as meeting new people, making new friends, and being worried about not making friends, or people not liking them. Meeting new people was perceived as something to look forward to about the new school.
I'll get to meet new people and make more friends ...However, making friends was also a source of concern for some students, as they were apprehensive about other students not liking them.
I don't want someone not to like me. (Student A)Students also expressed some concern about the difference in social hierarchy between the primary and secondary school. They were worried about the transition from 'the top' of the primary school social ladder to being beneath all other year groups in the secondary school.
Yeah, some people might be mean and stuff. (Student B)
Sometimes I'm a bit scared that like for the past 2 years like in Year 5 and 6 we've been like at the top of the school like we're like leading everyone but then when we get to Year 7 we'll be at the bottom - starting all over again.This concern reflected feelings of loss associated with their perceived place of leadership within the school being taken away from them, as they were to become the youngest group within the new school environment.
Secondary school subjects
Year 6 students overwhelmingly expressed an excitement and interest in the new subjects that would be offered to them in the secondary school. Subjects that were specifically mentioned included Science, Design and Technology and Food Technology.
I'm looking forward to the new subjects and new classes and the teachers and the new girls. I'm looking forward to all the new stuff, which is pretty much everything.They were also excited about the prospect of being able to choose some of their subjects as they travelled through the secondary school.
I'm looking forward to design and technology, and food technology, and the different atmosphere...
Having new and different teachers
Several students identified having new teachers, and a range of teachers as being something that they looked forward to about going to secondary school. The reason behind this is encapsulated by one of the students.
Well, maybe if you don't like one subject because you don't have that good a teacher, there's always another subject and different teacher.There was significant agreement by the group that being able to change teachers many times per day was a positive aspect of the secondary school. No students made negative comments about this theme.
Homework and assessments
This theme was the most negatively discussed issue in the Year 6 focus group. Students were scared and worried about the level and amount of impending homework and assessments, indicating that they did not think that their current homework requirements were preparing them for the onslaught of secondary school homework. Their reasons for this apprehension were varied, ranging from being worried about not doing well to being worried about not being able to cope with the amount of work. Several students in the focus group identified that having an older sibling increased the amount of perceived pressure to do well, stemming from their parents, and their own expectations in some cases.
'Cause if I get a bad mark then my parents would be like ... not very happy.The Year 6 students expressed concern about not being prepared for the amount of work, and the concept of grouped examination periods (e.g. Yearly Examinations). They had unreasonable expectations of themselves needing to be able to cope with the workload of their older siblings (who in some cases were several years older than them).
... my sister always gets As in everything and so she pressures me to get As in everything .
Secondary school environment
The structural and functional aspects of the new school environment were a source of some comfort and anxiety for these students. They expressed relief that the secondary school was considered "small" in comparison to other schools, as they felt that it would be easier to find their way around the school. They were also looking forward to the small nature of the school allowing their teachers and fellow students to get to know them and how they learn.
The less people that are there the more they can focus on people's individual faults, like otherwise they'd have to concentrate on everyone. And then you don't really learn much because the teacher's doing what like everyone needs. They don't really teach you what you need help with.Anxiety regarding the secondary school environment was derived from the prospect of timetables, and being able to find their classrooms.
Well I'm sort of worried that I might get lost! Because the classrooms don't say like 'maths room' they say 'A064' or something like that.There was also some concern that there is little perceived time to get from one class to the next. However, students who had older siblings at the school indicated that their sibling was already teaching them to read the timetable, and assured the group that this was not a concerning aspect of moving to senior school.
Results from Sirsch's (2003) study indicated that the predominant attitude of pre-transition students towards the transition was positive, with 50% perceiving it as being positive and 20% regarding it as being a negative experience. The Year 6 scores in this study were similar to those reported by Sirsch (2003). Both academic and social challenge mean appraisal scores were high, with the academic challenge mean being greater than that reported by Sirsch. The social challenge mean was slightly lower in the current study. High challenge scores suggest that students view these aspects of transition as being an opportunity for growth and development (positive stress appraisal). Both the academic and social threat means from the Year 6 data were lower than those reported by Sirsch (2003), with both scores considered to be low. This suggests that the students in this study had a low academic and social threat appraisal of transition. The high challenge and low threat scores in the academic and social domains may indicate a positive adjustment to these aspects of transition.
In this study there was a significant difference between the Year 6 and Year 7 perceptions in most domains. Year 6 students seemed to have a much more positive perception of the impending transition, reporting significantly higher academic challenge scores, lower academic threat scores and lower social threat scores than their Year 7 counterparts. Qualitative information gathered from the Year 6 students reflected a very positive perception of the impending transition, and although there were some specific concerns, their discussion indicated that they were looking forward to moving up into the secondary school. The seemingly more negative appraisal of transition by Year 7 students is consistent with numerous studies that have found a decline in average grades across the transition period and a more negative attitude towards schooling in general (NTCOGSO, 2005). Furthermore, following the transition from primary to secondary school, students report that they "feel it is more difficult to make friends and they feel more alone" (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000, p. 327). This may explain the higher social threat scores reported by the Year 7 group in this study. The more negative academic appraisal by Year 7 students may also be explained by the time of testing as the Year 7 cohort participated in the study approximately two weeks prior to their Yearly Examinations, a period when negative stress appraisals were potentially higher than normal. It is also possible that this Year 7 group may have had a more negative appraisal of the transition initially, in comparison to the Year 6 group tested here. A longitudinal study would be required to investigate these differences to a greater extent.
