Making the transition from primary school to high school

If you were like most parents, there were a few tears. You waved goodbye to your little one and wondered how it all happened so fast. At the school for that first day, you probably noticed how BIG the students in their final year of primary school were. Scary big!

Now your child is that big too. Primary school will wrap up with graduation ceremonies, dinners and parties. And the nervous anticipation will set in as summer holidays give way to your child’s first day at high school. You never imagined that you would be old enough to have a high school-aged child. The 20 or so years since you were there have gone too fast for this to be real.

Now your child is feeling anxious. There may be many, many reasons for them to feel like this. They’re going into a new environment with new students, new teachers, a new way of ‘doing’ school. High school is much bigger. They’ll be smaller than everyone again. They may know a small handful of students going to the new school. They’ve heard stories about terrible things that happen to new, young, weak students at high school.

It is normal and natural for a child (and parents) to feel anxious about starting a new school, and particularly making the transition to high school.

Here’s how you can work with your child to make the transition a successful one:

Allow choice

As much as possible, give your child a voice in selecting the school that will be most comfortable. Some families will have more choice than others due to financial, academic, sports or arts considerations, but when our children feel that they do have some say in what school they attend, they will feel more confident about the fresh start. Differing opinions offer opportunities to understand one another. Try to understand why your child may feel particularly strongly toward one school over another, and consider whether you should be flexible or firm on your particular stance.

Listen and understand

Don’t instruct. Have you ever been anxious about something and had someone look at you and tell you “Don’t be worried about it”? How did it make you feel? Probably even more concerned. Regardless of the good intentions of the speaker, it probably felt like your emotions were unimportant, irrelevant and ought to be disregarded. You may have felt judged or foolish. If your child is concerned, reassuring them that, “You’ll be right. There’s nothing to be nervous about” will reduce their feelings to foolishness. Your child may feel judged, even questioning whether those feelings are right.

Instead, children need us to listen to them. Of course, not all kids want to talk. But spending time simply being available, going for walks (or ice-cream), and listening will make a far greater impact. Once you feel like you have listened and understood, you still don’t need to tell them what to do. Instead it can be useful to ask, “What can we do about it?” This recognises your child as being capable of developing answers for himself. It helps him assert some independence and make him own decisions. It builds confidence and reduces anxiety.

Help your child find the adventure

If the pending changes seem disconcerting to your child and spending time listening is going nowhere, it can be helpful to reframe the upcoming changes as an adventure. Asking your child about how he adapted to previous changes and emphasising what worked well in the past can be helpful. When your child sees high school as a new series of opportunities to make new friends, learn new skills (woodworking, computer programming), and utilise strengths in new ways, the possibility of adventure can soften the anxiety your child feels.

Get to know the high school

Most high schools will welcome a call from a concerned parent of an anxious future student, and will encourage visits to become familiar with the school, the teachers, and even the way the school operates. Many schools take students from their final term of primary school and host an orientation day, giving them a taste of high school life. Attending school meetings and spending some time at the school can help your child develop a familiarity with the school, and relationships with students and teachers, that will reduce anxiety and be a benefit when high school starts.

Most children are excited “and just a little bit nervous” about making the transition from primary school to high school. They already have a reasonable idea of what to expect thanks to the hard work done by high schools, as well as the varied stories that filter down into the primary schools. As parents, it’s our job to support, guide and understand our children as they make the transition. There will be butterflies in stomachs on Day One (your children might have them as well!). But with your support, most children will make the adjustment to the bigger environment, an expanded circle of friends, an enlarged and more independent workload, and new opportunities, in a relatively short period of time.