Remember when you waved your child goodbye on their first day of Kindergarten and quietly shed a tear whilst thinking “thank goodness we got through that”?
Well think again, because the transition from primary to secondary school can be just as challenging for some young people and their families according to scientific research. For most young people this is an exciting time filled with new experiences and challenges. However, it may also be a worrying and anxiety provoking time for some young people who feel overwhelmed by unfamiliarity.
Studies have shown that the disruptive nature of the transition process can contribute to students becoming disengaged from both academic and social domains.
Increasing research effort is being directed to better understanding why this transitional period may be so critical and also how young people and their families can be better prepared to move through this developmental milestone as smoothly as possible.
Why is the primary to secondary school transition seen as critical?
There are various factors that contribute to this transition being an important developmental crossroad. Firstly, young people move from a small, cohesive and predictable learning environment to a more heterogeneous setting where there is greater expectation for independent academic achievement and less teacher scaffolding. Secondly, changes in peer groups and social hierarchies can create concern about social acceptance consequently impacting levels of self-esteem, academic performance and psychological wellbeing.
Young people typically transgress through a developmental model where validation and praise from adults are initially considered critical to developing a strong sense. This tends to later be superseded by the strong desire to ‘fit in’ socially and be accepted by the peer group. Lastly, adolescence in itself has been defined as “a crucial period of cognitive, psychosocial and emotional transformations” where a young person is navigating key developmental milestones including greater autonomy from parents, peer influences, exposure to substances and sexual activity as well exploring academic interests and abilities. This is coinciding with a time where hormonal and brain-based changes are rapidly occurring including changes in the levels of reproductive and stress hormones, as well as changes in gray matter volume in the brain, and the growth and pruning of synapses.These changes have important implications for behaviour typically observed during adolescence such as dysregulated sleep patterns, poorer impulse control and heighted intensity of emotional reactions.
Taken together, research suggests that whilst this turbulent transitional period can be challenging, support from parents, teachers and peers play a critical role in shaping young people’s educational experiences and outcomes.
Key predictors of a smooth primary to high school transition: how we can help
- Students’ sense of belonging and well-being
An important determinant of a student’s adjustment to a new school is their overall sense of belonging and socio-emotional functioning (ie. well-being). An increased sense of belonging and feeling socially connected may lead to increased motivation and academic achievement. Studies have shown that students who feel socially alienated at school tend to produce poorer grades and are at increased risk of dropping out of school. Practical implications may include considering schools for your child that have similar values, belief systems or philosophies to that of their primary school or even the family unit. Interestingly, studies have shown that attendance at local primary schools increased the likelihood of a smoother transition into a local high school suggesting that familiarity (e.g., friendships, demographics etc) has a strong impact on how children settle into a secondary school environment.
It is also important to give your child a voice when selecting the school they believe will be most comfortable for them. Try not to instruct your child but instead listen and try to understand their preferences or concerns. It can be useful to ask “What should we do about this?” so that your child experiences some control and independence through the process consequently enhancing feelings of confidence and wellbeing.
- Family-School Connections
It is well established that positive parental and teacher involvement have a strong impact on successful educational outcomes. Studies have shown that parents who provide a constant support to their children, monitor their activities and intervene constructively are more likely to have children who experience smooth school transitions. Teachers who have had previous exposure to a new cohort of students attending their school have shown to better meet their instructional, behavioural and social needs compared to teachers who were not familiar with transitioning students. Indeed, when parents, primary and secondary school staff are in contact with each other via multiple forms of family-school communication, disparity in school performance due to other factors (e.g., income and language barriers) can be reduced. Such research implicates the importance of early family-school communication and involvement.
