First year in secondary school: a survival guide

Teachers and students share their tips for making the transition to a new school a positive experience for pupils . . . and how parents can help

Beginning secondary school is one of the landmark moments in a child’s life, but new beginnings can bring both excitement and anxieties for incoming first-year students.

"There are two major transitions to make – the first social, the second academic," explains Jenny Crampton, guidance counsellor at Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which has about 850 pupils.

“How big a transition it is depends on the student and the type of school they’ve come from,” she says. “If they are coming in with friends from a local school, and they’ve used the facilities here for swimming or hockey, it can be less of a transition. Whereas if they are coming in as a single student and have never visited, it can be a big transition.”

However, arriving into secondary school without a group of primary school friends can have its benefits too, she adds. “It may be very hard initially when you know nobody. However, what happens is you are pushed to branch out, whereas if you come with a group from your school it’s very easy to stick with them. So, long-term, it may mean you meet a wider group of people.”


So what about the academic leap from junior to senior school?

“That transition always was a big leap, but the new Junior Cert should make it a little bit more seamless,” says Crampton, who has been a teacher for more than 30 years. “It’s more self-directed learning, it’s less exam-based and more group work with classroom-based assessments, so all of that is following through on what they have done in primary school.”

Schools adopt a variety of methods to make the first days at second-level less stressful. At Newpark, all incoming first years – from more than 30 feeder primary schools – attend an assessment morning during sixth class, which includes a break for socialising. Students who need extra supports also come in on another morning for targeted activities. In addition, Crampton and her colleague Eoin Norton go out to meet students at larger feeder schools, and give them advice on what to expect.


One topic they always focus on is organisation. “It is the key word throughout first year,” says Crampton. “There will be so much going on in your head emotionally that if you can organise yourself it’s a big start. I suggest getting those large mesh zipped pockets for each subject and keeping everything they need for each class in it. This means that at their locker they can just pull out the one they need. We’d also advise them to put a little timetable up in their bedroom, with reminders: Monday, PE gear; Tuesday, home ec stuff, so they’re not forgetting things.”

So what can parents do to help prepare their children coming into second level? “It’s about supporting them emotionally and practically,” says Crampton. “If your kid doesn’t know anybody, help them to meet one or two people beforehand. Help them to become organised, to get and name their books and uniform, to buy and organise folders for each subject, to make the timetable and stick it up. Show them how to use the homework journal, and how to organise their locker. However, it’s important that they have ownership of it all. It’s showing them how, but not doing it for them.

“Parents can also help students with their expectations,” she continues. “It’s important for them to know it’s okay to be nervous. Let them know that they can expect to be a little bit scared, maybe even feel a bit lonely. Acknowledge that it may be a tricky time, but they will get through it, like they did when they started primary school.”

Helping children to overcome initial anxieties is a big step towards independence. “Most new students will want to be left at the door or in the car park or at the bus,” says Crampton. “A few might need that extra bit of support for the first couple of days, but if a child is anxious the only way they are going to get over their anxiety is by facing the fear of coming into school. There’s nothing worse than seeing your child upset but you have to build resilience.”

Many first years may also have issues settling into their new school and routine. “For some students, that means they don’t find a friend. For other students, if they are not organised, or if they find some learning difficult, it’s trying to keep up that becomes a problem,” says Crampton.

“If you are not settling in, it may help to join lunchtime clubs, sports and/or drama. It’s also about basic things like turning around and saying ‘hello’ to whoever is sitting beside them. Parents can help them practise. Give them a sentence to say: ‘Hi, what primary school did you go to?’; or ‘Have you joined any sports groups?’. It’s only a one-liner but they sometimes need even a little bit of help with that.”


Constant conversation with your new first year is key, notes Crampton, especially if they are not settling in. “Ask them how’s it going? Who did you sit with today? And it has to be non-judgmental. Parents are sometimes too quick to jump in with advice, when maybe all they have to do is listen. If a student has had a bad day, all you need to do is hear what they are saying. Rather than reacting, it’s about reflecting and responding. We can’t fix everything for kids. It’s hard to see them upset and saying they don’t have friends, but I wouldn’t be jumping up to ring the school. If you continue the conversation you’ll very often find that they do have a friend. It just may not be the tight friendship that they want now.

“If you jump in too quickly you are supporting their anxiety. Instead, give them gentle encouragement. Have you joined the rugby? Have you joined the drama? Keep the conversation going but sit back and reflect for a week or two to see what’s really happening.”

