Ask the Expert: Sensitive son to start secondary school this year

As well as being there to support your son, try to see it also as a time of great opportunity for him. Photograph: Getty Images

As well as being there to support your son, try to see it also as a time of great opportunity for him. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 01:00

Q I’m the parent of a very shy and sensitive boy who is due to start secondary school in September. I’m quite worried about how he will cope with the transition. He has gone to a small local primary school and has had great teachers. Now he will have to travel a bit to the secondary school, which is much bigger and more impersonal. He will also be mixing with older boys and teenagers and I just wonder how he will manage all this. He will be just 13 in September and it will all be a big change. To be honest he does not seem too worried and this makes me wonder if I am just being an overanxious mum. However, I would like to know if there are practical things I can do to help him cope.

A The transition from primary to secondary school is an important one and most people remember it as a significant life event. Primary school can be a relatively protected environment in which you have to deal with only one teacher and a single class. In secondary school you have to deal with multiple teachers and a complicated timetable with a large range of subjects, as well as dealing with being the newbie in a big school. In addition, the academic pressures can mount up, with increased homework demands, more frequent tests and reports as well as the pressures of formal State exams looming in the future. In addition, starting secondary school comes at a challenging time when teenagers are already experiencing the surge of hormones, peer pressures and the struggle to fit in. As a result, you are right to be sensitive to your son as a parent and to think carefully how to support him through this important transition.

Tune into your own anxiety

Before thinking how to help your son, it is important to tune into your own feelings and to separate your own parental anxieties from those that might be relevant to your son. For most parents, the start of secondary school represents another step in their children pulling away and becoming independent, and this brings mixed feelings. For others it heralds the teenage years and all the worries that this can bring: conflict, sexuality, getting in with the wrong crowd, and so on. Be aware of your worries, but be careful about projecting them on to your son. It can help to talk with your partner and/or other parents about what you are feeling. Many will identify with you and be able to offer support.

Prepare your son for his new

routine It is helpful to sit down with your son and prepare him for

starting his new school. Try to get as much information as possible from the school about the routine, the expectations and the rules. Once school starts, get a copy of subject lists and weekly class routines, and go through this with your son. Make a regular habit of reviewing each subject with him. Ask him what each subject is about. What has he learned? What does he think of the teacher? Having this regular conversation not only gives you a sense of how your son is doing but encourages him to engage with the subject and value his learning. Take an active interest in his homework and establish a daily routine of reviewing it with him.

Support your son’s friendships

A key part of your son settling in school is establishing friendships with some of his classmates. If some of his original class

mates from primary school are joining him in the new school, this should make things easier. If this is not the case, take time in the first few weeks to discuss new classmates and potential friendships with him.

You can support new friendships in the first months by facilitating children to visit your home or by driving your son with potential friends to an event or activity. Tune into and notice what support your son might want and need in this regard.

Get to know the school support network

Most schools recognise that first-year students need special support to settle and get used to the new routine. Many assign an understanding year head and/or class tutors to first years, and some have a prefect or “buddy” system in which older teenagers support the younger ones and show them the ropes. In addition, many schools have active parents’ associations and/or organise parent evenings for the parents of new students, as well as special support staff such as school counsellors or guidance teachers. Make sure to get to know the support network in your son’s new school: you may wish to make an initial contact and ask them what supports they have to help a relatively shy child settle in.


curricular activities A good way for children to settle in secondary school is to get involved in one or two extra

curricular activities that match their interests and talents, such as drama, sports, chess or languages. This not only provides them with a break from study but it allows them to make friends, with children they have something in common with. Review what is available with your son.

Put things in perspective

Although it is a significant life event, the transition to secondary school usually goes well and frequently parents worry more about it than their teenagers. In addition, some children thrive in the secondary school environment and respond to the extra challenge and enjoy the increased responsibility. As well as being there to support your son, try to see it also as a time of great opportunity for him when he can work out his own interests and passions and become his own person.

For more information there is a good Irish book The Essential Parents’ Guide to the Secondary School Years by Brian Gilsenan, published by Primary ABC.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and director of the Parents Plus charity. His latest book, Parenting Teenagers, is out now. See