Moving from primary to secondary school can be a really exciting time full of positive change, but it can also be a time where young people feel overwhelmed and anxious. This transition period involves many changes: the physical environment, new rules and expectations, change of peer group, change of teachers, increasing independence, and different ways of learning. Puberty often begins around this time too, often bringing with it significant emotional upheaval, making it a very challenging time for some young people. Being mindful of all these factors and supporting children appropriately during this time will promote a positive transition from one stage of their lives to another.
What are some of the common concerns and issues that occur around this transition?
Children often worry about the different demands that will be placed on them such as homework expectations, having to find their way around a larger school, and getting used to different teachers or lessons. They may also have strong emotions about leaving their primary school and may experience a sense of loss around this. Children who are already struggling with anxiety or need more routine in their lives to feel safe may find this transition particularly challenging.
Common signs that a child may be struggling with the transition include:
- Becoming socially isolated
- Becoming withdrawn at home
- Showing signs of low confidence and self-esteem.
- Emotional outbursts (dysregulation) at home
- Avoidance of school
It is important to recognise however, that the signs may be more subtle, and can vary significantly from one individual to the other.
What are the key ingredients for a successful transition?
Research from University College London (TES, 2022) followed children on their primary school journey, gaining their views on what was most important to them regarding secondary transition. They found that during the transition to secondary school, young people needed:
- A sense of competence
- A sense of agency
- A sense of feeling connected to others
How can this be achieved?
- Encourage children to explore and express their feelings.
- Find ways to help them connect to the school and feel part of the school community.
- Explore building relationships and friendships with them.
- Helping to build their confidence by supporting them to pursue their strengths and interests.
What can parents do to support this?
Simply being there if your child wants to talk about their worries, concerns or expectations and being able to acknowledge and validate their feelings.
Opening up conversations and supporting children to explore their thoughts can be the most useful way of supporting your young person.
Making sure that you mark the end of the primary phase and give them the opportunity to say goodbyes and express any sadness or worries they may have about leaving may also be important.
It may be helpful to create a worry box at home, where concerns about secondary school can be recorded and discussed together, perhaps thinking of ways to problem solve any of these worries together.
You could share your own experiences of change and how this made you feel. It can be really useful for your young person to be able to normalise some of the anxious feelings that they may have about change and to see you model managing tricky situations.
Start to connect with the new school and find out if they offer an enhanced transition if this is needed or simply explore the website together and plan the route they will need to take to get there.
Some young people might find it helpful to have a transition book detailing key people, places and information to refer to over the summer break, to support their understanding and expectations, and reduce anxiety.
Finally, think about ways to help them develop their skills in relationship building and meeting new people. This could be through organised events in the Summer or using opportunities at home to help build their confidence and independence.
Remember, you are your child’s safe space and play a key role in helping them to stay regulated in the face of change.
What can schools do to support?
Ongoing communication between primary and secondary schools is key for a smooth and successful transition.
It can be really useful to consider if there are any opportunities for secondary and primary school staff to connect in order to promote familiarity and consistency of support where possible. This continuity can be key in helping young people feel a sense of safety and security, as well as ensuring that they feel confident and competent to manage this next step in their education.
Ensuring that staff teaching year 7 are considerate of this transitionary period and are able to offer a more nurturing role for the first few months of the adjustment period is vital. Viewing Year 7 as a transition year to focus on the development of positive relationships, to foster confidence and to help children adjust to the changes can be a useful attitude for school staff to adopt.