Is Your Child Struggling With The Transition to Secondary School?

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

Is your child struggling with the transition to secondary school?

The transition to secondary school or middle school is a pivotal time for young people.

I only realised that in hindsight with my children. They are both teenagers now.

Transitioning to “big school” is a whole new world. Children are often nurtured and protected by their primary school/elementary school teachers. This is a fantastic thing and a protective factor, setting your child up with a positive sense of self.

However, secondary school/middle school is a culture shift where independence is expected from day one in this brand new environment.

It is very common for children to struggle with all the new demands made of them. Here are my top tips for supporting your child to transform their new beginning, as a child psychologist.

Step 1: Understand Why Your Child is Struggling With the Transition to Secondary School or Middle School

You can’t solve a problem unless you understand it first. Children are masters of making sweeping statements such as “school is boring”, “I hate school” or “I can’t do it”. You need to find out why.

Be a detective: Watch, talk, listen.

Keep a diary in a notebook or your mobile phone.

Why are they struggling to make a successful transition to secondary education?

Here are some possible reasons:

tween boy middle school

a) They Need More Time to Adjust to the Transition to Secondary School

Some children’s brains adjust to new situations more quickly than others.

Transition to secondary school or middle school involves hundreds of changes all at the same time.

New peers, different teachers, new subjects, new uniform, new transport to school, new routines, and so on.

The transition process may be slow but smooth, or may start well and have bumps in the road.

b) Is Your Son or Daughter Struggling to Make Friends at Secondary School?

There is usually so much more choice of friendships at secondary school than at primary school.

But that can be overwhelming…

How do you get started?

When you are looking for new friends, who do you choose?

This is such a tricky area. Children starting secondary school face difficult choices when it comes to social environments and the social activities on offer.

Even if your child finds what they believe to be good friends straight away, these may not turn out to be a good “fit” for their personality, interests and values.

It may take weeks, months, or even years for her to find a truly happy and secure friendship group and in the meantime your child may feel a little lost.

3 tween girls chatting with note books

c) They Find the Academic Work Difficult

There is usually a step-up in the difficulty of school work between primary and secondary school.

This may expose difficulties that were masked at primary school.

Your child be struggling to process verbal or written information and this could have a significant impact on their academic performance.

Perhaps the pace or the volume of the work is much more challenging.

Or maybe adjusting to different teaching styles of multiple teachers is the biggest barrier to academic achievement.

Consider whether your child may have special educational needs that need to be assessed and supported.

d) They Need More Support With Independence Skills or Organisation

Independence skills are nearly always a slowly developing “work in progress.

There is so much to remember.

Writing down the homework and getting it done within the expected time frame. Packing their bag for the next day. Being in the correct lesson at the correct time. Navigating the journey to and from school.

mother helping tween son pack a bag

Children are often thrown into multiple challenges all at once.

New teachers may not realise that your child is not coping. The chances are, your child will be trying not to stand out!

There are ways that teachers can provide subtle transition support in this area, without drawing attention to the child’s difficulties.

e) The Whole Experience of the Transition to Secondary School Has Been Overwhelming

A child’s brain and nervous system may be tested to the limit by the transition to middle school or secondary school, particularly in the first term when the brain has to adjust to many big changes all at once.

Secondary schools and middle schools tend to be bigger, noisier, and can be overwhelming. Sometimes the unstructured break times can be the hardest part about school.

This doesn’t mean it school will always feel overwhelming, but your child’s nervous system will need some special consideration for a while.

tween boy studying at home

Step 2: Create a Priority List of the School Troubles

You have accepted that your child is struggling with a smooth transition to secondary school life and you have identified why.

Now it’s time to prioritise your child’s school troubles.

Sit down together and make a list. What is preventing your child from being happy and settled at school?

Put the reasons in order of importance. This will guide you on where to start.

For example, if academic work is the biggest source of stress for your child, you should tackle this first.

Step 3: Take Practical Action to Ease the School Transition for Your Child

Depending on the challenges you have identified, there are many things you can do.

Here are a few ways to ease the the stress when your child is struggling with the transition to secondary school.

Have a look at each and decide which ones would be a good fit for the issues your child is facing.

Is your child struggling with the transition to secondary school? Seven steps

1. Start a Positive Dialogue With a Caring Member of Staff

During the transition period ensure your child is on the radar of key high school staff such as the head of pastoral care and head of year.

