Moving up to secondary school is one of life’s most defining moments for children and for parents, so we need to help them prepare for it
Even as adults, we probably remember our first day at big school and the mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement we experienced. It’s an exhilarating yet frightening and overwhelming time for most children – and even if they seem to be taking it all in their stride, it’s important to help them prepare for this transition. After all, it’s a milestone in their education as well as one of the greatest steps they’ll take on their journey into adulthood.
The transition involves many changes for your son or daughter, and by understanding what’s in store, you can better help them adjust. The building will be new to them – much bigger than their junior or lower school and possibly in a completely different location. They may have to travel independently on a bus or train for the first time. They will be mixing with a much larger and wider range of other children and adults, and may have to make new groups of friends. The curriculum demands will be more challenging and diverse, and there could be a host of extracurricular activities for them to participate in. Whereas before they might be used to just one class teacher and one classroom, they will be taught by a range of subject specialists in different rooms. And they’ll now have to take responsibility for organising themselves and their equipment as well as finding out, remembering and passing on information. No wonder they might need a bit of extra support from Dad and Mum as they prepare for and adjust to their new situation.
How can I help them prepare?
Get to know the school
Make it a priority to attend the new parents’ open day or evening with your child. Be really positive about what you see and hear – and if you do have any concerns, voice them to your partner and/or the staff in private. Take your time, talk to the teachers and students, look at the displays and venture into the music rooms and ICT suites. Plan some questions to ask, especially about what measures the school will use to help your child settle in.
Keep any brochures, welcome booklets or maps that you’re given and go through them with your child at home at a later date when they’re not so bewildered. Make sure they’re well acquainted with the school rules so they don’t break them unwittingly.
In the months beforehand, look out for public events being held at the school, such as a concert, show, Christmas bazaar or summer fete, that you could attend with your son or daughter. In this way, you’ll all become more familiar with the surroundings and they won’t be so apprehensive on their first day.
Visit the website
Most secondary schools now have their own website. Look at the range of activities that go on together with your child and read the news for parents and any testimonials from pupils.
Talk to other students
The best way your children can find out what they want to know about their new school is to meet someone who goes there. See if you can hook up with an older sibling of one of their friends or a pupil they know in the year above them and give them time alone to have a chat.
Check their equipment
Read all the information you’ve been sent and make sure they’re properly equipped with everything they need. They won’t want to feel self-conscious about what they’re wearing, so order uniform in plenty of time, get them to try it on and double check the dress code. They’ll be devastated if they turn up in shirt and tie on the first day to find that everyone else is still in summer polo shirts.
Is the school aware?
Do let the school know in advance if your child has learning difficulties, health or behavioural problems. Suggest strategies that help your child if they become upset or anxious and make the school aware of any medical conditions or special dietary needs.
Run the school run
Ensure you’ve got to grips with the route and timetable for their journey to school. They don’t want to be waiting on the wrong platform or bus stop – and you don’t want to be chasing the bus or train to another stop as your child has failed to get off.
If they’re travelling by public transport, a dummy run with Dad or Mum can be very reassuring – but encourage them to take responsibility for finding the platform or bus bay, buying tickets, using the timetable, following the route and locating the exit. You could ask an older child who uses the route if they will accompany your child on the first day.
Even if they’re using a school bus, travel the route and follow the stops. On the way back, point out significant landmarks to look for when they need to get off.
Establish a few sensible rules about staying safe while travelling. Check they have your and Mum’s phone numbers – written down as well as in their mobile phone if they have one; know how and when to dial 999; and are aware of road safety issues.
A move to big school inevitably involves a massive increase in responsibility. For a start, you won’t be there in the playground to remind them to hand in their homework, change their library book or bring home their PE kit. Then they have to organise themselves to move to the right class at the right time with the right stuff. But is there anything you can do to help them prepare for that?
