Smoothing the way into secondary

Moving to secondary school is one of the biggest changes in a child’s life. How can parents help?

Moving on up? “It is one of the first times you are going to have your beautiful child going into a situation that you can’t really control,” says teacher Ray Silke.

“Walking school bags” is one name for them. The first-year pupils arriving at their new secondary school, barely visible underneath a huge, brand new bag on which the zips have been strained to close over every item on their book list (unless they are enrolled in an e-learning school of course).

That’s the very obvious baggage they are carrying. Hidden from view is their inner turmoil about one of the biggest changes in any child’s life.

It’s an anxious time for parents too, particularly those going through it for the first time with an eldest child. They want to support their child but may be unsure of what to do.

“It is one of the first times you are going to have your beautiful child going into a situation that you can’t really control,” acknowledges Ray Silke, a teacher of business, economics and accounting at Coláiste Iognáid SJ, a co-ed school in Galway.


The latest research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on the transition to second-level education is a reminder to parents that there are other “players” making their presence felt in a child’s life at this stage.

The paper, written by Prof Emer Smyth and published in May, focused on the impact of a child's relationships with not just their parents, but also with teachers and peers, on how they adjust to the new school setting.

Drawing on data from the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study of young people aged nine to 13, it noted that girls were significantly more likely than boys to experience transition difficulties, even taking account of social background and other factors.

“In keeping with previous research, this appears to reflect the greater reliance of girls on the friendship networks they created at primary level.”

Generally, children with large friendship networks from primary school age found the move to second-level easier. But the quality of those friendships mattered, with those who trusted their friends doing better.

Young people who experienced praise and positive feedback from their first-year teachers were significantly less likely to experience difficulties making the transition. However, “perhaps surprisingly, negative interaction with secondary teachers did not have a significant effect”, adds Smyth.

Good communication Informal involvement by parents in their child’s life – ie good communication – seemed to be more important than their attendance at parent-teacher meetings and help with school work. Indeed, “having received help with homework from parents on a regular basis emerges as an indicator of academic struggle rather than of parental support per se, with fewer difficulties among those students who rarely or never received assistance from their parents”.

The findings, with more ESRI research on the topic due to be published in mid-October, also highlight how migrant groups and young people with special educational needs experience greater difficulties than their peers, even taking into account their performance at primary school. They also underline the importance of teacher-student relationships and a positive school climate, to support student adjustment and well-being.

However, parents who themselves experienced the start of secondary school as a matter of “sink or swim” can be reassured that there are lot more supports for children now, from the passing on of information from the primary school through the Education Passport, which has been compulsory since 2015, to induction programmes and the “buddy” systems that most schools operate, with every first-year pupil assigned to a student mentor.

Parents will also be glad to hear Breda Lynch – a maths teacher at Muckross Park College, an all-girls school in Donnybrook, Dublin – say that, in her experience, secondary-school teachers generally “love” teaching first-years. They like their innocence “because once they get into second year, they have developed attitudes and belong to a different world”.

Teachers make “huge allowances” for first years – right up to the end of October, she reckons. Certainly “no child in first year gets into trouble in the first two weeks for forgetting anything”.

One very important tip, she says, is “do not arrive on the first day with every book, every pen, every copy bought”. They will be told what they need to bring.

Muckross runs sports camps for first years before the first day of term and Lynch’s advice to parents is “sport, sport, sport. It gives girls a chance to meet other people in a different setting”.

There is always a contrast, she says, between girls who come in knowing lots of other girls and those who come in knowing nobody. She sometimes thinks the latter are better off, enjoying a fresh start rather than having to renegotiate existing friendships.

“The social skills are the big issues rather than the academic,” she stresses.

Psychotherapist and founder of Family Matters Clare Crowley Collier runs workshops with sixth-class pupils on moving up to secondary school. She says the children talk about experiencing a mix of emotions; often what they are most looking forward to is having their own locker.

The most common concerns they have include the size of the school and getting lost; all the different subjects and the amount of homework they will get; understanding their timetables and the school’s rules, and studying for exams. However, children tend to worry more about social issues such as friendship – changing friends, losing friends and making new friends; fitting in; peer pressure and bullying.

Part of the flock

Marie, a mother of two in Co Meath, recalls being quite apprehensive about her eldest child starting school. Her daughter was moving from a 200-pupil rural primary school to an urban school with more than 1,000 pupils.

“She was small for her age and, although not shy, she was self-conscious about her size and looking very young for her age. As with as lot of parents, I was very idealistic about how I was going to parent my almost- teenager,” she admits.

“I remember saying to her ‘be your own person’, ‘don’t be a sheep’,  ‘you don’t need those expensive branded shoes’, ‘so what if your skirt is very long...’  All ridiculous of course because 99 per cent of young teenagers want to blend in with their peers, not stand out, be a part of the ‘flock’.”

