Saturday 3 December 2016

How to stop the first-year blues

Too many pupils can fall through the cracks as they start secondary school. We report on how parents and teachers can help the transition.

Published 02/09/2015 | 02:30

Mentoring: Adriana Martin (left) a new student at St Leo's in Carlow with Meitheal Leader Emma Murphy. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Mentoring: Adriana Martin (left) a new student at St Leo's in Carlow with Meitheal Leader Emma Murphy. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

The change from primary to second-level is a crucial event in a child's education, and research shows that how it is handled can affect their long-term prospects.

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The star student who excelled in sixth class in primary school does not necessarily thrive when they arrive at the big new school.

Schools and curriculum planners have paid a lot of attention in recent years to ensuring that students do not fall through the cracks.

This followed alarming research from the ESRI showing that most students made little progress in first year in the key areas of reading and maths - and some even regressed.

The difficulties faced by students are hardly surprising. Just weeks ago they were the big fish in the small pond. Now they are the small fry again, coping in unfamiliar surroundings, where they may know nobody.

In recent days, Clare Ryan, Principal of St Leo's College in Carlow, has been welcoming first years to the school. With students arriving from 33 feeder schools, St Leo's goes to great lengths to ensure that they settle in.

"The vast majority will transfer very well and seamlessly," she says.

"However, when they arrive for the first time, many students and their parents feel very anxious."

On their first day, the principal asked the new first-years if they had slept the night before, and 60pc said that they had not.

"They worry about things like who they will be sitting beside in class, or what happens if they lose something."

Principal Ryan believes parents can play a crucial role in the settling-in period.

"They should join in the excitement of the start of the new school, rather than sharing their own anxiety.

"It is important to emphasise that it is an adventure where students have an opportunity to redefine themselves."

This is a milestone for parents as much as the children, as the students have to be much more independent.

Most parents do not have the close relationship with the school that they had at primary level. They are less likely to wait at the school gate every day and they probably do not meet the teachers regularly.

"Sometimes, it can be more difficult for parents than it is for students," says Dr Ger Scanlon, psychologist at the School of Education at Dublin City University. "Parents often worry a lot more than they need to. The anxiety levels are higher for parents if it is the first child going to second-level, or if another child had difficulties."

For students who struggle at second-level, the main difficulty may be one of organisation.

They are used to the comforting surroundings of a primary classroom, where they enjoyed a close relationship with a single teacher.

Now they have over 10 subjects and they have to get to know a large number of teachers. They move from classroom to classroom, and have to have the right books and homework.

Research from the ESRI, published this summer, shows the transition can be particularly difficult for girls.

The ESRI's study concludes: "Academic self-image (the ability to cope with schoolwork) becomes more negative over the transition to second-level education, especially for girls, as young people are faced with greater academic demands in the new school setting."

DCU's Dr Scanlon says parents have to strike the right balance in encouraging their children to become independent learners. "Parents should try to instil confidence in their children at this stage, but not take over," says Dr Scanlon.

"A child might have difficulties at the start, and you should keep an eye on it. But, unless it is something crucial that affects their learning, you have to be patient in the first weeks, because these things often level out and they bounce back."

While parents are crucial in instilling confidence, schools play a vital part in smoothing the transition.

According to the ESRI research, the schools help by implementing specific measures. These include:

• Fostering greater links between primary and second-level, so that students know what to expect;

• The holding of induction days with class tutors;

• The appointment of student mentors, usually sixth-year students, who are assigned to first years.

ESRI researcher Dr Emer Smyth tells the Irish Independent: "The most important factor is the relationships with teachers. Where young people get positive and supportive feedback from teachers they settle in more quickly."

Part of the problem is that what is taught in first year often does not follow on from sixth class, and many teachers feel there is a disconnect between them.

"If you take English, for example, students read a lot at primary level, and may have read five or six novels in sixth class,'' says Clare Ryan.

"But at second-level they may only be covering one play in three years."

Among the recent innovations aimed at smoothing the transition is the introduction of an Education Passport, a report on each child that is now passed from primary to second-level schools.

As well as a teacher's report, the Passport has a section where students give their hobbies and interests, and their hopes for their new school.

"The Education Passport is worthwhile, because it helps us to get to know a student, " says Principal Ryan. "I also have students who write to me before they arrive and I welcome that.

"It is good for a school to know that the students who are arriving are personalities, and not just numbers."

Tips for parents

• Don't transfer your own anxieties to your child. Show them that the new school is a whole new opportunity.

• Be patient. Give students time to settle in. Allow for the fact that at the start they may be tired and cranky as they get used to a longer day in school.

• Allow for the fluidity and insecurity of friendships at this age. Best friends can change week by week.

• Attend all events for parents of first-years, including social evenings and parent-teacher meetings.

• Be aware of who to contact if there is a problem. This is likely to be the class tutor, a year head, or the guidance counsellor. If it is a serious issue, contact the principal or deputy principal.

• If your child is transferring next year, go to open days and encourage them to meet teachers and pupils.

Irish Independent

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