Preparing your child - and yourself - for secondary school
Child’s heading off to senior school? Here's how to help them cope with the transition, deal with their worries, organise their homework and make new friends. Plus, what to expect – and be ready for – as a parent
Moving on up from primary school to secondary school is quite a thing. It's not just the new school building and the different journey to school, it's all the new faces – and the absence of familiar ones. And everything – from the lunch canteen to the hulking sixth-form students – is so big, compared to primary school!
And yes, your child is no longer the teeny little person they were when you were waving them goodbye on their first day of primary school but they're moving from a place where they were one of the big ones to a place where they're one of the little ones again. However excited they are at all the great stuff that lies ahead, they're bound to be feeling a few first-week nervous flutters, too.
So, what can you do as a parent to help ease the transition from primary to senior school – especially if you're feeling a bit daunted yourself? I've done this three times now, once with each of my children, and I've learnt some key things along the way...
Here are our top tips for starting secondary school
1. Focus on the positive
Stay cheerful and optimistic (however you're feeling inside). Acknowledge any anxiety your child is feeling but point out how feeling anxious is totally natural – everyone will be feeling this way – and that, before they know it, their new school and its new routines will feel completely (and even boringly) familiar. Remind them that, after growing out of primary school, they're ready for the new challenges and opportunities of secondary school – and that you have every confidence that they'll soon find their feet and flourish.
2. Go to induction days
If the school organises any induction days or meet-ups for the new year 7s/P7s, go along. It's great way for your child to start to feel more familiar with the layout of the school and it guarantees there will be some faces your child recognises on the first day, especially if not many of their primary-school friends will be at their secondary school.
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3. Get them familiar with the route to school
Is your child going to be taking a bus or train to school? If so, make sure they've had a few chances to practise the journey – first with you and then by themselves, so that they're confident of the route. Talk through what to do if the bus is too crowded to get on or the train is cancelled, and make sure you've sorted their travel pass well in advance. If you'll be driving your child to school, it'll also a good idea to do a few dry runs in the early morning rush hour, to check your timings, and to find a good place round the corner where you can drop your child off – trust us, hugging them goodbye at the school gates is not cool!
4. Check the school's mobile phone policy
Some secondary schools have strict rules about when and where pupils can use mobiles, so make sure your child is up to speed with what's allowed. If your child doesn't have a mobile, you might want to bite the bullet and get one: they will be pretty much the only one in their year group without one, otherwise, and, if they have a long journey to school or one that depends on public transport, you will be grateful they can get in touch quickly if they're delayed getting home. Word to the wise, though: do make sure they have at least one other number to call, if they can't get hold of you, and set some limits on their data – it's astonishing how much they can burn through.
5. Consider a phone tracker
Not every parent will feel comfortable with this idea but downloading a simple tracker app like Find My Friends can actually be very useful. In the early days, you can use it to make sure they've got to school OK without feeling you need to text them (and then keep texting them in a rising panic when they don't reply!) and, later on, it can be useful if you need to pick them up from a friend's house after school.
6. Sort the uniform but hold back on the coat
If your child's school has a uniform (or a dress code), give yourself time to kit them out with what they need but don't be tempted to get anything optional (like a school jumper to wear under a blazer) or cold-weathery just yet. I've put 3 children through secondary school and have lost count of money wasted on optional school jumpers or the "wrong" winter coat ("Nobody wears those, Mum!"). Save your money and bide your time. That said, if the uniform involves a school tie, get two – if you've seen the state of school PE changing rooms, you'll know why...
7. Buy a backpack
Your child is going to be toting some heavy books to and from school every day, so they'll need a decent and sturdy backpack to carry them in. Backpacks can be a bit of a trend thing, though – so it might be worth waiting a week or two to find out what's the current look/style, rather than choosing something yourself that could immediately be rejected as "uncool".
8. Look at the school website – again
You probably checked out the school's website quite thoroughly when you were applying for your child to go there but it's worth setting some time aside for a re-visit. As well as the Admissions section, there will probably be another section for parents of pupils – and you can glean a lot of useful info from there on everything from how to pay for school lunches, what to do if your child's sick, what your child should do if they lose their locker key (see no 9, below) and where lost property is put to who to contact if you have a query about a particular lesson or after school activity. You may even find a map of the school your child could download to help them find the classrooms they need.
9. Get a keyring
Most secondary school allocate each child a locker to keep their books and PE kit in, and lockers come with keys. Giving your child a keyring to put their locker key on, along with their house keys, helps cut down on the "I've lost/can't find my locker key" moments – although, if you have a child who's always losing things, you may want also to make a copy of the locker key to keep at home as a spare.
10. ... and a cardholder
If your child's going to have lots of cards (travel pass, lunch money card, school ID card, and so on), you may want to buy them a card holder, too.
11. Scope out a homework corner
Your child's soon going to be having homework to do pretty much every single day, so they'll need somewhere quiet they can sit and get it done – and preferably a surface or some shelves they can keep their books and folders on.
12. Give your child some independence
Use the weeks before the start of the school term to boost your child's confidence in doing things on their own. So ask them to pop to the shops and buy you a couple of items, or drop them off at the cinema with a friend and arrange to pick them up later. You're showing them you trust them to manage and organise themselves on their own.
