Finding The Best High School For Your Highly Sensitive Child

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Do you have a child at primary school or middle school who will soon be transferring to high school?

Maybe your child is already at high school but has struggled with the transition

Or, it could be that your child has been in high school for a while, but it doesn’t feel like a good fit for your child.

Though I’m writing about the UK system, I am aware that many of my readers are in the USA and other countries. This article is relevant for you, too.

In the UK children transfer to high school (secondary school) at age 11 or 12, unlike the USA where they transfer later and attend a middle school first.

My advice is relevant to this older transition too, and I will keep my international readers in mind as I write!

High School For The Highly Sensitive Child

Moving from primary education to secondary education can feel like jumping across a huge chasm for some children.

For a start, there will be so many “first time” events to manage on the first day or first week, like:

  • Meeting different teachers and getting used to their style.
  • Navigating public transport, managing not to lose your bus pass and finding a seat.
  • Getting used to new school uniforms.
  • Meeting new people and attempting to make new friendships.
  • Learning new and different subjects.
  • Understanding expectations regarding school life, behaviour and school work.
  • Finding their way around.
  • Having their cell phone with them at school.

Is There a School That’s Right for My Highly Sensitive Child?

Finding the right school for your highly sensitive child’s needs is complex.

You may have limited choices.

Among the available choices, each school may have pros and cons. On top of this, you may be wondering if any of these options have the right conditions to enable your child to make this big step successfully.

a tween child reading in a library

High schools can sometimes feel large, impersonal and overwhelming.

But this is not inevitable. During my years of supporting families as a clinical child psychologist, I have come across many schools, even very large ones, which are warm and nurturing.

Here are my thoughts on finding the right secondary school for your sensitive child.

Highly Sensitive Child School Choices: Do Your Research

Visit as many secondary schools’ open days as you can.

Even if your child is not in catchment for a certain school, your visit will help you narrow down what is most important for your child and what you can expect from secondary schools.

Speak to school staff, especially senior staff who shape the culture of the school.

Choosing a High School For Your Highly sensitive Child: Questions to Reflect Upon

Do they value supporting young people’s emotional health and wellbeing as well as academic performance?

How do they support students with special educational needs?

What are the class sizes and student-teacher ratios like?

Does the school have in-house specialists such as occupational therapists, speech and language therapists or educational psychologists?

How many transitions would your child have during the school day?

What is the school’s culture like with regard to discipline?

a teacher giving a presentation to a classroom of adults

If you are shown around by older students, take the opportunity to ask them some questions.

  • What is their favourite thing about the school?
  • What is their least favourite thing?
  • What did they wish they had known before they started?
  • Do students generally seem to have positive attitudes?

Ideally, speak to parents of children at the school too. What is their best piece of advice for prospective students and their parents?

High School as a Highly Sensitive Child: Finding the Conditions to Flourish

Sensitivity is a positive thing. It is associated with caring and compassion, deep thinking, and creativity.

However, sensitive young people need a special environment in order to flourish.

For some children that means developing a really good parent-teacher communication system with your child’s school, so that this environment can be created around them. For a few children, home schooling/ online schooling or a very specialist school is what’s right for them.

But I always advise parents to consider all the options before making an informed decision.

Navigating the Transition to High School For Highly Sensitive Children

For your highly sensitive child to thrive in their first year and beyond, first of all they need to navigate a successful transition.

If your child is sensitive or anxious, there are additional measures which school staff can put in place to help this big change feel a little bit less daunting for your child.

It’s a good idea to discuss the transition with your child’s primary school teacher several months beforehand. You should also flag to your child’s new school that they will need extra support.

Most primary and secondary schools communicate well and have systems in place to ensure a smooth transition for students with extra needs.

a teacher working 1-1 with a tween student

Additional support measures which may be available include:

  • Nurture groups in your child’s primary school during their final term.
  • Introductory camps in the summer holidays.
  • Additional induction days.
  • Extra transition days specifically for children who need extra support.
  • Regular “check-ins” with a dedicated member of staff during the first few weeks.
  • Buddy systems and peer mentoring from older students.

Is Your Child Highly Sensitive?

Many of the children I support are neurodiverse (they have autism or autistic traits, and/or traits of ADHD) or have anxiety. This by no means covers all children considered “sensitive”, but there is an overlap.

Many other children can come into the “sensitive” category; it’s a very subjective thing.

Is your child like a primrose? Primroses will grow pretty much anywhere!

Or, is your child more of a camellia? These need particular soil and conditions in order to grow and thrive.

a tween girl lying on her bed writing notes in a journal

Sensitive children’s brains generally need plenty of time to adjust to new things.

When a lot of change happens all at once (new teachers, new peers, new subjects, new environment and new responsibilities) a child’s nervous system can become easily overwhelmed. This can cause the young person to feel stress and anxiety, anger or frustration.

Here’s a guide to what I have learned over the years.

