What to do if your child is struggling with the transition to secondary school
This post has been written at the end of January, half way through the school year if you are reading from the UK. However, it is useful at any time of the year if your child is struggling to settle following the transition to secondary school.
Moving from primary to secondary school is one of the pivotal moment’s in childhood. I only realised that in hindsight, having watched my daughter make the transition to secondary school a couple of years ago. My son will be transitioning from primary school later this year so I have been giving it a lot of thought recently.
Transitioning to secondary school is a whole new world. Children are often nurtured and protected in primary school. This is a fantastic thing. However, secondary school is a culture shift where independence is expected from day one. It is very common for children to struggle with all the new demands made of them. Here’s what to do.
Step one: Understand why your child is struggling with the transition to secondary school
You can’t solve a problem unless you understand it first. Children are masters of making sweeping statements such as “school is boring”, “I hate school” or “I can’t do it”. You need to find out why. Be a detective: Watch, talk, listen. Keep a diary if it helps. Why is she struggling? Here are some possible reasons.
She needs more time
Some children’s brains adjust to big changes more quickly than others. And this is not just one change, it is multiple changes. New peers, new teachers, new subjects, new uniform, new means of getting to school, and so on. The transition process may be slow but smooth, or may start well and have bumps in the road.
She is struggling to make friends
There is usually so much more choice of friendships at secondary school, than at primary school. How do you get started? Who do you choose? This is such a tricky area. Even if your child finds friends straight away, these may not be a good “fit” for her personality, interests and values. It may take many more weeks, months, or even years, for her to find a really happy and secure friendship group.
She is finding the academic work difficult
There is usually a step-up in the difficulty of the work, from primary to secondary school. This may uncover difficulties that were “masked” at primary school. She may be struggling to process verbal or written information. Perhaps the pace or the volume of the work is much more challenging. Or maybe adjusting to different teaching styles of multiple teachers is the biggest issue.
She needs more support with independence skills or organisation.
Independence skills are nearly always a slowly developing “work in progress” when a child starts high school. Writing down the homework and actually getting it done within the expected time frame. Packing her bag for the next day. Being in the correct lesson at the correct time. Managing the long or stressful journey to and from school by herself. These are just examples. Children are often thrown into multiple challenges all at once.
The whole environment is overwhelming
A child’s brain and nervous system may be tested to the limit by the transition to secondary school. Secondary schools tend to be bigger, noisier, and can be overwhelming. Sometimes, the unstructured break times can be the hardest part about school. This doesn’t mean it school will always feel overwhelming, but your child’s nervous system will need some special consideration for a while.
Step 2: Prioritise
You have accepted that your child is struggling with the transition to secondary school and you have identified why.
Now it’s time to prioritise. Sit down together and make a list, in order, of the things that are stopping your child from being happy and settled at school.
Step 3: Decide what to do
Depending on the challenges you have identified, there are many things you can do. Here are a few. Have a look at each of them and decide which ones would be a good fit for the issues your child is facing.
1. Start a positive dialogue with a caring member of staff at school.
Ensure your child is “on the radar” of key school staff, such as the head of pastoral care and head of year. Don’t be afraid of feeling like you may be seen as a “pushy parent” (your child’s wellbeing is more important), but ensure you are polite and respectful at all times.
Ask for clear plans. For example, if your child is struggling to understand the concepts in a particular subject and it is stressing her out, a plan might go like this:
- Mrs Smith (head of year) will communicate with Mr Evans (the subject teacher).
- In each lesson, Mr Evans will quietly check that Elise has understood the task given, and talk her through it verbally if necessary.
- Mr Evans will ensure Elise has written the homework down clearly, and understands the homework task.
- In two weeks, Mrs Smith will meet with Elise to see how this is going. If things are not better she will look at what further support can be put in place.
2. Get an understanding of resources or support systems at the school.
Every school is different. The website, staff members you are talking to, and other parents, can all help you understand what support is available. Friendship skills groups? Buddy systems? Mentoring? Counselling? Though schools are very limited in their funding to provide support, they can also be resourceful and passionate about supporting each and every child to thrive.
3. Try to link with other parents and share thoughts and ideas.
My daughter’s school ran a coffee morning and quiz night for new parents, which was useful for making some links. Also, we have a parents’ Whatsapp group for her form group. Perhaps other children are experiencing similar difficulties and another parent has found some helpful resources or solutions?
4. Increase “down time” and nurture at home during the transition to secondary school.
If your child’s nervous system is being overstretched, it needs plenty of rest and relaxation. Prioritise fun and relaxing over other things. Make sure you have plenty of structure, for example fixed bed times, perhaps a favourite family meal together once a week. Routine and consistency at home will help provide a safe base, if your child is feeling vulnerable at school. You may need to do this for a year, or even more.
5. Make sure your child has a happy social life outside of school.
This is especially important if your child is struggling to make friends or if you are worried that her choice of school friends is not a good match for her. Ensure you help her to organise get-togethers with friends from her previous school, or peer groups from other areas of her life. This will help her to realise that any school friendship problems do not mean there is something wrong with her friendship skills, just that she has not found “her clan” yet.
7. Give your child all the practical support she needs during the transition to secondary school.
Yes, your child needs to learn to do her homework without nagging, pack her back by herself, and get to the bus stop by herself. However, it is not a race. Take the pressure off. Help her pack her bag or organise her homework at first, if necessary. It took my daughter at least a year to be able to do both these things without any assistance.
7. Get extra support for your child’s wellbeing
If you can see that your child’s mental health is deteriorating, or constantly feeling overwhelmed is affecting their physical health, take action sooner rather than later. She will potentially be spending seven years at secondary school. Iron out sources of stress before they take a toll on your child’s health. If things haven’t improved after a few months, discuss it with your child’s GP (doctor), and find out what support you can access for her.
The book I co-wrote, Brighter Futures, looks at many of the issues covered in this post, such as friendships and school stress.
Dr Lucy Russell, Co-founder and Clinical Director at Everlief in Buckinghamshire.