For most children, starting high school means a new school, sometimes in a different suburb, with new friends and a new routine. KidsMatter asks Nick Clark, Dean of Student Wellbeing at St Kevin’s College, B.B.Sc.(Hons)., Grad. Dip. Ed.(Sec.)., M.Ed.Psych for his perspective on supporting children through this big step.

What are some of the stresses children experience when transitioning from primary school to high school?

Of course there’s the regression from being a big fish in a small pond back to being a small fish in a big pond.  This is, inevitably, a challenge and can take many forms, such as going from being the best athlete or musician or speller at primary school to being somewhere in the middle of the road at the new secondary school.

Notably, there’s also the demand on organisational skills, as suddenly the child has to manage a timetable with different classes and rooms, different teachers requiring different sets of books and adapting to each teacher’s different scholastic and behavioural expectations.  The skills of planning and organising depend on the development of the prefrontal cortex, an area of a young person’s brain that is still undergoing a great deal of development and in which boys are generally behind compared to girls.  Children can require a lot of patient support in learning these new routines.

The days at secondary school can also be longer and more tiring, perhaps due to sporting commitments before or after school and using public transport for first time.

Also, socially, new friendships form and established friendships are challenged in this new context and that can be a big challenge for some children too.

How can families support children to make the transition as smooth as possible?

I think there are two components to this – a practical one and an emotional one.  On a practical level, I think it helps when parents take the time to make sure they know their child's timetable and schedule, and assist in planning for each day's requirements, at least for the first term or so.  It is important to note, however, that I am not saying for parents to ‘do it for them', but to model 'how to plan'.

In terms of after school, I think plenty of afternoon tea and water, plenty of down time, playing outside or unstructured play between getting home and bedtime.  Many children will want screen time and I believe this is best kept to a minimum, such as an hour, and not between dinner and bedtime.  Unfortunately, there will most likely need to be some homework time, and helping children plan how to manage this will be important.  Homework can often seem so diverse and overwhelming for children (and parents) and I think some assistance in the planning and management of homework time is a powerful and valuable skill to be modelled for the child.  I would encourage parents to communicate with teaching staff if homework and pressure appears to be mounting excessively on your child.   Keep Friday nights and weekends to have enjoyable, relaxed time with family and friends.  Again, try to demonstrate that you, as the parent, are able to fit in high quality work time that is used efficiently for homework and other 'must-dos', as well as relaxing and enjoying time with your family.

On an emotional level, I would say that many parents would benefit greatly from getting a handle on their own anxieties around their child starting secondary school.  Perhaps they're worried about how their child will cope.  Perhaps they had a bad experience at school or during this transition and are worried that their child will too.  I would encourage parents to be very aware of the language they use and the messages they send around this – your child’s life is not your own.  The way questions are framed and comments are made communicates a great deal to a child.  For example, avoid negative questions like "Was anyone mean to you today?"  or "What went wrong at school today to make you in a bad mood?"  These questions can cause a child to focus on negatives and they may rack their brain thinking of something that went wrong that they can report.  Many children will just want some down-time after a day at school and not want to talk, but if you have to ask, perhaps try something open-ended, like “Tell me about something you enjoyed at school today.”

How can children’s friendships be affected during this time? And what are some of the ways families can support children with this?

It is not unusual for one’s best friend at the end of their school years to be the person they were sat next to on that first day of Year 7.  What does this say about how friendships are formed!?  Friendship and kindness are as precious as gold when one is feeling vulnerable at the start of secondary school, and children can quickly form a strong bond with someone who offers some of this.  In fact, these first-day-friendships can even be at the expense of established friendships as children put a lot of their time and energy into these new friendships.  If your child is one who forms new friendships quickly, I would recommend working to find time for your child to get together one-to-one with old friends, including those who are no longer at the same school, as while many of these new friendships do last, some can stop as abruptly as they started.

For other children, they will be the ones being neglected by old friends and perhaps struggling to make new friends.  This will be a particularly hard time as peer relationship issues add to all the other, practical stressors discussed above.  If your child is experiencing this, I would encourage you to talk to them about how things are going with friends at school.  And when I say ‘talk’, I mean mainly listen.  It will be about finding a balance of both validating what your child is telling you (e.g. “It’s hard when friends from primary school don’t want to play”) while focusing on what constructive things they could do.  Again, do not try to fix the situation for them (e.g. call the school to tell them that your child is being excluded and that they should instruct others to play with your child).  Rather, work to empower your child with conversation around, for example, "What could you say to Ben when he tells you to go away?" and "What else could you do at recess?"  If this is not enough then I would suggest contacting the school and seeking the teacher’s advice.  Teachers are very experienced in helping with this kind of transition issue and have many techniques for ensuring your child is included at their disposal.

Finally, I would suggest parents brace themselves for twelve and thirteen year olds’ online world.  Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook and a few other social media apps that have not yet been invented will represent a whole new, socially important and constantly changing world about which parents, most likely, know very little.  Again, if parents are concerned about online issues, the school is a good place to start in seeking support and guidance.

Children go through different developmental stages at different times, how might a child’s development affect how they manage transition to secondary school?

Such a good question, I'm so pleased you asked about this.  This is something that schools and parents need to be aware of and to manage.  Just to add to the complexity of things like number of siblings, birth-order, personality and broader family/life context, a child’s stage of development will have a large bearing on how this transition is made.  There are huge differences in where children are at developmentally, and it can be really unsettling when a child is thrown into close contact with another child far more or less worldly or aware of the teenage world than he or she is.

There is no quick fix for this.  Ultimately, it is a long road.  Unconditional love, being there and supporting your child both practically and emotionally will ensure that they manage in the end.  In saying that, there may be times when your child will benefit from the services of a school counsellor or psychologist and I would encourage you to utilise these services, where available.

The primary-to-secondary school transition can also be a time of stress for families. What can families do to look after themselves?

I think that it’s important to acknowledge this fact; that starting secondary school is a stressful time.  It is also a time that the family will manage together.  I would encourage parents to support one another in supporting their child.  And as I mentioned earlier, avoid exposing your child to your worries, as they will adopt them as their own.

Talk with other parents and, as also suggested before, raise any concerns with the school.  The school or local council will have information nights where the social and emotional development of twelve and thirteen year olds is explained, discussed and ordinary differences normalised.  As well as supporting each other in establishing and maintaining routines (especially on week days) parents can help ensure that term holidays are a real, actual break from the routine.

Finally, starting secondary school is also a wonderful and exciting time for many children and families.  Good luck and try to enjoy it, for soon they will be transitioning out of school and in to the next chapter of their lives!