Dr David Coleman's top tips to help your child through the stressful transition from primary to secondary school
The transition from primary school triggers stress, anxiety and feelings of detachment ... and that's just in parents. Here, David Coleman tells how make the move easier on our children
The anticipation of going back to school can be heightened whenever we have a sense that our children are moving to something particularly new. Other than the start of school itself, at age five, the biggest transition we often notice is moving from primary to secondary school.
There is a whole cohort of children and parents who are in this phase, with just weeks to go until the children enter this big, new and potentially challenging environment.
Hopefully, most of you will have had the opportunity to attend the secondary school's open day, or open evening, back in early spring. This will have given you and your child a sense of the scale and the structure of the school.
What it can't prepare you for, however, is the social reality of the whole school, with the range of ages and stages of adolescence that your child will find themselves part of. Add the personalities of 50 or 60 (or more) teachers, and the prospect of settling into secondary school can become even more daunting.
Whether your child is moving from primary to secondary, or moving school altogether, there are a few things that you, and they, can do to make the process easier.
Like in many areas of life, preparation makes all the difference. Depending on the school, your son or daughter may have done some kind of entrance exam, where the school will be looking to get an indication of your child's academic level (not to exclude them, but simply to make sure the school is ready to meet their needs).
If you are aware that your child has extra academic needs, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or any other difficulties that require additional resources, then it is really important that you alert the school to this and provide them with the necessary reports.
Most schools will have sought this information months ago, to allow them to plan their learning support and resource programmes. However, if for some reason you haven't discussed this with the school, then get onto it quickly!
Shopping for the uniform, maybe a new schoolbag/rucksack and for the books, are often the first tangible steps of preparing for the new school. This can often be a point of conflict for you and your child.
Bear in mind that one of the things your son or daughter will most want is to fit in and to feel like they are "normal". How they feel they look (compared with all the other students) and feeling like they have all the right books, for example, is a big, initial part of this.
Even if it goes against your better judgment, find out what kind of shoes and what kind of bags students at the school use. Your preference might be, for example, for a sturdy, functional and spacious bag, but that may just set your child apart if everyone else has a particularly fashionable style.
Talk with your child about the various kinds of responsibilities that they will have in school. Make sure they have a clear understanding of how they will be expected to move between classrooms. Remind them that this will involve organising their locker and having the right books ready.
Read more: Saving for third-level fees
Get your child thinking about how they currently record the homework they are given and how that might be different in secondary school. Again, they need to know that they will be expected to keep their homework journal up to date and to ensure they bring home the right books for the homework each night.
Your child will also now be dealing with a much broader range of teachers than they did in primary school. In some ways this may be a good thing. In primary school a clash of personality could be a sentence for the year. In secondary school, there will be more teachers for your child to get on well with too.
If you notice, however, that there are difficulties, either with a teacher or with the academic aspect of a particular subject, go in to the school as soon as possible and look to meet the teacher or the year head as appropriate to iron out any difficulties before they solidify.
Another huge challenge that many children find daunting is making new friends. Some children are lucky to transfer to secondary school with primary school pals. Most children, however, have to do a bit of work to establish the social pecking order and to find their place within that.
To help them settle socially, your job may be just to keep your child's self-esteem high, reminding them of all the good stuff about them.
You might also remind them of some of the skills of making friends, like good eye-contact, smiling, showing interest in other children and reciprocal conversational skills.
While the move to secondary school is a huge thing for a child, it is also quite significant for parents. In the panel I have noted some of the challenges that you may face in this transition.
Of those, the biggest thing you may experience is a feeling of detachment and a lack of involvement in your child's new friendships, and even generally, in the life of the school.
Many of us make big commitments to our children's primary education, getting involved in boards of management, parent associations, fundraising and so on. We may feel we know the parents of all of our children's friends.
The shift to secondary school can also mean, for us, the loss of all those connections and we need to be prepared to find our own way into the new community offered by the secondary school.
For young children starting school
* Remember that separation anxiety is normal and healthy; so be prepared for some tears in the first days and weeks of 'big' school.
* Have a plan for dropping your child to school and then leaving smartly. Don't be tempted to linger to see how he or she gets on.
* The early weeks of school are exhausting for children, so keep after-school activity to a minimum and allow lots of time for rest and recuperation at the weekends.
* Make healthy lunches to keep the energy levels high and to enable your child to sustain their concentration over the whole school day.
* Try to create settled daily routines as early as possible, to provide some continuity and predictability for your child, so that all they need to focus their energy on is the school day.
Choosing the right After-School Care
* Think about getting a child-minder in your own home if at all feasible or practical, as it is least disruptive for your child.
* If you are using out-of-home childcare, try to establish where other children from the school are going, as there may already be after-school pick-ups by local childcare facilities.
* Think of the age ranges of the other children that will be in after-school care, such that your child might have some same age children to hang out with.
* Clarify in advance about when homework will be attended to, either before you pick up, or left for you to be involved in.
* Think about the opportunities at the childcare facility for your child to run and play outside after their long day behind a desk.
When your child goes to secondary
* You may feel that you lose contact with, and influence over, your child's friends, particularly when they join a new social circle.
* You can feel a bit separate from the wider school community because it is all bigger and a bit more remote.
* You may find it hard to get out of the mode of wanting to still supervise and 'do' the homework with your child.
* You can find a big change in your child's attitude (often positive) that comes with their greater independence and responsibility as they travel to school, organise their work and establish their social life.
* You may feel a weight of expectation about the significance of their education for their future, but with much less opportunity to influence and control how they engage in that education.