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Starting primary school or secondary school is a huge milestone for children and their families. But it can be nerve-racking too. Luckily, schools are experts when it comes to facilitating a new start at primary or secondary school and have plenty of effective strategies to help smooth the transition to a new education adventure. This week on School Stream, we are looking at how schools deliver a smooth orientation experience for students starting the next stage of school.

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Primary School is a Whole New World

As a school Principal said to us earlier this year, “schools are a world in miniature”, but for the four -six-year-old kids starting primary school in the new year, it may as well be another planet. If you’ve ever seen a teacher trying to wrangle a group of new students to walk in a straight line between the classroom and the library, you know how big this leap is. The only real comparable experience for adults is starting a new job or moving to a new country. 

What do children worry about?

Some children are more than ready to take this big step, while others feel more than apprehensive. And this is understandable – there is a lot to take in. Worries about making friends, getting lost, being unsure about where the toilets are, who their teacher will be, what the school rules are and who will look after them if they fall over are just some of the uncertainties that children need to adapt to. Children aren’t the only ones worried about the transition from preschool to primary school. It’s an emotional rollercoaster for families too, as they support their children to take on the challenges of a new environment where they will ostensibly be ‘alone’ for the first time. 

What do primary schools find helpful?

As we all know too well, happy, and informed families equal a smoother transition for the new cohort of kindergarten* kids. Schools excel when it comes to rolling out an orientation program that welcomes students and families to the school community. Here are some tried and tested strategies schools find helpful: 

  • Keeping families informed about how things work at school goes a long way towards alleviating worry for everyone. Research shows that when parents know how things work (at school) they can be clear and confident for their children, experience reduced levels of anxiety, and therefore reducing anxiety in their children.
  • Schools find showing children where they will be picked up, where they will keep their school bags, where the bubblers are and how lunchtime and toilet breaks work – often more than once – can be a reassuring strategy to take care of some of the common worries and fears. As we’ve mentioned before, the more you know about something, the less scary it seems.
  • Schools find that when everything feels a bit uncertain, families can be a steadying force for good. Small things like letting children choose their own stationery, bag or lunchbox feels like a big deal when you’re five.
  • Following the theme of schools and families working hand in glove, schools tell us that showing families all the fun and exciting things the new school offers is a winning strategy, as it leads to enthusiastic talk about school at home and helps set the tone for a positive start to the world of formal education.
  • Label, label, label. Experience tells us that you cannot remind families enough of the importance of labelling their children’s things. Not only do children feel like their things are safe, but when things do inevitably get lost, they tend to find their way back to their owners. 

*In Australia, the first year of primary school is also referred to as Prep, Reception, Pre-Primary or Transition.

Pro tip:

Ask families to download your school’s communication app when they enrol their child/ren and explain where to find all the relevant information about starting school so they can reassure any worried kids over the summer break. 

What do pre-teens and teens think about starting secondary school?

People have been referring to adolescence as a time of ‘storm and stress’ since the days of Aristotle. If you think about pre-teens/teens starting high school through this lens, it is, as teenagers themselves would say, “a lot”. On the other hand, some may well be relishing the opportunity to flex newfound freedoms and, for the first time, take steps towards a fledgling sense of independence. Secondary school, with all its inherent challenges and triumphs, is an important step for teens towards becoming autonomous and making their own way through the world. Year 7s making their secondary school debut worry about being the youngest in the school, managing a new timetable, school rules and different teachers and, the big one, making friends. 

What helps smooth the transition to high school?

Schools have excellent orientation programs in place that help ease the way for a successful transition to secondary school. The following strategies have been described by schools as being particularly useful: 

  •  Schools have excellent orientation programs in place because they work. It’s a universal truth that when families attend information nights, school tours, or any activity schools are hosting, they will develop a level of familiarity with the school that will be useful in supporting their pre-teens. As with students transitioning to primary school, familiarity with the school environment will go a long way to reducing anxiety – especially when school grounds are significantly bigger than they are used to in primary school and the rotation of different teachers for each subject can feel daunting.
  • Starting secondary school means a wider range of extracurricular activities to pursue. Whether it’s the robotics club or a chess club, a team sport or creative arts, activities provide a structured way for Year 7s to meet like-minded peers while fostering a sense of belonging to the school.
  • We all know firsthand how intense and socially complicated secondary school can be. Keeping an eye on stress and providing information on how to access professionals who can support new students is a good idea. 

Good luck to all the students who will be starting the next stage of their education journey in 2023. 

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