Another factor that parents, and teachers, need to be conscious of, notes Crampton, is that some children don’t want, or need, lots of friends. “They don’t want to be part of the group. They are happy on their own, or they are happy with their one friend, and we have to be careful that we don’t make them feel that there is something wrong with that.”

However, parents will see indicators if their child is very unhappy, she says. “They’ll be upset. There will be a real change in character. They may not want to sleep. If they’re not coming to school it’s gone too far.”

If problems do arise, form teachers should be the first port of call, says Crampton. “They are on the ground and see them every morning. They know the group dynamics.”

If a child reaches her door it can mean they are finding secondary school a challenge. “However, I’m usually only doing what the parent can be doing at home, teaching them a few little skills. Often, it’s just about letting them know what’s out there and giving them a gentle nudge. Sometimes when they start school they are so overwhelmed with everything that they forget what’s available to them. It can be just about helping them to pick apart their little worries and getting them to see that they can do something about it.”

While students need to become independent, it’s also important that parents stay involved, stresses Crampton, both through parents’ associations and with their child’s progress. “Keep looking at the homework journal. Our journal is a form of communication so you can see if they’ve had positive stickers or negative stickers. We also use VSware now, which means parents get a code and you can see your child’s attendance, their behaviour, their reports etc all online. You can’t leave it all to the school. You can’t say, ‘but I didn’t know they hadn’t done their homework’ and it’s now Christmas. The note may have been in the journal. Take responsibility and look through your child’s copybook every so often.”

Social media

Social media is another area where parents need to stay involved, she adds. “It’s a huge issue and parents need to take responsibility for it. In first year, it’s not a bad idea to have access to their social media accounts. You are handing them an adult piece of equipment which can cause huge problems. You have got to teach them the tools to use it safely and without being mean to others, otherwise they are learning from each other and that’s not a good thing.” Keeping phones or devices out of rooms at night is also a “no-brainer”. “It’s not good for their sleep patterns or their mental health.”

First year can turn out to be a honeymoon period for many students, observes Crampton. “They are all on their best behaviour with each other because it’s important for them to be in a group, to have an identity. However, usually about February you’ll find the group dynamics come into play and second year is actually the year that many parents find the most challenging and trickiest in terms of friendships.”

Finally, says Crampton, parents need to remember that first year can be exhausting. “Even getting buses in the morning can be tiring. They are tired by Halloween but by Christmas they are flattened, so allow them to be flattened.”

Advice for students by students

This September sees only the third intake of first-year students at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in Dublin. However, guidance counsellor Alice O’Connor, who previously worked at a large second-level school for boys, says that despite a smaller school population, students experience many of the same teething problems.

“There were more bodies, and more teachers to get to know in the larger school, but the students here face the same organisational and social challenges and stresses.

“They have to learn to navigate the school building and the school day. They have to learn to manage their locker and to be organised for each class. They have to learn responsibility and to find their place. Being in a smaller group also means relationships can be more intense, which brings different challenges.”

We asked some of Stepaside’s current students to compile a list of tips for new first-year pupils across the country.

Our survival guide for first years

Starting secondary school can be an anxious and troubling time for new students. We are ‘Relationship Keepers’ at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School, which means we are trained to help everyone in the school environment get along, and to spread ‘peace, love and positivity’. All of us remember beginning first year, and know it can be really difficult and scary, so here are our top 10 tips to make your life easier:

1. Take care of your things and they'll take care of you. Put your name on your belongings.

2. If you're prepared you'll never be scared. Take time to get used to getting around the school and using lockers.

3. School is scary, be there early. Plan your journey to school before you start in September and do trial runs.

4. Take responsibility for what you do.

5. Try everything and anything. Give sports and clubs a go.

6. Try to get along with everyone, or else you'll be left without anyone.

7. Meet new people on the first day and they'll be your friends till you're old and grey! Socialise. Don't be afraid to approach people.

8. Focus on schoolwork, but have fun – it's for six years, hon!

9. Be you, because you is the best you you could possibly be, because there is no one that is you-er than you.

10. School is hard, but remember – keeping positive will help you get far.

Best of luck!

Written by Dominic Newman, Sadhbh MacLaughlin, Phares Osa Amadasun, Nicole O'Neil, Lillie Power and Cuan Weijer