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How to Survive the Transition From Middle School to High School

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

For a teen, perhaps one of the most nerve-wracking academic transitions is the one between middle school and high school. There’s a new, bigger school building you have to acclimate to.  New peers, which mean new cliques. Brand-new teachers and classes—and many of them. A faster pace at school.

Anticipating all of these new social and academic changes could cause a bit of stress in anyone, let alone a teen who struggles with a pre-existing anxiety disorder. All the books, TV shows, and movies about the dramas of high school—Mean Girls, anyone?— don’t help matters much, either.

In fact, according to a report put out by UCLA’s Department of Psychology, so many high school freshmen find the transition so overwhelming that they end up repeating ninth grade, or dropping out altogether. Over a third of high school dropouts, studies find, never even got past ninth grade. Hence the “Ninth Grade Bulge” or “Ninth Grade Bottleneck,” nicknames that refer to the increasing percentage of ninth graders, nationwide, compared to the gradually decreasing numbers of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders. Why is ninth grade the biggest grade, across the country and in almost every high school? Because so many freshman end up not continuing to the later grades!

So how to survive this stress-inducing time?

Teachers, Classes and Homework, Oh My!

“In my experience, some of the biggest challenges my teen clients face in the transition to high school is adjusting to the heavier workload and the faster pace in daily school activities/classes,” says Tanaz Sadeghi, LMFT, a primary therapist at Evolve Treatment Centers Calabasas.

More classes in high school mean more homework. Whereas middle school might have meant you were spending an hour or two on take-home work each night, high school can mean double the time. Add to that extracurricular activities (like sports, music, clubs or student government), social commitments (you can’t just ignore your friends all day every day), and a few other things that are important – like eating, sleeping and showering, for example – and the day may never seem long enough.

This faster pace of living can get overwhelming, quickly.

Sadeghi’s advice?

Practice time management.

Time Management Skills

There are lots of ways you can work on your time management skills. Get a proper daily planner, one that has lots of room (and we mean lots) for all the things you need to do every calendar day. But it should also come with a monthly-view option, too. Use it to jot down every single important thing.

Try to keep things organized, too. During your first week of high school, keep your course schedule handy so you can avoid getting lost or coming late. Take a picture of it on your phone and put a few copies in your backpack so you aren’t scrambling to figure out where you’re supposed to go after Gym.

Also, says Sadeghi, work on scheduling daily activities prior to the start of school. If you’re planning on joining the school sports team, research everything you can about it before the first day. Talk to alumni, or current freshmen. If you’re concerned that band practice might coincide with another important commitment, try to figure that out before school starts. If you’ve been taking piano for years and years and aren’t sure if you’ll have time for it in high school, think seriously about the matter over the last few weeks of summer. While you may not want to give up something you really enjoy or find value in, you also don’t want your workload to get too out-of-control.

Take Advantage of Summer

The summer between eighth and ninth grade is also perfect to cram in some learning opportunities. Many students who end up having to repeat freshman year of high school simply weren’t prepared for high school’s rigorous academic demands. New schedules, more demanding teachers, and less time to get everything done can mean many students will simply give up—not for lack of trying, but because they didn’t expect the work to be so grueling. Taking a summer course or being otherwise connected to academics to some degree can help make the transition even a little bit easier.

If you know anyone at the high school you’re going to be enrolling in, then summer is the time to talk to them. Ask rising sophomores for their advice on ninth-grade teachers and classes. Usually, students who just finished an entire year with a teacher have tips on how best to succeed in that class (and can maybe give you their old notes, too!)

Getting one’s expectations in order is helpful, too. Expect that high school will be hard. Very hard. You might cry certain nights because you have so much to do and so little time. You might have to pull some all-nighters just to finish an essay or study for a test. Even if high school isn’t that hard for you, you’ll still fare better off if you’re fully prepared, rather than thinking you can just breeze through it easily.

Have a Support System

One of the best things you can do for yourself before high school starts is to find someone you can talk to. “It’s important to identify a support system or person during this transition who you feel comfortable seeking advice or guidance from,” says Sadeghi. This person can be an older friend, a teacher, your parents, a friend’s parent, or a family member. It can also be more than one person; you can have a network of support contacts, including a mental health professional! There are only two rules: you have to feel comfortable confiding in them, and you have to feel that they’re providing sound, reliable advice.

Their advice will come in handy when coping with daily high school struggles, including cliques, too much work, relationship issues, and more. Your support system can help be there for you at times when you feel down and need a shoulder to cry on, or point you towards professional help when it is warranted. For example, if you feel like you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you’ll need to visit a proper mental health professional who can actually diagnose you and provide proper treatment. With all the changes in your surroundings – both physical, mental and emotional – high school is often the time when symptoms of anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental health and behavioral issues reveal themselves.

Beginnings Are Hard

And now a word of comfort: if and when you feel trapped and completely out of place when you start high school, don’t fret. Beginnings are always rough. It might take a few months to feel connected, to feel like you belong. Or even a year or two. For many, ninth grade is an awkward, painful year, while tenth and eleventh grades come much easier.

But even if your entire high school experience becomes nothing to write home about—or worse, completely terrible, dramatic, lonely, and difficult—remember that high school is just one brief stage of your life. In the grand scheme of things, four years is a drop in the bucket. Eventually—hopefully— you’ll go on to college, start a job, maybe move towns, settle down… and high school will be but a blip on your radar. You’ll be one of those adults who has to scrunch their forehead when they think of high school and say “Oh, back in those days…”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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