Committee for Children Blog

3 Ways Social-Emotional Learning Supports Students’ Transition to New Schools

new schools

Students’ journeys from lively preschoolers to shockingly grown-up and mature adults are filled with twists and turns and ups and downs. Along the road, the transitions into new schools often stand out as particularly important. Starting kindergarten, moving to middle school, the beginning of freshman year, the first days of college; for most kids these are major life events, and they can be very difficult to navigate successfully. As educators, we see this every year at the beginning of school, in the anxious looks in our new students’ eyes, and we see it again at the end of the year in the nervous excitement of the students moving onward and upward.

Research also demonstrates the critical importance of these moments for students. A smooth start to kindergarten lays the foundation for future academic success. Students who have a positive experience at the beginning of kindergarten form a better impression of school, engage more in class, and do better academically.1 As students move from elementary to middle school and from there to high school, these transitions becomes even more important. It’s common for students, even academically strong ones, to skip school more often, engage less with classes, and see their grades drop soon after making these leaps.2 The jump to middle school can be a big one, with students suddenly juggling multiple classes, doing more independent schoolwork, and finding themselves in a much larger, more complicated social environment.3 This is even more true for students entering high school.

The struggles students deal with during transitions are real and consequential. Supporting their social-emotional development will help. Here’s how.

1. Support Executive Function and Emotion Management

It’s probably not a surprise to hear that students with strong executive-function skills handle transitions well. Evidence shows that they experience more success in kindergarten and sixth grade, both academically and socially.1 In fact, these skills are nearly as important as family characteristics in predicting middle school success.3 This is even more true for students entering high school, where success in the first semester of ninth grade is strongly associated with the likelihood that a student will make it to graduation.4 Likewise, emotion management skills are also connected to successful transitions.

Luckily, students are not at the mercy of chance when it comes to these abilities. Both executive function and emotion management are skills that we can teach students starting when they’re very young and continuing all the way through adolescence. Developing these skills is central to SEL programs like Second Step. Through explicit social-emotional instruction we can help students develop the skills they need to manage these important transitions.

2. Instill Positive Mindsets

Most students will experience difficulties in adjusting to a new school. How students view these difficulties—whether they’re an expected part of the experience or a sign that the students themselves don’t really belong—significantly affects how well they navigate transitions into middle school, high school, and college. This is another area where SEL can support students through short yet powerful mindset interventions.

Interventions based on the concept of a growth mindset are very common these days; perhaps too common. Research demonstrates its effectiveness but also warns that too much talk about growth mindset can actually do harm.5 It’s important that these interventions be targeted and brief. A great time to employ them is at the beginning of the transitions into middle school and high school, when they can be immediately helpful to students in dealing with stresses and difficulties.6

Boosting students’ sense of belonging is also important. Social belonging interventions help students learn to recognize that many people have had similar struggles with transitions and that things usually get better in time. This type of intervention has a proven track record of helping students succeed; they are prominently featured in the Second Step Middle School Program. As with growth mindset, it’s important for this intervention to happen as near to the moment of transition as possible.7–9

3. Build a Safe and Supportive School Environment

We can’t just leave it up to students to handle the stress of a transition. We have incredible power to affect how kids do when entering our schools.

  • We can consciously examine our own preconceived notions about our students and then work toward having a growth mindset about their potential. In this way we support the students who may not enter kindergarten with strong SEL skills.10
  • We can look at the administration of our schools from the perspective of our students and their families: How clear are rules and expectations? Who can students and families go to for help? Is useful assistance offered willingly? We can then (re)design those systems to meet their needs. These actions show them that they belong here. The College Transition Collaborative is doing great work in this area, which can inform those of us working with younger students.
  • We can make it clear to our students that we’re not just teachers and principals, but human beings who genuinely want to see them succeed. We help them feel more welcome and accepted by doing taking steps in this direction.7

Transitions are hard. They are moments when students of all backgrounds can fall off the track to graduation. Thankfully, things do get better for most students, and there’s much we can do for those who need extra support.


  1. McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Connor, C. M., Farris, C. L., Jewkes, A. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology, 43, 947–959.
  2. Allensworth, E. M., Farrington, C. A., Gordon, M. F., Johnson, D. W., Klein, K., McDaniel, B., & Nagaoka, J. (2018). Supporting social, emotional, & academic development: Research implications for educators. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
  3. Jacobson, Lisa A., Williford, Amanda P., & Pianta, Robert C. (2011). The role of executive function in children’s competent adjustment to middle school, Child Neuropsychology, 17(3), 255-280.
  4. Allensworth, E. & Easton, J. Q. (2005). The on-track indicator as a predictor of high school graduation. Chicago, IL: The Consortium on Chicago School Research.
  5. Yeager, D. S., Dahl, R. E., & Dweck, C. S. (2018). Why Interventions to Influence Adolescent Behavior Often Fail but Could Succeed. Perspectives on psychological science: A journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 13(1), 101–122.
  6. Yeager, D. S., Romero, C., Paunesku, D., Hulleman, C. S., Schneider, B., Hinojosa, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 374-391.
  7. Borman, G. D., Rozek, C. S., Pyne, J. R, & Hanselman, P. (in press). Reappraising academic and social adversity improves middle-school students’ academic achievement, behavior, and well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.
  8. Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451.
  9. Walton, G. M., & Wilson, T. D. (2018). Wise interventions: Psychological remedies for social and personal problems. Psychological Review, 125(5), 617-655.
  10. Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). A brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline halves suspension rates among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.