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Family group sitting in a classroom environment

The secondary school transition

By Alice Coles

As the weather starts to warm and we enter the later parts of the school year, talk of secondary school increases, at school and at home, and the idea of the upcoming moves for any children in year six becomes more of a reality. 

Just as we as parents may be feeling this transition approaching, and sensing an ending, it is becoming more of a reality in the minds of our year six children. Though this might not be totally conscious for them yet. 

For neurodivergent children, these looming changes may be even more pronounced and sensed and experienced more intensely.

It can be helpful for parents to think about what might be happening internally for their year six child/ren during this time – starting from these early months of the new year. In doing so, you can support your child as their awareness of the changes that approach begin to kick in. 

And it might help to explain or anticipate some of the behaviour that you may see and experience as their parent, at home, as well as any difficulties that arise in friendships or at school. 

Conflicting feelings

This pre-teen time is a time when children are often torn between wanting to be a child and wanting to be seen as grown up. Wanting the security of primary school, but also the excitement that secondary school promises. Wanting to stay with the familiar and the safe, yet also to spread their wings and experience newness. 

One day they may ask for help – the next day they may insist that they can do it all themselves. Their relationships with adults can start to become very ‘push-pull’ as they try to navigate their way to successful independence. It takes time to get this right and they can end up upset and just wishing they could be young again. 

Hormonal and physical changes

Their bodies are also beginning to make a transition to young adultness. Changing hormones and physical developments mean that they have one foot in each world physically as well as emotionally – standing in both childhood and adolescence and constantly oscillating between the two. 

They are ‘inbetweeners’. It can feel very unsettling.  

Attachment and endings

Important attachments are formed at primary school – a place full of familiar faces where many children feel safe to be themselves and where they have been nurtured and cared for since they were four or five years old. For many young people, primary school is the next best secure attachment they have made after home, and is often a place that they have come to know and trust. 

It can feel frightening for them to start to face the end of that as the seasonal changes mark the marching on of time. Endings can be hard for all of us, and many people prefer to avoid them as a way to escape the feelings they bring up.

How the ending of primary school is felt and demonstrated will of course vary from one child to another. It is a transition that each individual has to learn to navigate one way or another. 

Some may become a little clingy and unsure. Some may become overconfident and boisterous as they try extra hard to cover up and hide their anxiety. Some might be tearful or angry. Others can start to splinter off from friendship groups causing ruptures as they search for certainty. 

What can parents do to help? 

It can be helpful to simply remain mindful of these confusing and conflicting internal experiences that are going on within, as children each start to face this transition from now and into the summer term. 

If you have a child with additional or special educational needs then it’s a time to maintain strong communication paths with school and your child’s teachers, and SENDCo, so that the support you are providing collectively through a time of increased stress for them is joined up.

‘Push-pull’ states are likely to show up in their behaviour and can feel hurtful to those close to them. It can be helpful to remember that the reasons behind this behaviour are usually not about you, and hopefully this will mean it feels more possible to let them know that you are there if they want some support. 

Sometimes they might just want your approval that’s it’s still okay to be more child-like, time to be close to you and to play like they did when they were young. This reassurance, that they can still find gentle comfort in you, can renew their confidence to spread their wings and accept the changes as they happen.

Primary school can, for many, represent a whole childhood. If we can be alongside them and acknowledge the feelings of pain and sadness of something so significant ending, (primary school, childhood, certainty, the past) that are often confusingly combined with the feelings of excitement and curiosity about something new beginning (secondary school, adolescence, adventure, the future) then we can support these little birds to fly the primary school nest in a helpful and healthy way.

Helping to create a positive experience of ending can provide a valuable template for the future that our children can carry with them to other endings that lie ahead.

If you need emergency support right now or feel a crisis building please remember you are not alone. You can find more helpful resources below.
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