Within the stress and coping field, perceptions of the individual are deemed to be influenced by risk and protective factors. Much research has focussed on investigating these mediating factors for transition, with a number of potential protective factors being identified. While the investigation of many of these were beyond the scope of this study (for a thorough discussion see Gutman & Midgley, 2000), two environment-based factors were considered in terms of their potential influence on student perceptions. In this particular school environment (K-12), the majority of the Year 6 cohort will transition to Year 7 at the same school albeit a different campus. As a result of this, the Year 7 cohort will be made up of a significant percentage of students who had attended the primary school component of the same school. This familiarity with the broader school ethos was hypothesised to be a protective factor in transition perceptions, as many negative issues stem from the differences that exist between the primary and secondary school environments (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000). Surprisingly, no significant differences were found in the perceptions between the groups of students who had attended the primary component of the school and those who had not in the Year 7 cohort. This may suggest that the primary school attended by students, and their exposure to the secondary school may make little difference to the attitudes of students once they have moved into the secondary school. The climate in Year 7 may be more influential than prior experiences in this regard.
Another potential protective factor for primary to secondary school transition is having an older sibling who already attends the secondary school (Rice, 1997). A positive relationship between having an older sibling and making a successful transition has been found, possibly because of the information and experience that they can provide to the younger sibling (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000). The ability of an older sibling to provide information to the younger student was apparent in the focus group with Year 6 students. The students with an older sibling in the secondary school had a much greater knowledge about aspects of the senior school, such as homework and assessment expectations, and general functioning of the senior school. However, these students also reported concerns with their own academic performance, particularly if they perceived their older sibling to be a high achiever in this area. Interestingly, data from the questionnaire indicated that there was no significant difference in academic challenge scores between the Year 6 students with or without an older sibling at the school. However, there was a significant difference in the social threat scores of students in Year 6 who had a sibling attending the secondary school, when compared to those who did not have an older sibling at the school. The students with an older sibling reported lower social threat scores, suggesting that having an older sibling may reduce anxiety and negative attitudes towards the impending social discourses associated with the transition from primary to secondary school. There were no significant differences in any domains for Year 7 students with older siblings when compared to those without.
The final aim of this study was to identify the specific aspects of transition that Year 6 students looked forward to and felt threatened by. Students in this study identified that they were looking forward to the new subjects that they were to study in the secondary school. They identified specific subjects and activities that they were looking forward to (e.g. experiments in Science, Design and Technology). This is consistent with research that has indicated that pre-transition students look forward to starting practical subjects and having new learning experiences (Graham & Hill, 2003). The students in this study also reported that they were looking forward to having new teachers, and a range of teachers, which is also consistent with previous research (Marston, 2008; Graham & Hill, 2003). While this aspect of secondary school is thought to contribute to negative transitions due to the differences in teacher expectations that exist in comparison to having one teacher in primary school (Jindal-Snape & Foggie, 2006), it is likely that pre-transition students do not consider this aspect of having a range of teachers. Kirkpatrick (2004) suggests that pre-transition students do not have accurate information about the nature of secondary school. The positive perceptions about teachers may be diminished after the transition period, as students experience less personal relationships with teachers (Mizelle, 1995). In terms of social aspects of the move to secondary school, students in this study were looking forward to meeting new people. This finding is supported by research that suggests that students are looking forward to a "fresh start" and making new friends (Jindal-Snape & Miller, 2008; Marston, 2008; Kirkpatrick, 2004; Graham & Hill, 2003).
While their overall perception of the transition to secondary school was quite positive, there were some aspects of the transition that were sources of concern and anxiety for the Year 6 students. Academic concerns were centred on the amount and difficulty of homework that they thought they would receive in Year 7. Students were worried about not being able to do the work, and having to spend the majority of their free time doing homework and assignments. They also expressed concern about not doing well in tests and assessments, citing pressure from themselves and their parents as driving this anxiety. The largest area of concern regarding transition has been identified to be educational by a number of researchers (Marston, 2008; Vinson, 2006; Galton et al., 2003), with Marston's (2008) findings indicating that homework, tests and examinations were the greatest concerns within the academic aspect of transition. While Graham & Hill (2003) found that non-academic sources of anxiety concerning transition were identified more readily by students, they also found that the academic aspect of transition that worried students most was having more homework.
The majority of the social and organisational concerns raised by students in this study have been noted by previous researchers. For example, making friends and dealing with a new social hierarchy were the main social concerns, as observed by Jindal-Snape & Miller (2008). The identified organisational discontinuities, such as learning to read a timetable, being in class on time and finding classrooms are also commonly recognised by transition researchers (Graham & Hill, 2003; Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000; Kvaslund, 2000). One notable exception is that these students did not express concerns about bullying, while a number of researchers have found that pre-transition students are worried about being bullied in the secondary school (Anderson, Jacobs, Schramm & Splittgerber, 2000).
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|Authors: Erin Mackenzie is completing postgraduate studies in education and is a secondary school Science teacher. Her research interests include primary to secondary school transition and student coping mechanisms during this period.|
Anne McMaugh is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Faculty of Human Sciences, at Macquarie University. Anne teaches in the areas of educational psychology, child development and inclusive education. Her research interests encompass teacher education and the development of learners in school and higher educational contexts.
Dr Kerry-Ann O'Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Macquarie University, NSW. Kerry-Ann is the recipient of a number of awards for her research and teaching including an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning, 2010. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Mackenzie, E., McMaugh, A. & O'Sullivan, K. (2012). Perceptions of primary to secondary school transitions: Challenge or threat? Issues In Educational Research, 22(3), 298-314. http://www.iier.org.au/iier22/mackenzie.html