How to Help Your Child Transition From Primary to Secondary School

Takeaway: Guide your child through her primary-to-secondary school transition by gradually giving her more responsibilities, talking to her about all the upcoming changes, and suggesting practical tips to tackle common secondary school problems. Importantly, remember that you’re not alone in all this. Teachers, other parents, and trained child specialists can help guide you through challenging moments, giving you the feedback and support you need.

Moving from primary to secondary school can be scary for young children.

The shift from primary to secondary school forces children to adapt to new challenges. For instance, there are new classrooms and teachers (with new teaching styles), longer school days, a new curriculum, daily homework and new classmates. Further, they go from being the oldest class in primary school to the youngest in secondary school. And as parents, we can never tell if the shift will be overwhelming or exciting until it happens.

These external changes are matched with an equally significant internal shift, too.

The transition to secondary school is primarily an inner process where your child adapts to all the external changes and becomes a new version of herself. And this adaptation happens only when the external changes are matched with an equally significant inner shift. This means facing and overcoming her fears about fitting in, being bullied, struggling in class, meeting teachers’ expectations, falling behind with homework, etc. And in the process, she’ll pick up valuable skills to improve how she socialises, studies, manages her time/energy, and more.

As parents, we need to track how our children cope with these new demands.

Secondary school can teach your child to be a more confident, independent person with the skills to tackle whatever life throws at her. And this can make her more optimistic and mentally strong. But it could also be overwhelming – too much of a challenge for her to tackle without help. So, it’s worth tracking how she responds to the first few weeks of school. If the transition is smooth, you’ll notice her make new friends, throw herself into school work, and embrace all the new routines and learning challenges. However, if she’s struggling, you might notice subtle shifts in her mood, sleep schedule, and eating habits. She might also seem more worried or preoccupied and start having frequent outbursts. Or she might begin to withdraw from the things she used to love doing. Most tellingly, she’ll likely also try to avoid school.

Thankfully, we can prepare for the transition by gradually building up to a new, more independent life.

You can help avoid this emotional overload by gradually building up to secondary school life. This way, you’re spreading out all the change over weeks/months, allowing your child more time to work through any complications. As a start, consider giving her small responsibilities throughout the week. Perhaps she can pack her school bag the night before? Or you can assign her extra homework on some days (with deadlines she tracks via a visual calendar). You could even give her pocket money she’ll use to ‘pay’ for meals at home each day, to prepare for handling money at school. It’s not about the activity or habit, but that she’s responsible for it. You’ll guide her with the tools and reminders she’ll need, but she’s the one in charge.

Equally critical, you’ll want to encourage her to talk about her fears.

Even as you challenge your child to be more independent, you’ll want to be there to support and encourage her. This means helping her explore what she’s feeling – both the happy, exciting feelings and the anxious, scary ones. So, talk to her about her worries, noting the types of fears she’s describing (we’ll come back to these in a bit). And if she’s struggling to share specifics, try sharing your memories of transitioning to secondary school. She’ll love to hear about your adventures, which might help her find parallels to the things she worries about.

As part of this talk, prepare her for all the changes she needs to process.

Your child might have a vague idea of what secondary school will be like, but you’ll need to fill in the blanks, so there are fewer surprises. This means discussing how there’ll be more subjects, multiple teachers, and different classrooms to move between. Ask her to tell you what she thinks all this means, and gently correct any misunderstandings. Remember to focus on the positives, though, and frame these changes in terms of how they’ll make secondary school more exciting than primary school.

After exploring the big picture, suggest some practical tips to tackle everyday challenges.

Now that you’ve covered some general themes, it’s time to offer practical tips to tackle specific challenges. Start by taking your child through the school’s website, looking for extra information you can use. For instance, they might display a floor plan (i.e., the school’s layout), outline their students’ daily routine, and have suggestions for the primary-to-secondary transition. Next, talk your child through what she can do if she’s confused or lost. For example, she could carry a school map with her, ask a teacher or another student for help, or always stick with a particular classmate for the first few days. Similarly, you could go through her timetable, explaining what the entries mean, how to get to various classrooms, and which teacher will be taking each class. (If you don’t yet know these details, encourage your child to write them down as she goes through her first day at school.) Also, discuss what she can do at break times. Perhaps she can go to the toilet (it’ll be marked on the map), visit the tuck shop, or retreat to the library for a bit? Finally, consider getting her a watch to track time better and stick to her schedule. What’s important here is to talk her through these scenarios – teaching her to problem-solve rather than shut down when overwhelmed.

Most importantly, encourage her to socialise and make new friends.

Your child will feel truly at home only when she’s built meaningful friendships. So, encourage her to socialise and meet new people even if friends join secondary school with her. Start by recalling the last time she made friends – specifically, where and how she did it – using this as a launch pad to brainstorm new ideas. For example, she could join fun extracurricular activities and make connections there. Or, she could ask her current friends to introduce her to their new secondary-school friends (perfect for if she’s particularly shy). Importantly, remind her to be approachable – smiling, making eye contact, and being curious about the people she meets. Also, give her a few conversation starters and coach her to ask open-ended questions. For example, asking, ‘What did you think of that teacher?’ will get classmates talking more than asking, ‘Did you like that teacher?’ (which encourages only a short yes/no answer).

And remember, there’s a network of people to help and support you through all this.

As parents, it’s easy to forget how many people we can turn to for help and support. For example, you could reach out to your child’s teachers for feedback or talk to other parents to compare experiences and give/get suggestions. And if your child needs more targeted support, consider contacting a specialist. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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