Preparing your child – and yourself – for secondary school

If your child’s heading off to senior school, there are things you can do to ensure they’re ready, from adapting to a school timetable through to encouraging independence. Here’s our top 10…

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Remember when your child was 4 and you were getting ready to send them to the big bad world of primary school? We all spend hours worrying about how they will fit in, what they need to know… will they manage to make it to the toilets, will they be harangued for not being able to get dressed after PE? Yet when they start secondary school, we often think we have big, grown-up children who will take it all in their stride. However, there are still plenty of ways in which parents can help the transition from primary to senior school go smoothly.

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1. Talk about the changes with your child well in advance

Ask your child what they are looking forward to, what they will miss about their old school and what they are worried about at secondary school. Then you have plenty of time to work out strategies and talk through any issues.

2. Familiarity can be comforting

“We took up an invitation to a recent open evening, even though my kids have got two and four years to go. I think familiarity is important, so they can picture where they’re going. We’ll also go to school productions/plays so they can get more of a feel for what goes on there, and start to recognise more faces of older kids. It was handy for me too, to be able to see my kids in that environment and visualise them making the leap,” says mum Sue, from Carmarthenshire.

3. Give your child some leeway

We expect 4-year-olds to be tired when they start at school but they’re not the only ones. “Build in some quiet time during the first couple of weeks at the new school as they may find it tiring adjusting,” says kids’ coach Naomi Richards, author of the Helping Your Child Through Secondary School Transition ebook.

4. Encourage independence

Is your child going to have to take a bus to school? If so, and they’re not used to doing this, have a few practice sessions in the year leading up to school. Make the first go on a Sunday or at a quiet time of the day. The school bus can be a scary place, especially when you’re 11 and some of the other students are almost grown-up. Ensure your child knows to let you, the bus driver and teachers know if any bullying occurs.

5. Don’t leave things to the first morning of senior school

If your child has to wear a tie, make sure they know how to tie it – don’t leave it until the first morning of secondary school!

6. Help your child become more responsible

Your child will have to organise him or herself far more than in primary school. They may have a two-week timetable, so you can’t rely on the fact that ‘Thursday is games day’. In the final year of primary, help your child become more responsible for their PE kit, homework and books, so they’re prepared when it comes to secondary school. Get them into the habit of getting their bags ready the night before, especially if they have to leave early to catch a bus, train or get a lift. Have a homework and activity schedule on the wall, which they can use to help them.

7. Use the school’s website

Take a good look around the new school’s website and encourage your child to do the same. Try to find out about the unfamiliar – the school layout, how they go about getting a locker, do they have prepaid swipe cards for the canteen? Arrange a chat with an older child already at the school if they don’t know any.

“My school had a mentor program where you would be paired up with an older secondary school student who showed you around and who you could ask questions about what to expect. It was great for silly questions I had about lockers, favourite teachers and subjects, but also for things like class structure and homework expectations. It was also nice to have someone older to wave to in the courtyard – it felt really cool when I was 12 anyway,” says Niamh, from London.

8. Get your child ready to make new friends

“Talk about making new friends and discuss when they last made new friends how they did it. Make sure they have time to see old friends too,” says kids’ coach Naomi Richards.

“Encourage them to make the first move, to smile. Look people in the eye and make your body language open. Be a magnet to people – make the first move, ask ‘Do you want lunch?’ or ‘Shall we go to the library?’” says parenting expert Sue Atkins, author of Making the Big Leap, an audio CD and workbook on bridging the gap between primary and secondary school.

9. Talk about new school nerves

“It can be quite a transition from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond,” says parenting expert Sue.

“I have seen a really confident child become very shy because they found the first year so hard. Talk to them about how you felt when you started somewhere new – let them know it is normal to be nervous. Encourage them to ask if they can’t find their way round, or don’t know how to do something – don’t suffer in silence. And assure them that although other people may look and sound very confident, they may well be just as nervous underneath all the bravado.”

10. Prepare yourself as a parent

Finally, prepare yourself. “I didn’t realise how hard it would be having so little contact with the school,” says mum Mel, from Buckinghamshire. “You don’t see their friends, you don’t know their teachers and you rely on them bringing home notes and messages. It is a big change for mums too!”

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“Teachers are very conscious that the transition from primary school to secondary is a major step.  Staff are aware that the prime objectives for parents are that their children are safe, happy and will develop both academically and socially.  This may not happen immediately but if parents take every opportunity to familiarise themselves with the new setting such as attending open evenings, induction events, they can short-circuit many of their concerns.  My experience suggests that children are far more resilient and adaptable than parents give them credit for,” reassures Kevin Wilson, Headteacher at All Saints Catholic School and Technology College, Dagenham.

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