Many schools run high school transition and orientation programs to familiarise new families to the school as well as providing an opportunity to discuss transition concerns. If possible, ensure your child is signed up for these and in the event your school does not offer such programs, find out what transition services and supports your child’s new school does provide. For example, some schools offer specific services to support a positive transition including; family meetings to discuss parent and teacher expectations, social gatherings to provide opportunities to meet other families, peer-support or ‘buddy’ programs, and support groups for parents as their children transition etc. It may also be useful to find out the name of the teacher responsible for your child’s overall care (e.g., attendance, social and academic progress). This teacher may be a called home-room teacher, year advisor or pastoral care teacher. Make personal contact with this person early to personally introduce yourself and ask any questions you believe are useful to facilitate a positive transition for your child. If your child has special needs or comes from a disadvantaged or culturally and linguistically diverse background, it is critical that early contact is made with relevant staff to ensure the correct supports are established. This may include the use of portfolios for mapping and supporting intensive, individualised transition that encourage appropriate participation that is culturally and linguistically relevant.
- Positive Parenting Strategies
A commonality across students’ different transition experiences is the benefit of positive support from parents and carers.
It is important that parents and carers aim to foster their child’s skill development in the following areas; growing independence, self-care, making friends, separating from the parent/career and readiness to learn. The literature offers several practical strategies that parents and careers can implement to support their child’s cognitive, social and emotional development, mental health and wellbeing in preparation for adapting to a new environment. Some of these include:
– Organising visits to the school grounds on weekends to familiarise children to the idea of starting school and the physical surrounds. This can be helpful to reduce uncertainty and create a familiar association with the new school environment for your child
– Practicing active listening skills to encourage children to share their thoughts, feeling and concerns about starting school. It is useful to respond in a validating manner that normalises their concerns and to focus on creating a simple step-by-step approach to reach a realistic solution.
– Ensuring that children arrive at school on time with all the necessary equipment so that they feel prepared (e.g., packed lunch, stationery, hat, gym gear, water bottle etc).
– Practicing problem-solving strategies to help them deal with the unexpected.
– Support their social and behavioural skills by encouraging them to take turns, listen and follow instructions as well as asking for help if they do not understand what the teacher is asking.
– Facilitating children’s social emotional development by assisting them to learn self-awareness and management, social awareness, decision-making and relationship skills.
– Creating opportunities for children to get to know peers who will be in their class. Studies have shown a strong association between having a familiar peer in the same class and increased academic competence, improved social skills and a reduction in behavioural and adjustment difficulties.
– Encourage children to participate in extracurricular activities and hobbies as participation has been associated with increased school commitment, positive engagement and social networks.
– Establish consistent routines and expectations at home for; before and after school (eg., getting ready, transport, homework, sporting commitments), meal times (e.g., balanced diet) and bed time (e.g., wind down routines, electronic media curfews, consistent sleep-wake cycles).
What if my child appears to be struggling with the transition process?
It is normal for children to display behavioural changes and emotional ups and downs during the early stages of school transition phases. However, if these changes persist beyond the first 6 to 8 weeks, begin to impact your child’s everyday functioning or you are simply concerned, it is important to intervene early.
It is helpful to talk to your child, discuss your concerns with the school and also seek professional advice to ensure your child is able to reach their full socio-emotional and academic potential.
Signs that your child may be struggling with the primary to high school transition may include:
– Little or no interest in talking about their new school
– Little or no talk about new friends
– Little or no motivation to complete homework
– Appearing sad, moody or irritable
– Avoidance behaviour (e.g., school refusal or low motivation to attend school)
– Somatic complaints
– Changes in sleep or appetite
– Social isolation or withdrawal
– A reduction in grades or academic performance
– Low confidence or self-esteem – your child might say they are ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’
– Increased anxious behaviour (e.g., checking, perfectionism, need to control, preoccupation with physical appearance)
In sum, while the transition from primary to high school is an exciting time for most young people, it can be a stressful developmental crossroad for some children and their families. It is important that parents are well informed and respond to their children’s needs in a supportive and sensitive manner.
If you are concerned about your child, do not hesitate to seek professional advice because at the end of the day, a child’s wellbeing is every parent’s
Dr Cristina Cacciotti Saija (PhD, USYD) is an experienced clinical psychologist and researcher with expertise in the assessment and treatment of youth and adult mental health difficulties. She is also a busy Mum of two.
Dr Cristina Cacciotti Saija offers private consultations at Uspace, St Vincent’s Private Hospital Darlinghurst, Ph (02) 8382 9760.
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