The transition to secondary school is a significant milestone for every adolescent and a successful transition is incredibly important. Children who can fairly quickly find their feet and stand tall in the first few months at secondary school are happier and generally more successful academically. And, equally as important, they are so much easier to live with!
Children who struggle to transition smoothly can face some stressful and even traumatic experiences. This can impact negatively on every aspect of their lives, not simply school results. A poor transition can even put young people at greater risk for mental health issues such as eating disorders and depression as well as catapulting them into a whole range of risky behaviours. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a poor transition will also impact negatively on the whole family.
But there is good news! Parents can do so much to help their children have a safer and happier transition into secondary school. (A perfect transition is as rare as those illusive hen’s teeth.) And, even if you do all of the right things and the ride into secondary school still doesn’t go well, at that stage there are more key strategies that can rectify the situation if acted on quickly and diplomatically. There are doable, sane and cost-free strategies to help your child transition well into the world of secondary school. The key to success is simple:
- select the right school
- understand typical pre-adolescent concerns, expectations and fears (Some children, particularly girls, reach puberty in the late primary years and their hormonal-charged roller-coaster has already left the station…
- preparation, preparation, preparation
Let’s look briefly at each of these key areas.
*Selecting the right school is fundamentally important for your child’s overall happiness and success in the secondary school environment. Getting school choice right involves taking an honest look at your child and their unique personality, interests and needs. Now remembering what you have observed, look for schools that can offer the best educational and social experience for your unique child. These will be schools that ‘fit’ your child comfortably rather than trying to squash them into an unfamiliar shape. This can sometimes mean letting go of the school you, your parents and even grandparents attended. It can mean letting go of the schools all of your friends are telling you are ‘the best’ schools in your area, the ‘only ones worth even considering!’ These are difficult things to let go of. But the alternative isn’t pretty. Insisting that your child attends a school that doesn’t match their unique set of skills, interests and needs can set them up for untold misery. At the very least it could mean your child has a secondary school journey that isn’t as happy and as academically successful as it could have been in another ‘better fit’ school.
Children have distinct personalities. So do secondary schools. We call this school climate and school culture. Children who are on the shy side and who have a very small group of friends in their primary school will naturally be happier if they attend the secondary school their best friends have chosen. Think carefully about sending a shy child into a huge secondary school environment if there are smaller secondary schools available. If your child loves hands on activities and subjects, look for secondary schools offering a good range of practical subjects such as VET subjects (Vocational Education and Training). If your child is sporty or musical, look for schools with great programs in these areas. Some schools are more traditional and formal than others. If your son or daughter finds it difficult to conform to school rules at the best of times, perhaps the most traditional and conservative school in your area might be a good school to avoid.
*Understanding typical pre-adolescent concerns is a really great idea. Even this quick snapshot of adolescence can help you understand what your child may fear or need when thinking about the transition to secondary school. Students beginning secondary school are on the cliff edge of adolescence if they haven’t already taken the plunge. What are adolescents thinking?
*In a nutshell, adolescents want adults to treat them as ‘grown up’ and crave acceptance from peers.
*Adolescents desperately want to fit in with peers while simultaneously trying to establish their independence from adults and forge their identity.
Typically, some adolescent concerns about starting secondary school will be:
- Will I be able to make new friends?
- What if I make a fool of myself in front of everyone?
- Will people like me?
- Will I stuff up? Everyone will laugh at me.
- What if the work is too hard for me? What if I fail?
- What if I get lost?
So, at every step of the journey toward the gates of the secondary school you ultimately choose, make sure that you involve your child in all of the investigation and in all decisions. Involving your child in decisions immediately gives them greater ownership of the secondary school and can strengthen your relationship with them. Knowledge is not only power for adolescents but it reduces uncertainty and worries about messing it up and not fitting in with the all-important peers. Here are a few quick tips that can reassure and make hormonal pre-teens and teens happier:
- Talk to children about possible secondary schools and ask for their opinion.
- If you are considering a number of schools, take your child with you when you go on the school tour, information evening or Open Day.
- Be sensitive about teens needing friends. Friends are oxygen for teenagers. They need friends to be happy and to want to get out of bed each day. It’s perfectly normal for your child to want to attend the same secondary school as the best friend/s. It’s so difficult when the best friend wants to attend a private school which you can’t afford unless you auction your own mother and your house! Prepare your child by double checking everything in a calm way so that your fears are not communicated to them adding to their angst. (It’s perfectly normal for parents to be worried at this important time – just try to hide it as much as possible.)
*Preparation, preparation, preparation. One can almost never be too prepared when it comes to helping teens transition more smoothly into secondary school. We know that starting a new school can be a scary time for teenagers and that most teens will carefully hide any concerns and pretend that they are absolutely fine. Even the most confident teen can, however, be secretly worried about this new step. So careful preparation can prevent a lot of potential angst. Here are a few ways to pave the road for a smoother ride to the new school:
- Involve your child in the choice of the new school. Go on school tours and information evenings together.
- Ask your child to write a list of questions to ask and things to look for on school visits. What is important for your child may not be on your list. A great canteen is important! ‘Wicked’ sports facilities too!
- Make school visits fun by coming up with a rating system. Rate schools on the friendliness of the staff, the buildings, the grounds, the classrooms, the clubs and special activities offered etc.
- Once a school is selected, make sure your child knows exactly what to expect, especially on the first day. How long are classes? What is the timetable like? What are students expected to take on the first day? What time should they arrive? Get as much information as possible from the new school. There should be an orientation day organised to kick the year off positively.
- Check whether the school canteen is open on the first day.
- Check the time the first day concludes for students – sometimes it will be a shorter day.
- If your child will be travelling by public transport, carefully check the times and allow extra time.