Thursday 23 November 2017

Mapping the way for pupils to switch from primary to secondary school

The MAP programme prepares the student for transition into the next level. Damian Corless reports

The Halloween mid-term break is long gone, the Christmas hols are still a dot in the distance, and we're stuck in the deepest doldrums of the school year. On dreary, dark, motivation-sapping mornings like these, it's an effort for any child to drag themselves out of bed for school.

For some, just getting as far as the school gates is an achievement. Paul Johnston, a pupil mentor attached to Deansrath Community College in Dublin says: "Most kids have the routine of their parents getting them up in the mornings and dropping them to school, but in some households that doesn't happen. You can have older kids making the lunches and getting the younger ones up and out, before getting themselves to school."

It's no surprise then that some pupils arrive at their desk worn out before the day's learning has even begun. There can be many other reasons why a pupil is ill-prepared to face into the challenges of a demanding school day.

Preparation is at the heart of Paul's work as a coordinator of the Mentoring for Achievement Programme (MAP) which is being rolled out across the school system with notable success.

In this case, 'across' is the operative word. Adopted, and adapted, from a successful American scheme, the MAP programme provides a bridge between primary and secondary school for pupils at risk of falling into the gap between the two.

Pupils likely to have difficulty with the changeover are identified and mentored through their final year of primary and their first year of secondary, providing a priceless sense of continuity and reassurance.

Dymphna Byrne mentors the progress of pupils making the transition to Caritas College from its feeder national school St Louise's, which shares the same campus in Dublin's Ballyfermot.

They share the same campus, but occupy radically different worlds. As Dymphna explains: "The structure of the school day in secondary is very different from that of primary, and can be very intimidating, especially for pupils who are already uneasy at school. You can go from having one teacher all day every day, to having seven, eight or nine different teachers.

"Pupils find they can only go to their lockers at certain times, and they have to cope with new organisational problems, like what books do I need from the locker to get me through the various classes until the next break? That can cause real panic in some."

Dymphna is currently mentoring four girls who've been under her wing for the past 15 months. Three months into secondary, it's all so-far, so-good. As part of the programme, she sits down with each pupil for a 20-minute weekly one-to-one chat, followed by a one-hour group session at the end of the week.

She reflects: "What's great is that in the second year you've already established a relationship with them from primary and they can be open and honest. They can tell you 'I'm having a crappy week because . . .

"Sometimes you just need to provide reassurance over things you'd never have thought of. For instance, when starting secondary, they might be genuinely scared that the senior girls will stick their heads down the toilet bowl. In that regard I believe the American kids' shows like I Carly and the rest have a lot to answer for."

Irish youngsters are bombarded with US shows which crudely stereotype school life as a cruel Serengeti where beefy jocks prey on hapless nerds. Dymphna says: "Every school has its issues with discipline, but I've never come across anything like you see on those American shows which can put real fears into young heads."

Sometimes the issues run deeper than lazy imported stereotypes. Paul Johnston says: "Often our task is to build confidence in kids who haven't had a positive experience of school. We identify anger-management issues and try to instill learnt behaviours like common courtesy, non-aggressiveness and just being able to talk to others.

"The more they can relate to others, the more likely they are to avoid trouble and have friends."

Both Paul and Dymphna stress that the key to success is taking a non-confrontational approach, with both giving the example that one measure of real progress might be something as basic as getting a child accustomed to putting their hand up in class to make a contribution.

The MAP scheme encourages the child to take part-ownership of their own education. Paul says: "It's about engagement and motivation. We try to get them to commit to punctuality and attendance, and to sticking to tasks like lessons, projects and homework."

Dymphna adds: "If a pupil misses a day, we don't confront them. We acknowledge they turned up four days, and ask what went wrong on the one they missed. We also involve the parents, who respond to being involved."

The MAP programme was developed in the US for slightly older pupils and, having helped pupils bridge the primary-secondary gap, Dymphna sees the value in expanding it into second year. She argues: "We're coming to realise that second year might be the more wobbly time when it comes to school completion. The statistics suggest that 14 is a more dangerous time for dropping out."

For her own part, she tries to make herself available for mentoring whenever she's needed. She says: "I'll be tracking these girls all the way through – hopefully to third level."

Irish Independent

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