The good news is that there is. You can really help your child pepare by encouraging them to take responsibility for their belongings during their last term in primary school, and by packing their own bag for days out, sleepovers or trips during the summer holidays in the weeks before they start.
They may be moody, bad tempered or tearful; or they might seem laid back and relaxed but are actually hiding their worries. Whatever their reaction, you need to be patient and sympathetic and reassure them that their new school is going to be ok. It’s an anxious time for you all, but make sure you don’t show them your fears. Keep it positive, but also reassure them that it is ok to talk to you about how they are feeling – both now, and once they have started.
Revisit the information you’ve got about the school and reassure them that the school will make their move as smooth as possible. Explain that staff will be sympathetic to the newcomers and older students will probably be on hand to show them where the toilets are, what to do for lunch and where to put their PE kit. Remind them that everyone else in their year group will be new and feeling the same. Reinforce the positive aspects of the school that you saw during the open day and the wonderful opportunities that are in store for them.
That first day and beyond – how can you help?
The night before, get your son or daughter to lay out their uniform and check their school bag. Prompt them to think about what needs to go in it (pencil case, books, bus pass, dinner money, PE kit) and any other preparations they need to make (mobile phone on charge, water bottle in the fridge, packed lunch prepared). Decide what time they need to set their alarm, and of course ensure they have an early night.
That first school morning, remember to shift responsibility on them for getting themselves up and ready. Give them a healthy, balanced breakfast and reassure them again. Take a photo for the album and make sure they arrive promptly for their bus or train!
At the end of their first day, make sure you or your partner are at home to greet them when they arrive back and ask them all about their day. If there’s tears or moans, give them a hug and listen to what they say and offer support as needed.
Show an interest. Some children will fit in really quickly to secondary school but others will take longer to adjust to the new demands and challenges of their new environment. Keep talking to your son or daughter about how they’re getting on, and try asking specific questions like “Who have you made friends with so far?” “What are you studying in geography?” “What’s it like doing science in a laboratory?” and “Have you joined any new clubs?” rather than “Is school going ok?”.
Take a copy of their timetable, so you get to know what’s going on each day and really listen when they open up about their schooling and ask questions to find out more. Make an effort to remember some of the facts, subjects or names they’ve mentioned, so that you can discuss how things are going a few days later. If they’re not happy about something, encourage them to think about how they could improve the situation.
Help support any burgeoning friendships by inviting new friends over for a meal one evening or weekend, or supporting your child if they are invited somewhere.
Help where you can. Where the school asks for your involvement, do make an effort to co-operate. Read through the parent information in their school diary, sign their homework diary or practice book, ensure you read and respond to any letters they bring home, attend parent evenings, and encourage a set time and place for them to study at home. If you can, support school events, help run extra-curricular activities or join the parents’ forum or PTA. Show your children that you’re keen to be involved in their schooling and your enthusiasm may just rub off!
Abundance of activities. Secondary schools will hold a host of extra-curricular activities at lunchtimes, after or before school, so try to encourage your child to attend some of these. It will help them make new friends and become integrated into school life, as well as extending and developing their own interests and skill sets.
If there are problems. Most schools have staff available to help if your child is experiencing problems settling in. If you’re worried, contact your child’s teacher and have a chat. Find out what pastoral care is on offer at the school and ensure your son or daughter is getting all the help and support they need.
Be positive. Giving support, help and encouragement and being positive are the main ways in which you can help your child as they settle in. Encourage them to share any problems they’re having with you or Mum. If they only have negative things to say at the school, try asking specifically what they do like. Ask what they miss most about their primary school, or what’s the scariest part of their new school, and then work on ways together to help overcome these hurdles.
Talking through issues and concerns with your son or daughter helps build their confidence and supports them to cope with the worries they might be experiencing. Be patient and understanding if they’re moody or irritable, look for ways to boost their self-esteem and praise them for every small achievement. That way they’ll know that in the midst of all this upheaval, you’re totally on their side.