STARTING SECONDARY SCHOOL
Updated: Sep 15, 2019
Supporting young people to thrive through secondary school transition
Transitioning to secondary school is a significant period in young people’s lives and it can be a cause of much anxiety for teens as well as their parents.
In many cases, young people are moving to a new school or campus where they may have a couple of friends or familiar faces joining them, or they may be going it completely alone. Then there are those who have large numbers of peers from the same primary school moving up together. It doesn’t matter what the circumstance, most young people face significant challenges during this period of transition.
For the ‘lucky ones’ who have the initial comfort of familiar faces by their side, it may seem like an easier road. However, this isn’t always the case. Often, young people in this situation worry that their old friends are moving on, making new friends and forgetting about them. Or they may cling to those they already know and inhibit their chances of broadening friendships. Some share classes with their primary school friends, others go it alone.
For the young ones who have few or no familiar faces from primary school, the experience can be extremely daunting. Worrying about who they can stand with, talk to, sit next to, hang out with at recess. It can be terrifying. I’m sure we all remember what the uncertainty felt like in those early days - I certainly do!
Worrying about these things is completely normal and most, if not all, young people contemplate their experience along the way. It is important that we educate young people about the challenges they will likely face and for them to know that they are not alone in how they feel or what they are going through.
Whilst difficult at times, transitioning to secondary school provides an opportunity to grow socially, emotionally and academically, and the experiences enable our young people to build resilience along the way.
So, what are the biggest concerns for students starting secondary school and how can we support them?
"What if people don’t like me and I can’t make friends?"
Young people tend to worry that they won’t fit in and that others won’t like them. Often this plays out in the first few weeks where they are constantly comparing themselves to their peers. The negativity bias, misinterpreting situations and self-doubt are all contributing factors that feed into this fear.
When I work with students who feel like they don’t fit in or haven’t found their ‘group’ yet, often their perspective is very different to my observations. A common theme is that they believe everyone else has stronger connections than they do. Observing their peers interacting and laughing with one another can feed insecurities and they start to question their self-worth, wondering why no one is noticing or talking to them. If students have the belief or fear that no-one likes them, they will naturally start to scan for evidence to support this view. This pattern often results in withdrawing, losing confidence and expecting others to approach them rather than actively initiating conversations.
The reality is, everyone is trying to find their way. Some students are more outgoing than others and appear to have stronger connections but this isn’t necessarily the case. Often the most ‘popular’ students feel lonely as well. This is hard for young people to grasp because when they witness others laughing and having fun, they tend to feel like they are the only ones who are finding it tough.
It can be especially difficult for shy, introverted children to make connections in the beginning. Encouraging patience and finding the courage to step out of their comfort zone to initiate conversations can make a huge difference in establishing and maintaining friendships.
Some wise words from a Year 7 student:
"Making friends wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I realised that people just like to talk about themselves so if you be friendly and ask questions then it's easy to make friends."
Brainstorming a list of conversation starters and questions your child could ask when meeting new people will help them to feel more confident in approaching others.
"What if I get lost trying to find the right classroom?"
It seems a little silly but this is a major worry for students starting Year 7. Secondary schools are much larger than the comfortable, safe environment that was their primary school, and the idea of getting lost can feel overwhelming. This is a fear that subsides fairly quickly, however it is worth discussing with your child.
Reminding young people that teachers and other students are there to help is worthwhile. Teachers know how daunting it can be for Year 7 students starting out and so will generally help to ease these fears at the beginning of the year. Knowing that everyone in the class also needs to find their way to different areas of the school can be a comfort. Encourage your child to buddy up with someone and make an agreement to wait for each other so they can go to class together.
"What if I get a detention?"
This is one of the most common questions new Year 7 students ask. Beginning secondary school is an opportunity to start afresh and everyone wants to do well. So it is natural to fear the worst. Let your kids know that there will be times that they stuff up and make poor choices. It’s all part of growing up and learning how to behave in society.
It is important for young people to know that it’s okay to make mistakes every now and then, and that there will sometimes be consequences for their behaviour – such as a detention! Emphasise that it was their behaviour that you or their teachers didn’t approve of, not them as a person. We adapt and change our behaviour as we grow and learn, it doesn’t define us.
When the inevitable occurs, taking the time to reflect and learn from the experience is most important. Whilst you might feel angry or disappointed that your child behaved a certain way, it is important for you to approach the situation when you can do so in a calm, supportive manner. Rather than shaming your child, try to unpack it with them. What led to the behaviour? What were the thoughts, feelings, fears underlying it all? Did they question whether it was the right thing to do at the time? What have they learnt about themselves and others, and what can they do differently next time?
Letting your child know that you love and forgive them for their behaviour is the most important. They will already feel shame for their mistakes so you don’t need to add any. Rather, be the wise supportive sounding-board. Usually, they already know the answers so providing an ear and safe space to discuss it will encourage them to make better choices next time.
"What if I can’t manage the homework?"
At the beginning of Year 7, students have this looming fear that homework is going to be the death of them. They've heard horror stories from older friends or siblings about the mountains of homework you get in secondary school.
Whilst the homework load in Year 7 is most often easy to manage, it probably doesn't hurt for new students to be a little afraid of the workload. Given that they are keen to do well when starting at a new school, it can be a valuable opportunity to tap into the fear and work with your child to establish organisation habits and a regular homework routine that will serve them for years to come.
Commit to a consistent time and duration each day for homework. If the assigned homework only takes 5 minutes, have a set of extension tasks for your child to do in the allocated time. That way, they are forming a habit of sitting down for an hour each day to focus on schoolwork which will make it easier for them when the workload does increase.
"What if I’m not as smart as other kids?"
The great thing about secondary school is that there are opportunities for every individual to shine. All students can experience success in their areas of passion, provided that we clearly define 'success' to young people. We do this by putting less focus on grades and more focus on effort and involvement.
Encourage your child to pursue areas of interest - even if their friends aren't on board. Join lunchtime clubs, sign up for school productions or committees, take up leadership positions, form a band, take private music lessons, try out for sports teams.
When it comes to academics, it's unlikely that your child will be top of the class. This can be confronting for some children who have performed well in primary school and expect to do the same in secondary school. Whilst they may do well, the reality is that they are mixed in with a much larger number of students so may no longer be the top of their class.
Reframing success for your child is important. Praising their organisation habits, effort, engagement in class, ability to maintain focus and keeping on top of homework is so much more beneficial than focusing on grades. If your child is able to establish effective learning habits in these formative years, they are more likely to experience success through pursuing areas of interest for years to come.
Know someone starting secondary school in 2020?
METTA GIRLS are running workshops in January to prepare girls for the transition to secondary school. Exploring mindset, friendships, self-care and self-management, we aim to empower and equip girls with the skills and attitudes to thrive through their adolescent years.
In addition to our workshops, METTA GIRLS offer coaching services for teen girls to support them through the challenges of adolescence and teach skills and mindsets that will empower them to thrive.
Themes explored, but not limited to: