A key transition for young people is moving from the familiar primary school environment to a new environment at secondary school. This is a significant change and can present some challenges for your young person.
COVID-19 has also added an extra layer of complexity. Young people have had to adapt to a different learning environment, increasing stress and uncertainty for those transitioning from primary to secondary school. Young people may worry about disruptions to schooling and the challenge of developing friendships if school goes online.
Why are successful transitions important?
Successful transitions help young people feel more confident in their ability to step into new situations. When young people develop new skills to manage new situations, it can increase their sense of competency which helps with their mental health and wellbeing.
Young people who experience a successful transition into their new school are more likely to feel valued and accepted, have a more positive attitude to learning and talk to you about any issues that arise.
Young people transitioning from primary to secondary school face multiple changes which can add pressure, stress and feelings of uncertainty. These can include:
- changes in the physical environment
- new rules and new classrooms
- more structured learning
- different assessment style
- a variety of teachers instead of just one
- changes in relationships with friends and teachers
- being the oldest at primary school to the youngest at secondary school
Navigating all these changes at a new school also happens to coincide with many changes in adolescence. Find out more about understanding adolescence.
Although the experience of transitioning to secondary school is different for everyone there are some common concerns including:
- fitting in
- managing their time and tasks
- peer pressure
- differences in physical development
- fear of being bullied
- worry around travelling independently to school
- navigating different systems and environments eg: different people in each class, changing rooms and timetables
- increased pressures with homework
Everyone responds differently to change; there is a range of normal responses and no ‘right or wrong’ response.
Young people may feel excited, nervous, overwhelmed, stressed, confident, calm or mixed feelings about the challenge ahead.
They are also likely to want to spend less time with family, more time with friends and be involved in independent activities.
Starting a new school may be seen as an opportunity for a new start. This may be disappointing for your young person if this doesn’t play out as they may have hoped.
How can I prepare my young person?
Families play an important role in preparing and supporting young people to make positive transitions. You can help equip your young person for the transition to secondary school by:
- planning and getting organised
- visiting the school and encouraging your child to go to any secondary school orientation days/programs
- doing a trial run with travelling to school, including taking public transport and using a travel card
- inviting older siblings or friends to share information about the school system ie. timetable, changing classrooms
- practising ‘what if?’ scenarios
- establishing routines including relaxing and fun activities
- Stay connected and interested in your young person’s learning
While families are in a good position to notice any changes, it may be hard to distinguish between your young person feeling upset about school, mood swings or changes that are a normal part of adolescence.
Signs that your young person may need extra support include:
- withdrawing from things they used to do
- appearing flat, sad or worried more than usual
- changes in mood or outbursts
- changes in social activity
- changes to sleeping and eating habits
- not wanting to go to school
- changes in behaviour at school or home.
If you notice changes, it’s important to check in with your young person. Let them know that you love them and that you’re available if they want to talk to you. You can also let them know that this is a significant change that takes time.
It is affirming for your young person to know that you believe they have the resources and capabilities to manage challenging situations in life and that it’s OK for them to ask for help. If they need extra support, you can:
- normalise and validate their feelings and maybe share your own memories of thoughts and feelings at this age going to secondary school
- acknowledge your young person’s strengths – maintain opportunities to do things that come easily to them
- include your young person in decision-making in a ‘side-by-side’ way
- encourage your young person to maintain connections with their primary school friends as well as making new friends
- problem solve together in a ‘you and me vs the problem’ way
- set goals together by breaking things down into manageable chunks
What can I do to support myself?
The transition from primary to secondary school is a change for you as well. Your role will be different and continue to evolve as your young person goes through school. It’s normal for families to experience a range of emotions such as grief, excitement sadness, worry, relief, pride and hope - even mixed emotions. Family members who have been significantly involved with primary school can also feel a sense of loss as they anticipate a different relationship with a secondary school.
You can be proactive and learn from the primary school teacher about relevant ‘handover’ information. Check in with your young person about what information about their well-being to share with secondary school.
You may liaise with the school to learn about what supports or programs are in place for a smooth transition and begin to build a relationship with the school. There may be opportunities to be active in the school community.
It is helpful to check in with yourself and manage your own stress and challenges by practising self-care. Have conversations with friends who have been through this stage.
Further help and support
If you or your young person are in need of further support, you can:
- Visit eheadspace (online and phone support)
- Contact your nearest headspace centre
- Talk to your GP about options for family counselling
Other useful resources
Parentline is a confidential and free telephone counselling and advice service.
Raising Children Network is an online resource for parents and carers filled with tips and tools for raising both young people and children.
ReachOut has resources to help under 25s and their parents through tough times.
headspace Group Chats hosts many discussions for family and friends with a range of topics. You can register to join or view the transcripts here.
headspace has a number of interactive activities that can help young people and their family and friends reflect on their needs, engage in skill building and set meaningful goals to improve mental health and wellbeing.
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 13 Oct 2020