Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Theory Review Part III: Schlossberg’s Transition Theory

By Olivia Stankey

Students go through transitions and development constantly and consistently throughout their lived experience, as well as during their college years.  I’m sure you can think of at least one student you have worked with that was going through a transition in their lives.  Nancy Schlossberg studied transitions in individuals and designed a wonderfully versatile theory that provides a language and support system around students in transition.

Schlossberg defines transition as, “any event or non-event that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles” (Evans, 2010).   Within this definition, she outlines three types of transitions: anticipated, unanticipated, and non-events (Evans, 2010).  The first, anticipated, are events that occur predictably.  An example of this would be a high school student applies to their local state college and gets accepted, attends in the fall.  This transition is predicted and follows through.  Unanticipated transitions are the opposite, they are not predictable or scheduled.  For example, let’s say the same high school student the year before was in a car accident and broke one of their legs.  This caused them to have to go through extensive physical therapy and a couple surgeries.  This transition was not predictable and not scheduled.  Finally, non-events are transitions that are expected to occur but do not.  So, let’s say the same student was working on recovery from their car accident and filled out their college applications, but this time, they did not get in any of the places they applied, therefore they do not attend college in the fall as expected by themselves and their family.  This is a non-event.  A transition was expected to happen, but did not.

As we delve further into these transitions, it is important to keep a few things in mind.  Firstly, many individuals make this mistake, is that the transition is ONLY a transition if the individual experiencing it considers it a transition.  Therefore, it would be inappropriate application of the theory to say that your student is going through an anticipated transition if they do not consider it a transition.  This is because the theory encompasses the understanding of relativity – that meaning making based on transitions is relative, based on context and impact, therefore making it up to the individual.  As such, some events are bigger for others, or have more of an impact (Evans, 2010).

Now that we have the basics down of the theory, let’s look at the four key tenants of the theory: Situation, Self, Support, and Strategies.  These are often referred to as the 4 S’s.  The situation is everything encompassed in the transition situation (Evans, 2010).  What triggered the transition?  Is the transition on time, such as attending college after graduating high school, or off time, such as having to undergo surgery at a young age?  Is the person experiencing the transition in control our out of control in the situation?  (with the aspect of control, the response is always internal control) With the transition, did a role change?  If so, does the individual view it as a gain or a loss?  What is time duration of the change?  Is it permanent, such as the car accident causing the inability to walk, temporary, such as learning to walk again through physical therapy, or uncertain? Does the individual have previous experience with a similar transition?  Maybe they did not get into college the first year, but are applying with success the second year?  What stress is present?  Are there other stressors on the student at the same time?  Lastly, who is seen as responsible in the situation?  All of these questions help get at the details of the situation.  These are all questions in your back pocket of tools to ask students you are working with, especially as they open up to you about the transitions and experiences in their lives.

The next “S” is self.  This tenant looks at the personal and demographic characteristics of how the individual views their life.  What psychological resources does the individual have in terms of coping?  Some concepts to consider here are ego, outlook, optimism, self-efficacy, etc. (Evans, 2010).  Considering and reflecting on these concepts can assist you in determining how to provide support (the third “S”) and help the student with personal strategies (the fourth “S”).

In terms of support, there are three facets: types, functions, and measurement (Evans, 2010).  When putting together a plan of support, please consider these three facets. What type of support is best in this situation? Does what worked for a past student seem to be helpful here or is a new support form necessary? What function does the support serve?  Is it a form of aid? A form of feedback? Maybe affirmation is the support that is needed? What measurement of support is warranted? Is a high level of support needed or a quieter form of support needed?  These are questions to ask yourself as you begin to work on supporting each student you work with in their times of transition.

Lastly, there are considerations of the strategies you implement.  Strategies come in three different forms.  The first are strategies that modify the situation (Evans, 2010).  What can be done about the situation to change it? Can the situation be modified for the better?  The second are strategies that control the meaning of the problem (Evans, 2010).  Maybe the problem is not able to be modified or changed for the better?  Maybe the best strategy is helping the student reframe the situation in their own meaning making?  When students go through a transition, they make a primary and secondary appraisal, often simultaneously: the primary is the perception of the transition as positive, negative, or irrelevant with the second being an assessment of their resources to cope (Evans, 2010).  Keeping this appraisal process in mind is helpful with all transitions, but can be particularly relevant in terms of utilizing a strategy to help reframe the meaning making around the transition. The third strategy type are those that aid in managing the stress in the aftermath (Evans, 2010).  How can you assist the student in working through what happens after the transition?  Maybe the student has an unanticipated transition where they finish their first term with a 1.2 GPA.  This is likely to cause a fair amount of stress for the student.  How can you help the student manage that stress since you cannot modify the situation? What strategies can you deploy to help them have a better term next time around?

Overall, Schlossberg’s Transition Theory is one of the more applicable and versatile theories out there.  As long as the individual sees their experience as a transition, this theory applies.  While it would not be in good form to tell a student that they are in transition, since that is up to them and their relative meaning making, it does provide a great language and internal reflective process for you as a professional to work with each student, whether they view themselves in transition or not.  Keep the plethora of questions in mind, maybe print them out and have them near your desk for one on one meetings with students?  Whether or not they see it is a transition, these questions can still be relevant to their experience and development, as well as your ability to support without causing harm.



Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Olivia works as a Program Coordinator for Residential Leadership at University of Oregon. She may be reached at stankey@uoregon.edu

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