As a twin, I was lucky. When I moved from my small primary school to a much larger secondary school, I had my twin sister alongside me. We were separated into different classes, but I knew I had someone there if need be. My abiding memory of moving to secondary school was how much older and more mature everyone seemed to me on that first day. I was filled with a mix of excitement and anxiety and, if I am honest, I felt overwhelmed.
When I think about it now I have the same feelings I felt that day, in my oversized and brand new uniform, trying to take everyone and everything in. I was scared.
For most children, moving from primary to secondary school can be a time of excitement, but it can also be a time mixed with worries. Will I be in a class with someone I know, will I make new friends, will I fit in, will I be able to find my way around the school, will I be able to keep up? The list of questions can go on and on. This change usually works out well but it is important not to underestimate what a big step it is for your child.
Remember that by the time your child reaches sixth class in primary school, they usually feel very familiar with their environment and have built up a friendship or group of friends. They tend to be well established and familiar with the school routine, know their teachers well and have a real sense of identity with the school.
After the summer break, they go from being the oldest and most senior pupils in their primary school to the youngest and most junior members of their secondary school. Just to complicate this, most are also going through puberty and all that goes along with becoming an adolescent; striving for independence, working out their identities and their sense of themselves and, most of all, trying to fit in and find their peer group.
There are many ways in which parents can support their child through this time of change, especially in the first few months. Children and adolescents are resilient, maybe far more than we give them credit for; they will find their way, with the guidance and support of their parents and the school.
Our job as parents is to tune in and keep an eye on how they are getting on through this transition, taking a genuine interest in their schooling and putting in place a few supports to help them through this stage.
On a practical level, prepare yourself and your child for the start of secondary school by making sure they are getting enough sleep, eating well and have some after-school activities in place, including some down time. Keeping family routines in place is really important, such as eating together as a family, establishing good night-time routines, and keeping up family time together.
When students start secondary school, they have more subjects to study. Many of these subjects will be new to them. Along with all these subjects, come lots of new books and resources. Unlike primary school, where they are mostly based in the one class with the one teacher, in secondary school pupils will have a timetable and will move around from class to class depending on the subjects.
Colour coding resources for different subjects can be helpful and makes it easier for the student to find what they need for a particular class.
It can be helpful to make sure to have copies of their school timetable so you are also aware of what classes they have that day. It is about taking an interest in their school work and how they are managing. Supporting them to establish a routine of getting their bag organised the night before can ease some of the pressures in the morning.
The amount of homework also tends to increase when a student starts secondary school and your child might need support in managing the timing of this.
Teenagers may find it more difficult to let you know how they are getting on, so it is important as a parent to tune into how you think they might be feeling and how they are getting on in their new school. Showing a genuine interest in their opinions of their new school and teachers and their fellow pupils is important. Being an encouraging and understanding parent is perhaps the most powerful support that you can give your child.
It is about trying to enter their world and understand what the experience is like for them. Rather than probing or asking too many questions, let them know you are there for them if they want to talk to you or if they are worried about anything. It can also help to open up to them about your experience of secondary school and how you felt those first few months. It’s about normalising their experiences.
Communicate with the school and keep on communicating with them. The school is there to help. Let them know if your child has any specific learning needs or diagnoses. It is also good to let them know if your child is experiencing low mood or anxiety, or experienced any bullying in the past. This will allow the school to try to put in appropriate supports to help your child.
Starting secondary school is a big step for your child. Most children find their way and settle in well. Taking an active role in setting them up for success and really tuning into their experiences and how they have found this move will allow you to support them step by step through this transition.
Now it’s time for you and your family to enjoy the remainder of these long summer days. Secondary school can be an exciting time, full of opportunities, where your child really begins to come into their own.
Sinéad Crowley is a child and adolescent play therapist and psychotherapist, with over 16 years’ experience of working in youth mental health.