Big Fish Little Fish: Preparing your Child for Transition to Second-level school in September

Fidelma Healy Eames, PhD

Change can be daunting at the best of times. Given the uncertainty about school plans for September, it will require an extra dose of flexibility on the part of 6th class pupils finishing school this week. The absence of face-to-face school for the past three months took many teachers off-side and the preparation that would normally be done in intimate settings was removed.

For the past few weeks I’ve been running a webinar on ‘Transition to Second-Level: Preparing for Change’ which has attracted hundreds of parents and their 6th class children. The feedback has been revealing. The main purpose of the talk is to raise awareness about the transition from primary to second-level as a key defining moment in a child’s life, to discuss and examine ways to support them through this significant change.

In a 2016 ESRI study ‘Moving Up: The experiences of first year students in post-primary education’, the authors note ‘the transition from primary to post-primary education has been recognised as a crucial stage in young people’s schooling career. Young people’s experiences of the transition process can influence their subsequent academic and social development and difficulties during the transfer from primary to post-primary school can contribute to later educational failure’.  Certainly, a transition not to be taken for granted.

So how do we help our children? The evidence is that change is not as scary when young people know what to expect.

Taster days and visits to their new second-level school, where this happened, are most helpful. But it also helps to make this topic personal and to tell your story to your child – don’t be afraid to share your significant memories about what you found easy and hard about your transition and importantly, how you coped. It is good to think back so you can walk in their shoes. This will also be a useful reference point for both you and them in the future when they may be faced with an issue they are struggling with. Having shared your story you can genuinely say ‘I understand’ and they’ll be more likely to believe you!

What are the key changes your child will experience?

Changes happens across a number of areas There are school-based organisational changes. It could be summed up as ‘more of everything’ – lots of new faces – more teachers, more students, and more classes, even more lockers. Increased workload changes with homework now being assigned by a number of teachers each day instead of just one teacher. More tests including classroom-based assessments (CBAs) as part of the Junior Cert and the need for the young person to be organised and to begin to take responsibility for their own learning. These are significant changes after the intimacy of one dedicated teacher in primary school. This culture change is sometimes referred to as ‘big fish little fish’ – the senior pupils in primary school a few months ago are now the juniors in their new secondary school. Alongside all of this comes personal changes – physical changes – the longer school day, perhaps travelling on a bus/train, means they will be more tired initially until they adjust to their new timetable. Social changes – being accepted by their peer group is hugely important to them. Managing friendships – making, losing and maintaining friends while all part of growing up can sap a lot of energy and deflect from their schoolwork. Likewise, managing social media is a significant challenge that needs attention. And just when you think this is quite enough for anyone to handle, add in puberty!  Puberty is a time of rapid brain development and identity formation, with many emotional changes for boys and girls. Emerson describes it as ‘the passage from the unconscious to the conscious, from the sleep of passions to their rage’. I outline all of this because as parents we need to allow for this. Each change needs to be discussed and prepared for so it doesn’t come as a shock.

Listening to their concerns is vital. Having asked pupils what they are looking forward to and what they are worried about, it is quite normal to hear they are excited and nervous simultaneously. Many list being excited about making new friends, changing classes, more sports, school teams, the canteen and studying new subjects especially practical ones. Common worries listed include being lost or late for class, losing friends, being left out, bullies, getting into trouble, homework, study and tests.

A 2010 study by West et. al revealed that ‘after a year in secondary school (age 13), the majority recalled having had difficulties of adjustment to both school and peer groups at the beginning of secondary education. It was mainly pupils with ‘lower ability and lower self‐esteem, those who were anxious, and less prepared for secondary school, who experienced poorer school transitions’.

So how can you prepare your child to cope?

There are practical things that should be done eg., parents should walk the child through a map of the school, always know where reception is if they get lost, look at the timetable together and discuss which books they need with them before break, after lunch etc. Ask them how they would like to organise their locker, their sports gear, their room for study purposes. Give them the autonomy to tell you what would help them. I recall my son asking for big boxes to separate his stuff. Agree an evening homework routine bearing in mind dinner time and after school activities.  Visit the NCCA website and download the pupil passport which invites the child to complete a one-page profile about themselves. This is useful. They can carry this with them and provide a copy for each of their teachers if they are having difficulty communicating. Likewise, the parent can also complete ‘my child’s profile’ from their perspective.

Practical things aside, the real answer to coping with change lies in upskilling your child to be stronger emotionally and socially, so they can be more resilient, and learn to bounce back from setbacks. These are lessons that will serve them their whole life.

  1. Develop their emotional literacy – their personal and social competences. Personal competences include being self-aware; learning to self-regulate and manage their emotions and responses to situations; helping them to be motivated – set them up for success by agreeing short-term goals that they can easily achieve. Practise social competences such as empathy, listening, asking, holding eye contact – all critical to good social skills and developing relationships. These skills will not all be new to them. But observe them and anytime you see them practice these skills, affirm them.  
  2. Hang a copy of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on your fridge and whenever your child is feeling ‘off form’ ask them to point to where they’re at on the hierarchy. You normalise it by doing it too. A good conversation starter – it could simply be that they’re tired or hungry or that they have a friendship issue or not happy with their performance in some area. Positive mental health is always primary. While normal for teens to have mood swings, should you notice a new pattern developing that is out of character for your child, take note and discuss with your GP.
  3. I love the ‘five building blocks of self-esteem’ (Michele Borba). These are five senses to help them cope with change at any level – Sense of identity (who am I, what makes me unique?) , Sense of belonging (what helps me to belong?), Sense of security (when do I feel safe and secure?), Sense of competence (what am I good at/ love doing?) and Sense of purpose (what do I want to achieve/ What would I like to be?) You can discuss these ‘senses’ at anytime. Pose these questions in relation to their primary school and ask what would need to be in place for them to feel belonging, security, purpose, competence in their second-level school. Reassure them that their new school is very aware of helping them to settle in. Visit the school website together, review the school rules. Note all that it offers to address these ‘senses’ through its teachers, policies, curricula, special activities.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open – listen to them, encourage them. When they encounter a setback say ‘just another bump on the road’.  Encourage them to get involved in school activities – choir, drama, sport, debating. Especially encourage them to find a joy in learning, a subject they love. I learned so much about myself through literature. Get to know their friends, invite them round. These are the influences. Through all of this they are growing and developing and getting to know themselves.

As parents we have busy lives. Make an extra special effort to be more available from September to Halloween to help them settle in and get the new routine going. Together you have worked well in getting this far. And remember – your job is not to fix things or to remove frustration, anger, worries or disappointment, your job is to create the safety for them to feel it so they can deal with it. You are giving them their wings!

Dr. Fidelma Healy Eames is a teacher educator and Director of Study and Careers, specialising in Learning to learn, Wellbeing and Careers – www.studyandcareers.ie

For an appointment email: info@studyandcareers.ie or call 091-792017.

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