13. Practise tying the school tie
If your child needs to wear a school tie, do not leave it till the first day of school for them to learn how to tie it – or it may be a very sweaty morning for you both. Instead, have a couple of practice sessions, with your child wearing the school shirt. If you're not sure how to tie a tie (or how to teach someone to tie a a tie), you can find some good tutorials on YouTube that your child can watch and copy in real time.
14. Prep your child for making new friends
One of the things my kids worried about most before starting secondary school was whether they'd be able to make new friends. As well as reassuring them that, yes, of course they will – just like they made friends at primary school – it can help to talk about how friendships often start. Get them thinking about what it was that sparked the friendships they have now and the conversations that cemented the bond. "Encourage them to smile at their new classmates," says parenting expert Sue Atkins, author of Making the Big Leap, an MP3 download for children that's all about moving on to secondary school. "It's amazing what can happen if you look people in the eye and make your body language open. Be a magnet to people. Make the first move: ask, 'You going to the football tryouts?' or 'Shall we check out the library?'"
15. Get stuff packed the night before
If there's one secondary-school habit to get your child into, it's this one. Putting out your uniform and getting together all the books and PE kit and music instruments you'll need for the next day is the only way to avoid early-morning 'Where did you put my <insert almost anything>?' panics. And it's a great way to foster both independence and forward-planning. I'm not saying you won't have any 7am, 'I need single cream and a tin of pineapple for Food Tech today' moments but hopefully they'll be fewer and further between!
16. Get up early on first day
Your child probably has to get up earlier than they did for primary school anyway but it's worth setting the alarm even earlier on the first day of secondary school. This will give you both time not to feel rushed – and you some extra minutes to take pics/pontificate on the importance of eating something at breakfast without winding your child up (too much). It's probably also a good idea for your child to leave the house a little bit earlier than they need to – in case the walk to the station or the rush-hour bus route takes longer than you'd thought.
17. Don't pretend they're not nervous
"It can be quite unsettling to go from being a big fish in a small pond to a being small fish in a big pond," says parenting expert Sue. "Even the most confident child can feel a bit wobbly. So, talk to them about how you felt when you started somewhere new – even if they don't say anything, they'll get the message that it's normal to feel nervous in a new situation. And assure them that, although other people may look and sound very confident, they're probably just as nervous underneath."
18. Make copy of their timetable
Your child will be given a weekly timetable of all their lessons and which classrooms they'll be in. Take a picture of it and print out a few copies. The spares will come in handy if your child loses theirs or leaves in their school locker – and your child may like having a copy stuck up on their bedroom wall. It's also useful for you to be able to have a heads-up when PE is, for example, so that you can (try to) investigate the location and laundry status of gym kit before it becomes a late-night/early-morning meltdown.
19. Be prepared to stock up on sticky-backed plastic
Some schools that hand out textbooks and exercise books have a weird fascination with making Year 7s/P7s cover each and every one of them with sticky-backed plastic – sometimes having decorated them with subject-specific drawings first. If your child's school is one of these, you'll be needing a lot of sticky-backed plastic, and a long ruler to help your child smooth it on without creating any air bubbles.
20. Check their homework planner
Most secondary schools give pupils a planner to jot down details and deadlines for the homework they're given (if your child's school doesn't do this, get a notebook for them yourself). It will fill up quickly with lots of different tasks with different dates for handing them in, and, for the first few weeks at least, it can be tricky for your child to work out what to prioritise – and to check that they've done what's due. You can really help here by checking the planner daily and helping them work out which bits of homework to tackle first.
21. Help them establish a homework routine
Your child will probably find they have some homework to do every day. Encourage them to set aside a regular time to do it. That might be straight after they come home, leaving them free for the rest of the evening. Or they may prefer to chill out at home for an hour or two first and then get down to it. Whatever time works best, the quicker it becomes part of the regular daily routine, the easier it is to keep on top of the work.
22. Expect them to be very tired
Starting secondary school can be exhausting. Your child's head will be full to bursting with new faces, new routines, new experiences and all they'll want to do when they get home is flop down in a little heap. Be ready for this – and try to be more patient than you feel though the inevitable tired strops when siblings get in their way/there's 'nothing' for tea/you're 'forcing' them to do their homework... If you're able to be around when they get home from school for the first few days (and we know that's hard if you're working), it can help to greet them with smile and ask them about their day: sometimes, all a tired secondary-school newbie needs is a sympathetic ear to offload into.
23. Resist urge to do it all for them
This one's hard but important. When they were at primary school, you were the one who remembered PE days, made the costume for World Book Day, signed them up for afterschool football/streetdance, organised the playdates. But now it's their turn. (And it needs to be: do you really want to be organising meet-ups for your 16-year-old?) And they will forget stuff and make mistakes. And you need to let them, so they learn not to do the same next time.
24. Don't expect to feel 'part' of the school
Primary schools can feel like one big family, with parents socialising at the school gate and getting stuck into the PTA, and teachers often happy to have quick in-person chat before or after the school day. Secondary schools are very different. You may find you don't really get know many other parents and you'll definitely need to make appointments if you want to talk to a teacher.
25. Keep talking
Even if they're mostly monosyllabic at the end of the school day, try to keep the communication open. Teenagers need to know their parents support them and have their back, just as much as toddlers do. They're just a lot worse at showing it! Find a way to let your child know that you're there for them whenever you're needed.
Pic: Getty Images
Helen is author of the classic advice book Parenting for Dummies and a mum of 3. Before joining MadeForMums, she was Head of Community at Mumsnet and also the Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby.
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