Parenting, Teachers, Positive mental health, School and exams

21 August, 2016

Back to school: get children off to a good start in secondary school

A child psychotherapist explores ways we can support children in the transition from primary to secondary school.

Starting secondary school is an under-discussed issue. We often tend to overlook the challenges of the child moving from primary school to secondary school, which, for me, is more often a problematic transition.

This transition is often made more challenging if:

  • the child is starting alone with no peers from their primary school starting in secondary school with them
  • if they are moving from a small rural primary school to a large urban secondary school
  • if there is considerably more travel involved in the commute compared to their primary school location.

None of these situations are insurmountable, but they just make the transition a little more challenging.

It is important for parents to acknowledge that this transition is hard.

Often, a child finishing sixth class has been the big fish in the small pond, and so has probably held a bit of responsibility and autonomy in their primary school eco-system. It is not unusual for adults to heap the expectations and responsibilities on these children in an effort to make them feel competent and able for what lies in store in secondary school. And while this is not considered the wrong thing to do, some children may experience these expectations as pressure. Therefore, it is important, as parents, that we acknowledge the challenge of the transition and give permission for the child to struggle with it. This will help them to communicate that struggle to you if they need to.

Most children will experience primary school as a fairly ‘spoon-fed’ experience, and rightly so. The more support and ease at which their primary school journey is experienced the better. This creates a positive association for the child’s relationship with education, which is vital for beginning their journey of lifelong learning.

However, this ease and support is often abruptly removed from the child when they move to secondary school, where they are now forced to cope pretty much on their own. This can be a really difficult adjustment for many children. Often, ‘learning the system’ is the hardest part and is even more difficult than the academic side of things. So, it is important that, as parents, we try to support them to cope with the hardest parts.

Changes children face in secondary school

Changes children face in secondary school

The ‘system’ that children have to adjust to involves:

  • moving from class to class every 40 minutes in an environment that they are unfamiliar with
  • remembering to bring the right books and copies for the next three classes 
  • learning how to master the dreaded locker area.

This is a massive step up from primary school, where they had one teacher for possibly two years at a time, who provided you with copies, pens and support. Now, these same children are expected to cope with an average of 11 new teachers, new subjects, new environments and, all the while, having to make new friendships and being expected to socialise. Let us not forget the unsettling hormonal surge that is occurring inside them alongside all of this too. This is not easy.

Many of children’s anxieties and mental health problems come to light in secondary school. Many anxious, awkward or shy children can survive and be facilitated in primary school; the same is not the case in secondary school. The playground politics are considerably more complex, and it is difficult to integrate smoothly with all of this going on. Interesting research suggests that bullying is more likely to occur in second year than first year, which suggests that even the bullies are too preoccupied with finding their feet in first year and are probably a bit unsure of how to throw their weight around at this stage. Unfortunately they soon re-develop this skill in the second year which brings its own set of challenges.

How to prepare children for secondary school

How to prepare children for secondary school

Getting back to first years, try to help your child activate their sense of organisation before September.

  • Try to get them used to remembering things and set tasks to challenge their organisational skills. These will be the skills that will be most tested in the first year of secondary school.
  • Get your child to discuss their anxieties  about this transition with you.
  • Reassure them that you ‘have their back’ and so, whatever happens, you will manage it together.
  • Avoid promising that everything will be fine, because these children have reached the age of reason and will be well able to repeat this to you if things start to go wrong. You don’t need to be there with your teenage child when difficulties arise; you just need to be there for them.

Remember, pick the school to suit the child! If your child is not sporty and has never shown an interest or aptitude for this, then it is probably not the best idea to send him to a school that over-prioritises sporting prowess, regardless of whether his sporty older brother went there and loved it - that does not matter. Pick the school for the child rather than trying to make the child fit the school. The same is the case for a child who struggles academically. It is probably best to find a school that is not obsessed with academic league tables. Instead, try to choose a school that will provide the right learning support and encourage your child to enhance their strengths and capabilities.

In the case of the child in first year, remain vigilant throughout the year for changes in mood, behaviour or activities. Observe how they are fitting in socially. Encourage them to loosen the academic expectations they had from their primary school: remember, it is tougher to get 98% in geography in secondary school than it was to get 10 out of 10 in your spelling test in primary school.

Attend any pre-start camps or activities which are a really good idea, and I believe all schools should have them. This is where the child is brought in with all the other first year colleagues for a week over the summer, where they can form friendships without the pressures of the dreaded timetable or academic interference.

Observe for changes in sleep, appetite and socialising; these are often the first indicators of things going wrong. But also remember that this is a really challenging life stage, regardless of the transition of school, and so hormonal moodiness may be par for the course.

Remember to be empathetic at these times. Your child has a lot on their plate and, if they become a bit tyrannical around the house, this can often be a sign that they are stressed out. Try and offer them time to explore what is going on, rather than just getting on their case all the time.

In times like this, try to remember the following saying:

“try to give them what they need not what they might deserve”

The author, Dr Colman Noctor, is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services.

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