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Helping Adolescents Transition Into and Out of High School (1): Why Are Transitions So Challenging?

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

This is the first of a three-part series on helping adolescents transition through two significant periods, entering into and adapting to high school and graduating from high school and entering adulthood. Part 1 will explore the reasons why transitions present such a challenge, not only to adolescents but also to their parents, caregivers, and schools. Part 2 – How Parents and Caregivers Can Help will emphasize many of the lessons of prior Nuggets on the role of parents and caregivers and what they can do to help their children navigate these difficult periods. Finally, Part 3 –What Schools Can Do to Help Smooth the Way - will focus on how prevention science provides opportunities for schools to strengthen connections to school, make it the safe place where students can thrive, and improve the high school experience not only for students but also for school personnel.

Although the data presented here are primarily from the United States, the transition from childhood to adulthood is one that presents challenges worldwide. In the forthcoming book, Prevention of Maladjustment to Life-Course Transition, Shek and Israelasvili outline these changes and their interrelationships.

  • Physical domain--primarily related to hormonal changes including appearance, sexuality, and emotional and physical health that are not homogeneous across all adolescents many of which such as physical development, may create negative self-perceptions.

  • Cognitive domain—developmentally adolescence is a period when children begin to think more abstractly and ponder concepts such as injustice, violence, adulthood. They will encounter diverse interpretations and responses to these new ideas.

  • Emotional domain—responds to physical and cognitive growth and often confusing.

  • Social domain—new peer groups and forms of interpersonal relationships and ways of communication.

  • Sexual domain—interest in sexual behaviors and relationships increasingly intensify.

  • Family domain—going beyond self and peers is the family. As children mature they become less dependent on their family members and desire more freedom and self-expression. This desire to what appears to be loosened ties with family may create conflict between the adolescent and care-giver and other family members. For adolescents who are in care-away from home (e.g., orphanages, government service facilities), with disabilities, or who have other health issues, there remain similar changes in relationship to care staff and the challenge of entering adulthood and facing the world alone.

  • Community domain—as adolescents reach the age of maturity and adulthood in their cultures, they will be faced with a number of other decisions such as a career path, assuming their role as citizens of their country, and choosing a life-style that will support their needs.

Adolescents experience many physical, social, emotional, and role changes or transitions as they mature into adulthood. The transition into high school presents many challenges and stresses to adolescents (Benner, 2011; Neild, 2009). “The transition from primary to secondary education is one of the most stressful events in a young person’s life … and can have a negative impact on psychological well-being and academic achievement” (Evans et al., 2018, p.1.). A review of the research literature (Oakes & Waite, 2009) points out that students experiencing a smooth transition into high school have a much better trajectory through to graduation than those students whose transition is wrought with stress. However, this transition can potentially help adolescents assume positive adult roles successfully.

The responses to these stresses can also impact adolescents’ health. In reporting the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2009 through 2019, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states in the Summary, “Of significant concern is that student reports of negative mental health and safety issues continue to increase. A growing percentage of students surveyed reported that they did not go to school because of safety concerns. An increasing percentage of American youth felt sad or hopeless for at least two weeks to the degree that they could not engage in their usual activities. The percentage of students who seriously considered suicide or made a suicide plan also increased significantly in the last decade. These trends show that adolescents are critically in need of adult support in addressing safety and mental health issues, problems which are largely beyond an adolescent’s control.” ( These results present the findings prior to the COVID epidemic. In a more recent survey, COVID Experience Survey, CDC concludes, “Children receiving virtual or combined instruction and their parents might need additional support to ease stress, including linkage to social and mental health services and opportunities to engage in safe physical activity”.

At the same time, the 2020 Monitoring the Future Study results indicate that vaping nicotine as well as marijuana have increased since first added to the study in 2017. These increases are noteworthy as the use of other psychoactive substances (with the exception of binge drinking) have stabilized or decreased.

So how do we help adolescents during these transition times? In an earlier Prevention Nugget on Transitions (March 9, 2021) we discussed handling normal transitions. In that Nugget we talk about the importance of parents and family, our teachers and schools, our peers and colleagues, helping to prepare us for life transitions as part of the socialization process. Socialization involves learning about our culture, attitudes, beliefs, language, behavior—usually from our prime socialization agents—our moms and dads, other close relatives, our teachers, our religious instructors, our youth leaders. This is a complex process because it depends on the socialization skills of those who guide us throughout life. It is also complex because of the interactions among our socialization agents that may be positive or negative. What does this mean as we transition through life?

This graphic describes the process of adjustment to changes. Preparation even for ‘normal’ life transitions offers us the opportunity to respond appropriately in order to improve the outcomes of the transition and make us more resilient. In this chart we can assume that an unprepared person will have negative outcomes through their life transitions, while the prepared person will have positive outcomes through the same life transitions.

So how can we enhance our adolescents’ lives to ease these transitions?

Part 2 of this series will discuss the role of the family or out-of-care staff to help prepare adolescents for these life changes. Part 3 will talk about the role of the school not only through prevention curriculum but also through improving the school and classroom contexts so all students remain in school, graduate, and transition to the workplace and/or college. In this series we will also demonstrate how these positive changes can impact school personnel so they feel safe and secure in the school setting.



Benner, A.D. (2011). The Transition to High School: Current Knowledge, Future Directions. Education Psychological Review, 23(3), 299–328. doi:10.1007/s10648-011-9152-0.

Benner, A.D., Boyle, E.A. & Bakhtiari, F. (2017). Understanding Students’ Transition to High School: Demographic Variation and the Role of Supportive Relationships. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(10), 2129–2142. doi:10.1007/s10964-017-0716-2.

Evans, D., Borriello, G.A. & Field, A.P. (2018) A Review of the Academic and Psychological Impact of the Transition to Secondary Education. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1482, 1-18. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01482.

Irwin, V., Wang, K., Cui, J., Zhang, J., and Thompson, A. (2021). Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2020 (NCES 2021-092/NCJ 300772). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC. Retrieved 05/12/2022 from

Kellam, S.G., Branch, J.D., Agrawal, K.C., & Ensminger, M.E. (1975). Mental health and going to school. The Woodlawn program of assessment, early intervention and evaluation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chicago Press.

McMahon, S.D., Anderman, E.M., Astor, R.A., Espelage, D.I., Martinez, A., Reddy, L.A., & Worrell, F.C. (2022). Violence Against Educators and School Personnel: Crisis During COVID. Policy Brief. American Psychological Association.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2020). Promoting Positive Adolescent Health Behaviors and Outcomes: Thriving in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi. org/10.17226/25552.

Neild, R.C. (2009). Falling off track during the transition to high school: what we know and what can be done. Future Child, 19(1), 53-76. doi: 10.1353/foc.0.0020. PMID: 21141705.

Osher, D., & Berg, J. (2017). “School Climate and Social and Emotional Learning: The Integration of Two Approaches.” Edna Bennet Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University.

Shek, D.T. and Israelvili, M. (Forthcoming). The Transition to Secondary School: A Definition and Conceptualization of Adjustment during Adolescence. In Israelvili (Ed.) Prevention of Maladjustment to Life-Course Transition.

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