Tuesday 12 November 2019

Your anxiety must be secondary

The end of the school year is almost here. It's a time of transition for parents and children, especially those saying goodbye to primary

Moving on: The fun of primary school can't last forever, as Caroline Walkin's pupils at Basin Lane school will learn.
Moving on: The fun of primary school can't last forever, as Caroline Walkin's pupils at Basin Lane school will learn.
David Coleman

David Coleman

I had a foretaste of the future the other week. Exam time rolled around to our house for the first time. No, I don't have any candidates for Junior or Leaving Certificate yet; I had a child doing an entrance exam for secondary school.

Those of you who are hardened veterans of parenting through the state exams can scoff; those of you whose children are still safely ensconced in primary school need to just wait until it is your turn and then you can decide to deride me or not.

When I think it through a little bit more, I believe the reason for my anxiety wasn't the exam per se; it was the fact that it represented irrefutable proof that my son is on the verge of moving into secondary school. It made the new school, with its unfamiliar hallways, rooms, sounds and smells, too tangible and real.

I think my son has had a great time in primary school and I wonder is he about to be thrown to the proverbial lions in bigger, brasher, harsher secondary school. Will he cope with the new social mix? Will he cope with the new subjects and so many different teachers? Will he settle in?

Will he achieve what he deserves? Will the school care about him? Does he even worry about these things or is it just me?!

So, another phase of my son's life will begin and more selfishly, another, unknown, phase of my parenting life begins too. It has certainly got me thinking . . .

The transition from primary to secondary school is a significant one for many children. But alongside the impact it might have on a child, we must also take into consideration the impact it has on us parents.

I alluded to some of my own anxieties about my son growing up and moving into secondary school. Parents' worries can easily transfer on to children if we are not careful.

If we show ourselves to be worried about, for example, our child's ability to make new friends, then we might underline one of their own beliefs that they can't make friends, making it even more difficult for them to connect with their peers.

One parent expressed similar worries to me as follows: "Girls can be real bi***es and she hasn't really had to deal with that up to this."

Despite our potential worry, moving to secondary school can be an exciting time too. There are so many changes in the offing that mean old habits, reputations and relationships can all be turned around as well.

It really can be a second chance for some children and the making of others.

The structure of secondary school is very different, with different teachers for each subject and movement between classrooms several times in a day. Some children love this new-found freedom, and will settle into the new system easily.

Not every child finds it so easy, however. Some youngsters find the greater movement and change over-stimulating and under-controlled. They struggle to regulate themselves without the constant presence of a single teacher to help them. They find it harder to settle into classes and their concentration can suffer.

The new subjects can be a relief for some. Practical topics like technical graphics, woodwork and home economics can offer new opportunities to shine rather than the struggle that 'the three Rs' might have represented.

At the same time the expansion of subjects can also bring new pressures. Academically the wide range might mean more homework and greater expectations of performance and achievement.

Even choosing amongst the subject options can seem like a big deal, with early subject choices potentially defining or limiting subsequent state exam choices and the choices children may then have in third level or careers.

Secondary teachers can't spend the same amount of time with individual classes as primary teachers can. So, it is often only in the extra-curricular activities that students and teachers get to know each other.

Amongst the pupils themselves, the start of secondary school is usually a chaotic social melting-pot as they try to make sense of the social order in their new peer group.

Some children will love the opportunity to break free from old friendships that might have been limiting and will get a great buzz from the chance to meet and get to know so many potential new friends.

However, in the race to be popular enough, some children will act up, or act out of character, to try to place themselves in a particular grouping. The potential is there to become the class clown or to dumb down ability in order to receive recognition from peers.

For example, in mixed-sex schools, attitudes to certain subjects are sometimes quite gender stereotyped, meaning that students may not choose certain subjects because they are not believed to be 'boy subjects' or 'girl subjects'.

The impact of all these academic and social changes can be stressful on children. Even if the transition seems straightforward, it is unpredictable and so brings anxiety and stress.

In the early days of secondary school nothing will be predictable and when we don't know what to expect we become naturally more anxious.

In the early days both teachers and pupils will want to try to get a handle on who each other is. Children will quickly get characterised by their behaviour, their attitude and their performance, and those characterisations can endure throughout a child's subsequent secondary school life.

For those children, therefore, who earn a negative reputation early on, school can become a progressively more punitive and de-motivating environment.

This means that your role, as supporter of your child, supporter of the school or trying to straddle both, is important.

I have various ideas for how we can make the transition to secondary school easier for children but, because I am living it at the moment, I started to doubt myself.

The one thing I have come to realise is that being a psychologist and knowing the theory doesn't always translate into getting it right with my own family.

For that reason I asked Pat Forde for his advice. Pat is a 4th dan black belt martial arts (Tang Soo Do) expert. Not only does he run the Munster Martial Arts School, he also trained with Kidscape in the UK and has begun an anti-bully bootcamp for children. He plans to run courses this summer for children to help them prepare for going into secondary school.

Pat reminded me that the kind of first impressions your child makes are very important. "Don't underestimate the impact positive body language and eye contact can have," he says.

Many of us can worry that our child will appear overly bossy, pushy or, on the flipside, timid, shy, or withdrawn and a target for bullying. Says Pat: "Students don't want to be seen as too passive or too aggressive.

"I work with students to reach an assertive middle ground. Kids in secondary are exposed to a totally new group, including kids who can be a lot more streetwise, so any signs of weakness picked up by some of these kids can lead to bullying."

In fact, the verbal skills that children have as they move into secondary school are central to this. How children communicate, for example, by their willingness to make eye contact and the strength of their voice as they speak, gives as much, if not more, information than the words they use about their ability to stand up for themselves.

"Also I think friendship-building skills are really important at this time," he continues. "From what I have seen, some kids have issues making friends, which causes problems.

"Simple advice like asking people about what they are interested in can help build relationships and find people with similar interests.

"Also, after-school clubs and activity groups are great to help kids make friends."


He advises some children to not always talk about themselves "and don't always be complaining as people don't like this". There are many adults I know who could do with following that particular wisdom.

When it comes to parents, Pat's advice is essentially that forewarned is forearmed.

We have a responsibility to discuss the "simple things with kids about the differences in secondary school that can help kids from worrying about what lies ahead".

Some of those really practical things to plan for are negotiating the new school route. Make sure your child knows where the school is in relation to other familiar landmarks. Talk to your child about what they should do if they miss a bus or lift.

Plan ahead for finding their way around the school itself by taking advantage of any open days or familiarisation days.

I think it is important too to make sure that you set up good routines at home from the start of their new life. Routines lead to predictability, and predictability reduces anxiety.

By letting the early days and weeks of secondary school fall into a familiar home pattern you will facilitate your child settling in.

So, if you can avoid it, don't have any other big life changes (like moving house, starting a new job, or deciding to separate) occurring at the same time.

Finally, I come back to the point at which I started, with the realisation that it is crucial that we parents have the right attitude.

I know I am anxious now, but I also know that I have a responsibility to manage my own anxiety to give my son the messages that I also believe -- that I know he can and will cope and that this big step in his life is both an important and positive one for him.

So, another phase of my son's life begins and, excitingly, another phase of my parenting life begins too.

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