By Jenny Alexander, author of No Worries: Your Guide to Starting Secondary School.
Going up to secondary school is a big change and it’s natural for children to have some anxieties. That’s why schools normally put a lot of work into helping with the transition. But these are not normal times.
This year, the sudden disruption of classes and ongoing uncertainty about the future has made the transition to secondary school even more unsettling for a lot of children and the long period out of school is giving anxieties a chance to build.
Recognising this is why the government has prioritised children in transition years going back to school first, but even for those who can there won’t be any of the usual leavers’ parties and assemblies or induction days.
Fortunately, as with curriculum work, parents and carers can do a lot at home to help children prepare and feel confident about going up.
Knowledge is power, and even in these difficult times, transition years teachers will make sure children have all the general information they need, such as the different ways classes are organised and delivered in secondary schools. But talking to children about their individual concerns can uncover specific worries that might seem surprising.
For example, a high-achieving child might feel anxious that they won’t be able to do the work at secondary school, although that would probably be the last thing the adults around them would expect them to be worried about, but the problems for high-achievers is that they have more to lose than a child who normally struggles. A sociable child might worry about making new friends, not because they actually will struggle but because friends are particularly important to them.
Opening up the conversation and listening to what children say is the key. Brushing off a child’s worries because we don’t think they’ve got anything to worry about means we are not helping to address them.
In every society, major life transitions are marked by some kind of ritual and all schools mark the transition to secondary school with events such as leavers’ assemblies, prize givings and parties. In these times of virus, social celebrations are not possible, but children can still get a sense of closure through practical activities such as writing letters or making cards for the teachers and other staff members who have been an important part of their primary school experience. They can have an online party with their friends or a special family meal to celebrate and give a sense of completion.
Looking forward, while they might not be able to physically visit their new school, they could ‘walk the trail’ with a parent or carer, making the journey they will make at the beginning of the new term; they could create a ‘wishes collage’ to focus on what they are looking forward to among the new opportunities going to secondary school will open up to them.
Here’s a helpful guide to making a wishes collage from No Worries: Your Guide to Starting Secondary School.
Unhelpful thoughts are where anxieties take root and grow strong: how we frame a situation is important to our mental health. This is a basic tenet of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Children who feel very anxious about going up to secondary school may be focusing on all the things that could go wrong, and their self-talk could get stuck, like a hamster in a wheel, along the lines of ‘No-one will like me, I won’t be able to do the work, what if I’ve got the wrong stuff…’
Noticing, challenging and changing unhelpful thoughts is a simple practice that’s incredibly effective and easy for children to grasp, and I cover the basics in, How to be Happy (Bloomsbury). I would recommend children’s self-help books like that one as a quick, easy introduction for adults who may be unfamiliar with the Cognitive Behavioural approach too. Children pick up attitudes from the adults around them.
For general anxieties, my 70 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem (Five Lanes Press) offers lots of quick practical and creative tasks; for a specific worry that many children have about going up, there’s 70 Ways to Bullyproof Yourself and Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends (Hodder).
Information, practical activities and positive habits of thinking – these are the basic tools we can all use to manage anxiety. It’s a real bonus that helping children use them to feel confident about going up to secondary school is also giving them skills to cope with anything else they might be worried about in what is, for most of us, a worrying time.
Jenny Alexander is a well-established author of over one hundred fiction and non-fiction children’s titles, including Finding Fizz and the Peony Pinker series. Jenny always wanted to be an author and learnt the craft of writing in the couple of years that she worked for educational publishers. She has written prolifically on the theme of bullying and her books have been translated into many languages: German, Danish, Welsh, Portuguese, Greek, Indonesian, Chinese, Korean and Turkish.
No Worries: Your Guide to Starting Secondary School is full of information about going up from primary to secondary school and covers all of the big worries and anxieties, and is available to order from Bloomsbury.com