High School: Find the Best Fit for Your Highly Sensitive Child

going to secondary school and what to consider for your sensitive child

1. Get a Gut Feel for How Nurturing the School Is

When you visit (whether virtually or in person) and take a look at the website, what’s your gut feel?

Is it all about exam results?

Or do you immediately hear about how the school supports and enriches the whole child?

Does the school have effective systems for picking up on children who need some extra help, so they do not fall below the radar?

Talk to existing parents and students at the school if you can. Reading Ofsted reports will provide only very limited information when it comes to nurture and wellbeing.

close up of happy high school student

If you have had a negative experience, reflect on why that was. Is the reason a dealbreaker; will you need to rule it out?

2. Choose a High School Where At Least One Member of Staff Will Get to Know Your Child Well

Large schools can in fact do this just as well, or better, than some small schools.

Children should not go through the school and feel that after a few months, there are no adults who really know them.

Often the person who knows your child the best will be their form tutor, so find out how the form tutoring system works.

Schools may also have heads of year who are closely involved with many students, and also learning mentors, wellbeing mentors, or the SENDCo, matron or pastoral lead. Try to find out about these members of staff in the school, and how they support students.

3. Choosing a High School: Look For Clues in Staff Morale, Wellbeing and Turnover

If teaching staff are happy and well supported by their leadership team, they will be in a much better position to support your child.

a teacher in consultation with a set of parents

You may get a feel for staff morale by visiting the school, but ask around and try to find out what the staff turnover is like, as this will be informative. Low staff turnover is a good thing because it not only suggests happier teachers, but also (potentially) more experienced ones.

4. Choose a High School That Values Wellbeing as Much as Academic Progress

Today’s culture of school league tables suggests that schools are putting their focus on results over everything else. Whilst I think schools are under a lot of pressure in this direction, each school has its own individual culture, which varies dramatically.

Some schools successfully manage to embrace children’s unique strengths and needs. Don’t be afraid to ask schools about this. The answers will be telling!

5. Prioritise High Schools With a Flexible Approach

I work with a lot of children who have difficulty attending full time school owing to anxiety.

Some schools will offer a flexible, child-led approach, and welcome guidance from external professionals like myself.

For example, some students may need special arrangements for coming into school at the beginning of the day, so that this process is not overwhelming. Perhaps they need a specific teacher to meet them at the gate and take them to learning support, from where they can be supported to attend lessons.

group of high school students in a classroom supported by a teacher

Other children need particular adaptations in lessons. Others still need a quiet place they can go to, when feeling overwhelmed.

How flexible is the high school?

6. Know That Good High Schools Come in All Shapes and Sizes

In the last fifteen years, I have got to hear about several hundred schools, through talking to families in my clinical work. My advice is to consider a wide range.

Just because a school is small, it does not mean it is nurturing.

Just because a school is large, does not mean it is inflexible.

It often depends on the headteacher’s philosophy.

State schools can sometimes meet children’s individual needs equally well, or better, than some private schools. Some children thrive in a comprehensive school with an ARP (additional resource provision for children with special educational needs) or specialist learning support, whereas other children are better served by a super-specialist school (such as a school specifically for children with dyslexia, or autism).

7. High School Transition: Help Your Highly Sensitive Child Work Through their Worries Well in Advance

Your child may not realise that many of their worries are shared by other children their age.

When your child is feeling calm and positive, gently encourage them to talk through their worries about becoming a high school student. You can also use this opportunity to ask them what they are excited about.

I find that car journeys are great for these types of discussions, because it’s not a “formal” sit-down chat and no direct eye contact is required. This takes the pressure off.

The following video by the Anna Freud centre is great for sharing with children who are worried about the transition.

YouTube video

Moving a Highly Sensitive Child From One High School to Another

You may feel that your child has fallen between the cracks in their current high school and isn’t getting enough support.

Perhaps you feel that your child has been misunderstood by their school.

Maybe you are thinking: Putting my child into another new situation will be difficult for them, but will it be better in the long run?

First of all, be brave and request a meeting with a senior member of staff at the school, such as the Head of Year.

List all your concerns. Give the school a chance to demonstrate the qualities I have talked about, such as nurturing and flexibility to children’s individual needs.

After a few weeks, ask yourself: Do I feel supported? If the answer is no, it may be time to consider alternatives.

Finding The Best High School For Your Highly Sensitive Child: Summary

Going to high school need not be traumatic for your highly sensitive child. However, it can be a harsh environment if your child is more of a camellia than a primrose (!) and is given the wrong soil to grow in.

Plan ahead and communicate well with your child’s potential or existing school, so your child receives the understanding and support they need.

close up of a tween girl in school uniform

It’s vital to find a school that supports your child’s emotional needs as well as their academic progress.

If your child has already started secondary school and they are not flourishing, make sure you communicate all your concerns clearly and try to find a positive resolution.

However, for some children, transferring to a new school is the best option for their emotional wellbeing.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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