By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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High school kids credit Yeulet

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It’s common for kids to have some challenges with the transition to high school. One in three children say they found the transition difficult. These difficulties usually resolve during the first year.
Moving from primary to secondary school, or high school, is a big transition. It can be a time full of fun, excitement and new experiences, but can also be challenging or worrying for some children. You can help by making sure your child is prepared and feels supported.

Going to high school: what to expect

Children often have mixed feelings about starting high school. They might be:

  • excited about new friends, subjects and teachers
  • nervous about learning new routines, making new friends or even wearing a new uniform
  • worried about handling an increased workload or being bullied.

You might also worry about these issues, and about whether your child will have the confidence and skills to handle them.

These worries are all normal. Secondary school also means a move from the familiar to the unknown, and a whole new way of doing things.

Your child will need to meet new peers and make new friends, and establish or re-establish her position within a peer group.

Your child will need to adapt to new teaching and assessment styles, cope with a wide range of subjects, adjust to having different teachers in different classrooms, become more responsible for his own learning, manage a heavier study and homework load, and learn a new and more complex timetable.

Getting around
Your child will have to adjust to a new school campus, find her way around, get to class on time with the right books and materials, and possibly cope with new transport arrangements.

All the issues above might be particularly challenging for some young people living in rural or remote communities. For example, they might need to manage lengthy travel times or move away from their family, friends and the local community if attending boarding school.
When children are making the move to high school, parents have the biggest influence on how smooth the transition is. Your child’s friends do influence how your child feels about the move, but your support has longer-lasting effects.

Preparing to start high school 

You can help to ease any worries your child has about starting secondary school by preparing your child in the months and weeks before term begins.

Here are some ideas for dealing with practical issues:

  • Many primary schools run high school transition and orientation programs in the last term of primary school. If possible, make sure your child is signed up for these programs and is at school on the days they’re happening.
  • If your primary school doesn’t run a transition program, find out what transition services and supports your child’s new high school offers.
  • Involve your child in decision-making. For example, you could try talking together about school uniform decisions, transport to and from school, and subject choices, if they’re offered.

Here are some ideas to deal with mixed feelings and worries:

  • Talk with your child about what he’s most looking forward to and what he’s worried about. Really listen when your child shares his feelings about secondary school.
  • Listen to your child’s worries, but also get her to look at the positive things about the move. For example, you could highlight the new opportunities your child will have by talking about extracurricular activities your child could choose at the new school.
  • Talk with your child about friendship worries. For example, you could ask what your child’s friends are saying about secondary school. You could also talk about how your child might keep in touch with old friends and make new friends at high school.  

During the transition to high school

Here are some ideas to help with the practical side of the transition to high school:

  • Try to arrange for a parent, grandparent or other close adult to be home before and after school for the first few weeks of transition.
  • Find out the name of the teacher responsible for your child’s overall care, attendance and social and academic progress. This person might be called a home-room teacher, home-group teacher, year advisor or pastoral care teacher. Make personal contact with this person as early as possible to introduce yourself and ask questions.
  • Try to make your home as comfortable for study time as possible. For example, make sure your child has a quiet place to study, away from distractions such as the TV or a mobile phone. When the internet is necessary for study, you might want to keep an eye on the websites your child is using.

These ideas might help with worries about getting to know people and making new friends at high school:

  • Find out whether there’s a buddy system at your child’s new school and encourage your child to be involved in it.
  • Let your child know that new friends are welcome in your home. Encourage your child to invite new friends over, or be ready to transport your child to their houses.
  • Help your child explore new opportunities. Learning a musical instrument, trying a new sport or joining a drama class are great ways for your child to meet other kids and get involved in school activities.

You could try these suggestions for handling emotional ups and downs:

  • Be prepared for early ups and downs. Adjusting to change takes time, but if things don’t stabilise after the first six weeks, talk to your child’s home-room teacher in the first instance.
  • Remind your child that it’s normal to feel nervous about starting something new – for example, you could share how nervous and excited you feel when starting a new job.
  • Talk to other parents to check whether your child’s experiences and feelings are similar to those of others. Sporting and school events are a good place to meet other parents.
  • Try to make sure your child eats well, gets plenty of physical activity and gets plenty of sleep. The change to secondary school is likely to make your child more tired at first.

Your feelings about your child starting high school 

Your child’s transition to secondary school is a big change for you too. Your relationship with your child’s primary school might be ending, and you’re likely to have a different sort of relationship with your child’s secondary school.

It’s OK for you to have mixed feelings about these changes.

Talking to other parents, particularly those who have gone through high school transition, often helps. It might ease your mind to know that many children find things a little hard at first but settle in during the year.

Also, other parents who are experienced at the school can often answer small questions and give you helpful tips about how things work at your child’s new school.

And don’t be surprised to find that your child doesn’t want you to be as visible at his secondary school as you might have been during the primary years. Remember that he’ll still need your support outside of school, and that it’s all part of the way he develops greater independence.

Keep talking with your child about school. If you’re having trouble getting your child to open up, try our tips on talking about school.

Signs your child might be having difficulty

Signs your child might be struggling include:

  • a lack of involvement in the new school
  • little or no talk about new friends
  • refusal to talk with you about school
  • little or no interest in doing homework
  • low confidence or self-esteem – your child might say she’s dumb or stupid
  • no desire to go to school, or refusal to go
  • a drop in grades or academic performance.

If your child is having trouble, don’t wait for things to improve on their own.

Try to get your child talking about how he’s feeling, let him know that his feelings of worry and discomfort are normal, and see whether you can work out some strategies together. Also consider speaking with your child’s teacher, guidance counsellor or GP.

Transitions for children with special needs

The transition to secondary school is sometimes more challenging for children with special needs. It’s important to ensure that your child – and your family – are adequately prepared for the change, and have access to appropriate information.

You might need extra time to plan your child’s transition to secondary school – even starting up to a year ahead. Student welfare services at your child’s primary and secondary schools will play an important role in ensuring your child’s needs are supported.

If you’d like additional support or have concerns, you can seek advice from your child’s teacher, school principal or learning support team. Also contact disability services in your state or territory.

  • Last updated or reviewed 13-02-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.