New Beginnings

5th July 2019

This September, more than 600,000 British children will be moving on from primary to secondary school and starting an exciting next step in their educational journey. Lisa Botwright offers some tips on how parents can best support their children through this potentially daunting time…

Having grown used to ruling the roost in their current education setting, 11-year-olds across the country are facing up to being the littlest in the school, once again, when they move on to secondary school this autumn. Even the most confident child will be wondering, ‘will I make friends?’, ‘will the teachers be strict?’ and ‘will I be able to find my way around?’.

Parents, remembering their own decades-old sense of trepidation, will have their own niggling concerns and fears too – all underpinned with the bittersweet knowledge that their baby is growing up too fast.

Nonetheless, according to Dr Anna Colton, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with children and adolescents, the most important thing that we can do, as parents, is frame the transition as entirely positive. Acknowledge your child’s concerns and validate them, certainly, but try not allow negative feelings to outweigh positive ones. Dr Colton advises that we consciously refer to this challenging next step as ‘an adventure, an exciting world of opportunity; with the right support, a chance to learn, meet new people, explore new places and develop new friendships’.

One of the hardest parts of navigating parenthood is ‘letting go’, understanding when to step in and when to hold back – but allowing your child to ‘feel the fear’ is an essential part of building resilience, counsels Dr Colton, as is reminding them that learning to cope with change is a life skill they’ll need at every step of growing up.

Kate Hurley, author of The Happy Kid Handbook agrees. When our little ones are scared or nervous, it’s tempting to want to jump in and ‘fix’ things for them immediately, but while being a loving parent is all about creating a safe space and being emotionally present for our children, there’s a tricky balance. ‘Children need to experience discomfort so that they can learn to work through it and develop their own problem-solving skills,’ Kate writes. ‘Without this skill-set in place, kids will experience anxiety and shut down in the face of adversity’.

Communication, as ever, is key. Have a casual chat with your 11-year-old, and find out what’s on his or her mind. Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm recommends asking open questions and helping them come up with their own practical strategies. ‘What would you do in this case?’ ‘Who would you talk to?’ Really listen to their answers. Praise their problem-solving skills, by reminding them of issues they’ve already learnt from and overcome successfully. (‘Remember how worried you were about staying away overnight at your school residential, but you had so much fun,’ for example, and ‘I was so proud of the way you made up with Lauren after your misunderstanding. You explained how upset you were, and you both talked things through.’) ‘Children are learning to deal with ‘challenges’, not cope with ‘problems’ – it’s an important distinction,’ reminds Linda. ‘You can’t – and should never aim to – solve every challenge your child faces’. Instead, we should be focusing on equipping children with the emotional language they need to talk about their feelings.

So what makes a successful secondary school transition? A study by the University of Oxford identified these key factors: that children had greatly expanded their friendships; they had adapted well to new routines; they had settled so well in school life that they caused no concerns to their parents; they were showing a positive interest in their schoolwork and they were finding work completed in Year Six to be very useful for the work they were doing in Year Seven.

It’s the first factor, undoubtedly, that causes the most angst. Some children might be moving on with their primary school peers, but will still be worrying that their best friend won’t be in the same class, and the mean girl will; others may be moving away and going to a school where they don’t know anyone at all. Dr Colton consulted on a BBC initiative that involved speaking to a number of primary-aged children (see www.bbc.com/startingsecondaryschool) and says, ‘fitting in and friendships are the biggest concerns; after these, everything else is bearable’. Nonetheless, she cautions that ‘making friends takes time; sometimes the whole of the first year’; something we, as parents, shouldn’t be afraid to point out.

On a practical level, find out everything you can about what your new senior school is doing to facilitate social connections. There is bound to be at least one taster day; but some schools also offer summer sports camps, or extra activity days. Remind your child that everyone is in the same boat, that everyone is just as nervous as each other – and challenge them (turn it into a fun game) to speak to at least one new person that they don’t already know each day. ‘A healthy risk,’ Kate Hurley suggests, ‘is something that pushes a child to go outside of their comfort zone, but results in little harm if they are unsuccessful’. She gives the examples of trying a new sport over the summer, or striking up a conversation with a shy peer. ‘When kids avoid risk, they internalise the message that they aren’t strong enough to handle challenges. When kids embrace risks, they learn to push themselves.’

Now is also the time to encourage greater independence. If your child is likely to be taking the bus or train to school, do the journey with them once yourself, so that they learn the ropes safely, but then get them to go alone or with a friend. They’ll be exhilarated at their success and it will be one less thing to worry about before the start of term.

Build on the independence you’ve already started to allow them by giving them extra responsibilities. Give them a budget to buy the ingredients themselves from the local shop, and ask them to make dinner one night. Ask them to settle the bill in a café. Celebrate their growing maturity by helping them decorate their room in a more grownup way, and by moving things around so that they can have a private ‘hanging out’ space if they bring friends home.

Be very careful with the language you use to describe this next step. One Year Six teacher, based in Watford, told me that she cautions parents not to use the word ‘big school’ since some children misuse the phrase to internalise their image of the setting as somewhere huge and scary. Stick to just ‘secondary’ or ‘senior’ school. She also gets exasperated with parents who tell their children that they’ll ‘miss them so much’. “The last thing the child needs,” she points out, “is any residue guilt over being happy.” Her top tip is to “step back from the mollycoddling”; she says frankly, “parents have more power than they realise to shape the transition”.

It’s okay for you and your child be emotional during the last few weeks of the summer term. Is a Leavers’ Assembly anything other than a vehicle to make you want to sob your heart out? But dry your eyes… there’s a big adventure to plan!

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