Sensitive Adolescents and the Transition into High School
10th March 2021 - By Shuhei Iimura
About the authors
Dr Shuhei Iimura is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tokyo. His research interests include Differential Susceptibility and Post-Traumatic Growth in adolescence. His current research features longitudinal surveys studies to investigate how highly sensitive adolescents adapt to changes in the school environment.
Does the transition from middle school to high school provide a developmental risk for sensitive adolescents? Our research findings suggest that sensitive adolescents report increased socio-emotional well-being if experiencing positive changes in the school environment.
Try to remember your childhood. How did you experience the transition from middle school to high school? As you may remember, school transitions involve environmental changes in many aspects. For example, the reconfiguration of friendship networks, the requirement to follow new school rules, and the change in school climate. When transitioning from one school to another, the new environment may be better or worse than before.
Several developmental researchers have identified that the transition from middle school to high school can negatively influences adolescents’ socio-emotional adjustment (1). For example, after the transition to high school, some students tend to have increased depression and anxiety symptoms, while others have lower self-esteem and lower sense of school belonging.
However, given that sensitivity to environmental influences is assumed to vary between individuals, as suggested by Differential Susceptibility theory (2), sensitive adolescents may show positive developmental outcomes when transitioning to positive school environments. Nevertheless, no studies have examined the role of sensitivity in the context of school transitions.
Study aim and methods
Our study examined how the trait of sensitivity in adolescents, measured with the Highly Sensitive Child scale, moderates the relationship between change in the school environment following high school transition and social-emotional well-being (3).
We collected data on 412 Japanese adolescents at two-time points, before and after the high school transition. We measured students’ sensitivity, their perceived change in the school environment, and their socio-emotional well-being.
The questionnaire used to measure sensitivity assessed whether students got nervous when they have a lot of work to do in little time, whether they got uncomfortable with loud noises, and whether they liked nice tastes and smells.
The questionnaire used to examine perceived changes in the school environment measured the extent to which relationships with teachers and friends, classroom climate, and school rules changed for the better or worse after entering high school compared to middle school.
Socio-emotional well-being was assessed by asking students whether they felt relaxed and cheerful.
Our study (3) found that sensitive adolescents had increased socio-emotional well-being through the transition to high school if they perceived the school environment to have changed positively. On the other hand, less sensitive adolescents did not exhibit significant changes in their socio-emotional well-being before and after the transition to high school, regardless of the quality of the school environment.
These results must be interpreted cautiously by recognizing that they are based on the Japanese educational system. However, they suggest that sensitive adolescents who were traditionally considered “vulnerable” are also those more likely to benefit from positive changes in the school environment. This positive effect of sensitivity is called “Vantage Sensitivity” (4).
Importantly, there is a growing number of studies reporting evidence in support of such Vantage Sensitivity (5, 6). For example, Pluess et al.’s research demonstrated that sensitive adolescents were more likely to benefit from school-based depression prevention programs and anti-bullying interventions in comparison to less sensitive adolescents (5).
Implications for the public
Is the high school transition a risk for sensitive adolescents? According to the findings of our study, it seems that this is not always the case.
Sensitive adolescents can thrive after school transition, as long as they perceive changes in their school environment as positive. As implied by the metaphor of the Orchid (7), they will bloom beautifully if caregivers and educators provide children with a positive environment.
- Benner, A. D. (2011). The transition to high school: Current knowledge, future directions. Educational Psychology Review, 23, 299-328. doi: 10.1007/s10648-011-9152-0
- Belsky, J., & Pluess, M. (2009). Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 885-908. doi: 10.1037/a0017376
- Iimura, S. & Kibe, C. (2020). Highly sensitive adolescent benefits in positive school transitions: Evidence for vantage sensitivity in Japanese high-schoolers. Developmental Psychology, Advance online publication, doi: 10.1037/dev0000991
- Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2013). Vantage sensitivity: Individual differences in response to positive experiences. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 901-916. doi: 10.1037/a0030196
- Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of vantage sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 40-45. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.03.011
- Nocentini, A., Menesini, E., & Pluess, M. (2018). The Personality trait of environmental sensitivity predicts children’s positive response to school-based antibullying intervention. Clinical Psychological Science, 6, 848-859. doi: 10.1177/2167702618782194
- Boyce, W. T., & Ellis, B. J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development and Psychopathology, 17, 271-301. doi: 10.1017/S0954579405050145