By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Pre-teen with secondary school uniform

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Getting plenty of rest, eating well, and keeping up with regular physical activity is important for your child’s successful transition to secondary school.
 
One of the biggest transitions in a child’s life is moving from primary to secondary school. 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.

What to expect

Secondary school offers new social and learning opportunities. Children are often excited about new friends, subjects, teachers and routines, but secondary school also means a move from the familiar to the unknown, and a whole new way of doing things.

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

Schoolwork
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 correct 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.
Children starting secondary school might be concerned about getting lost, forming new friendships and peer relationships, handling an increased workload, and being bullied. Parents also worry about these issues, and about whether their child will have the confidence and skills to handle them. These worries are all normal.

Helping your child

Here are some ideas for before your child starts secondary school:

  • Research and choose the right secondary school. You can read more in our article choosing a school.
  • Find out what transition services and supports are offered by your child’s new school – some schools run special programs to support their new students. You can also ask your child’s primary school about its transition program.
  • Take every opportunity you can to attend events such as orientation days, transition programs or school tours. 
  • Talk to your child before the move happens. Discuss what he’s most looking forward to and what he’s worried about. Really listen when he shares his feelings about secondary school, and give him lots of reassurance.
  • Emphasise the positive. Talk about ways that primary and secondary school are different, and highlight the new opportunities your child will have. You could talk about which extracurricular activities your child might like to choose at the new school. 
  • Talk with your child about making new friends, and emphasise that there will be lots of opportunities to do this. Together with your child, you could come up with some ways she can stay in touch with old friends, too.
  • 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. 
You could try these suggestions during or after the time your child starts secondary school:
  • 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.
  • Help your child explore new opportunities. Learning a musical instrument, trying a new sport or joining a drama class might help your child feel more engaged with his new school community.
  • Find out whether there’s a buddy system at your child’s new school and encourage your child to be involved in it. 
  • Try to make your home as comfortable for study time as possible. For example, ensure 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.
  • Support your child in forming healthy peer relationships. Friendships play an important role in helping your child feel connected and engaged at school. 
  • 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.
  • Talking to other parents can be a good way of checking 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 gets plenty of sleep. The change to secondary school is likely to make your child more tired at first.
  • Be prepared for the 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. 

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 new and different sort of relationship with your child’s secondary school. It’s OK for you to have mixed feelings about these changes.

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 your support will still be needed outside of school, and that it’s all part of your child developing 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 and see whether you can work out some strategies together. Also consider speaking with your child’s teacher, guidance counsellor or GP. And you can find more information in our articles on problems at school and helping your child with problems at school.

Bullying

Another sign that your chid might be having difficulty with the transition to secondary school is bullying – this can be verbal, physical, or via the internet or mobile phone.

Studies have found that bullying becomes less common as children get older. But it tends to peak around the time children move from primary to secondary school. This might be because young people have a new peer group in secondary school and are trying to re-establish their social position. Some young people might try and compensate for feeling vulnerable by bullying others.

Bullying takes many forms, and it’s helpful to know the signs to watch out for. You can read more in our articles on adolescent bullying and your child bullying in adolescence.

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. 

You can find out more on our Child and Parent Disability resource page.