Don’t be afraid of feeling like you may be seen as a “pushy parent” (your child’s well-being is more important), but ensure you are polite and respectful at all times.

It helps to provide a summary of your child’s special needs just in case this hasn’t been passed on by the previous school.

two parents meeting with teacher

If adults remain positive attitudes towards the situation, the young person is more likely to do so.

Although it is sometimes hard for individual students to get the support they need in a larger school environment, I have seen many larger schools achieve this successfully.

Ask for clear plans. For example, if your child is struggling to understand the concepts in a particular subject and it is stressing them out, a plan might go like this:

  1. Mrs Smith (Head of Year) will communicate with Mr Evans (the subject teacher).
  2. In each lesson, Mr Evans will quietly check that Elise has understood the task given, and talk her through it verbally if necessary.
  3. Mr Evans will ensure Elise has written the homework down clearly and understands the homework task.
  4. In two weeks, Mrs Smith will meet with Elise to see how this is going. If things are not better she will look at what further support can be put in place.

2. Build Your Understanding of Resources and Support Systems at the School

Every school is different. The website, staff members you are talking to, and other parents, all play an important role to help you understand what support is available.

Friendship skills groups? Buddy systems? Mentoring? Counselling? Study skills coaching?

Though schools are often limited in their funding to provide emotional support, they are often resourceful and passionate about supporting every child to thrive.

group of tween children in a school craft nurture group

3. Link With Other Parents

My daughter’s secondary school ran a coffee morning and quiz night for new parents which was useful for making some links. Also we have a parents’ Whatsapp group for her form group, and for my son’s too.

You may find that other children are experiencing similar difficulties and parents have found helpful resources or solutions.

Normally at this age, parents would start to ease off on organising their children’s social lives. However, if your child is starting secondary school without friends, you may be able to ease their path by finding parents of children with similar interests and putting them in touch with one another,

4. Increase “Down Time” and Nurture at Home During the Transition to Secondary School

If your child’s nervous system is being overstretched this can have a negative impact on their ability to cope with the demands of school.

They need plenty of rest and recuperation time.

Monitor sleep and build a healthy sleep hygiene routine.

Prioritise fun and relaxation.

Make sure you have plenty of structure, for example fixed bed times, perhaps a favourite family meal together once a week.

mother and daughter hugging on bed

Routine and consistency at home will help provide a safe base if your child is feeling vulnerable at school.

You may need to do this for a year or more.

5. Work On a Happy Social Life Outside of School

A well-rounded life outside school is vital if your child is struggling to make friends, starting secondary school without friends or if you feel their choice of school friends is not a good match.

Ensure you help them to organise get-togethers with friends from primary/elementary school or peer groups from other areas of life.

This will help them to realise that school friendship problems do not mean there is something wrong with them. It’s just that they have not found their “tribe” yet. It also allows them to practise their social skills so these stay fresh.

They haven’t made a positive transition straight away in lower secondary school or middle school, but life can still be full and happy.

6. Maximise Practical Support to Ease the Transition to Secondary School.

Yes, your child needs to learn to do their homework without nagging, pack their own bag and get to the bus stop on time.

However, developing greater independence is not a race.

Take the pressure off.

Help them pack their bag or organise their homework at first, if necessary. It took my daughter at least a year to be able to do both these things without any assistance.

7. Get Extra Support for Your Child’s Wellbeing

If your child’s mental health is deteriorating or overwhelm is affecting their physical health, take action. They will potentially be spending seven years at secondary school, or a combination of middle school and high school.

Iron out sources of stress before they take a heavy toll on your child’s emotional health in the teenage years.

If things haven’t improved after a few months, discuss it with your child’s doctor, and find out what support you can access for them.

Summary: When Your Child is Struggling With the Transition to Secondary School

If you’re a parent navigating your child’s transition to secondary school or middle school, remember my three steps:

  1. Understand Why Your Child is Struggling
  2. Create a Priority List of the School Troubles
  3. Take Practical Action to Ease the School Transition for Your Child

Remember, your child’s well-being is paramount. Whether it’s academic stress, friendship issues, or emotional struggles, taking proactive steps to address their needs can make a significant difference in ensuring a smooth transition and setting them up for a fulfilling journey through secondary education.

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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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