Marie learnt from that and before her son started secondary school, she asked around regarding the correct shoes to buy and didn’t buy him an enormous bag. Instead she worked with him to manage his “book mountain” on a daily basis.

So whether you are confident or fearful about your child’s leap into second-level education in the coming days, here are some of the common challenges for first-year pupils and what parents can – or can’t –  do about them:

ANXIETY A little anxiety is natural but parents have to be careful not to exacerbate it by piling on their own worries. They may remember it as an exciting or stressful time themselves, but it's important parents don't project this onto their children, says the CEO of the National Parents' Council, Primary, Áine Lynch. Rather, listen carefully to what they are saying about how they are finding it.

Don’t force conversations but try to allow them to happen naturally, following the child’s lead as to when they’re ready to talk.

“First year is just about getting to know a few people, settling well in and being happy in the school,” says Silke. “I don’t think parents should be overly focusing, in the first term anyway, on academics.”

He advises them to keep their lines of communication open, their antennae up for any potential problems and, if they think there is a difficulty, move on it sooner rather than later. The class teacher is usually the first person to contact.

“And stay chilled out,” he adds. If your son or daughter is stressing the worst thing you can do is put pressure on them.

EXHAUSTION A longer school day, probably extended further with sport, combined with a bigger workload and longer commute for many, makes for very tired first-year pupils in the early weeks. So don't take grumpiness at home personally, or as a sign that things aren't going well. They are simply exhausted.

“Giving them a little space when they get home can be helpful and plenty of time to rest,” advises Crowley Collier.

ORGANISATION Being required to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right books in a vast new school can seem very challenging to children used to being in the one room with the one teacher.

It’s a good idea, for the first couple of weeks, for parents to go through the timetable with them the night before and make sure they have the right books or gear in their bag for the following day,

“They just need skills in getting organised,” says Breda Lynch. “Most of them get it no problem but there are always a few who find it difficult.”

FRIENDSHIPS Nothing is more important to first years than negotiating relationships with peers. Some children will arrive as part of a network, others will go in knowing nobody – and there are pros and cons to both situations.

Some children who struggle with friendships in the primary-school environment find it easier in a secondary school, says Áine Lynch. They can identify like-minded people in a much bigger group.

Another common experience for many, in particular girls, is dealing with changing friendships, says Crowley Collier. They may be delighted that their best friend has been put into the same form, only to find that she starts spending a lot of time with other girls in the class and is becoming different.

“This can be a very painful and confusing time for a young person as they feel betrayed, hurt and alone. As a parent you can support your child by being there for them, giving them a hug as well as listening to and validating how they feel.

“Understanding their experience,” she adds, “can help you help them come up with ways of dealing with this changing friendship.”

As a year-head at Muckross Park College, Breda Lynch says very little of her time in dealing with problems was to do with anything academic. It was so often a girl feeling excluded while friends were out at the weekend and she was seeing it all on social media.

“It’s heartbreaking and there is no easy answer to it, but girls can be mean,” she says. “I wish I knew the answer to it.”

The feeling of not being part of the group, rather than exclusion, is much more severe than it used to be, due to social media. The leaving-out is not necessarily deliberate and she reiterates that sport can be the best way to make new friends, because it breaks down so many barriers.

Although now teaching at a co-ed school, Silke observes from his years teaching at all-boys’ school that first-year students there could find themselves isolated quickly enough, depending on whether they engaged in team sports and other things.

However, he believes the co-ed setting is more normalised and a superior approach for both sexes.

“The boys tend to talk down the girls from the hyperness and the giddiness and the girls show the boys the softer skills.”

The development of social skills and self-confidence that will make this transition smoother for children has to start long before this, Silke points out.

“Teachers are not wizards; they can’t sprinkle friendship dust all over the class.”

However, if teachers see children isolated, they do their best to intervene, but when children go to free areas or up the town, “there are oceans of opportunity to bully somebody”.

BULLYING Where there are feeder schools supplying groups of pupils to a secondary school, the transition of bullying from one to another is something to look out for.

“Not always everything gets left behind at primary school,” says Áine Lynch. “Sometimes the biggest thing they are worrying about is the child who is going with them.”

She thinks the best thing for a parent to do is to be upfront and discuss with the child how they might handle it if problems persist and whether or not they want the school to be alerted.

Every school has to have an anti-bullying policy now and parents should familiarise themselves with it.

NEW ROUTINES While there will be a knock-on effect for the whole household when a child moves from primary  to secondary  school, it's probably not wise to start treating them very differently immediately.

"There is a lot of change going on for children obviously at transition time, and if they suddenly start seeing major changes with the way their parents are acting as well, that can add to the sense of insecurity," says Aine Lynch. "When there's a lot of change, something staying the same is really reassuring."

Take the child’s lead, she suggests; if he or she comes home from school saying they don’t need you to do something anymore, listen to that.