Tough transition ... The jump from primary to high school is a big one for many students. Photo: Virginia Star
“The transition from primary to high school can be the toughest time in a child's life,” says Dr Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist who works with many schools around Australia. And the biggest problem, he says, is that the event coincides with bodily changes.
“For girls, the move coincides with the onset of puberty and both things have a disruptive effect,” he says.
“Girls are particularly vulnerable at that time. The demands of the social scene as well as the logistics of getting to school, using lockers and dealing with different teachers use up a lot of kids' brain space at a time they feel under pressure to be doing a lot of learning.
“Sometimes kids who are highly capable at the end of primary school perform less well as a result. It is such unfortunate timing that, if I had my way, I'd push for more middle schools and the transition to be pushed back to the end of year 8.”
Fuller says parents should be especially supportive and encouraging for the first six weeks as year 7 students settle into the new routine.
“You can expect tears, exhaustion or a raging, angry kid who has held it together all day at school and is grumpy as soon as they get home,” he says. “Don't panic.”
However, if children aren't settled after six weeks, Fuller urges parents to take action and to see their child's year co-ordinator or tutor.
“Don't ask your child's permission because kids can blow out of proportion the idea of their parent talking to their teacher,” he says.
Schools with a buddy system, whereby new students are paired with older students, and schools that reduce the number of subjects and teachers whom students have to deal with make it easier for new students.
However, too often parents worry too much, says Dr John Irvine, a Central Coast-based child psychologist and author of Thriving at School and A Handbook for Happy Families.
“Nine out of 10 kids look at moving to high school with great anticipation and excitement,” he says.
“Many parents are too overprotective and overly concerned about safety. I think this has to go with the fewer number of kids per family.”
Arguments and unhappiness often occur, he says, because students start to challenge their parents' authority once they start high school and are trying to fit in with new friends.
“Up until year 6, the children's reference group is their parents. They are the authority,” he says.
“From high school they start to identify with people other than their parents and their role models become kids in more senior classes. They want to wear their uniform like they do and try to behave like they do. Parents can feel that shift of authority and they can feel a sense of loss.”
The key, he says, is to keep communication lines open and to become a good listener.
“Remember that your child might not want to talk when it suits you,” he says. “It's up to parents to be there, with full attention, when their child is in the mood to talk.
“I have found that with delinquency there are two things that happen – too much unsupervised time and poor friendship groups. This is what parents should watch out for.”
Irvine follows the line long-espoused by author Steve Biddulph – the importance of fathers.
“For far too long this has been underestimated,” he says. “I don't know of a boy before the courts who gets along with his father or stepfather.”
When it comes to bullying, both experts agree, it's important to help your child take action and not to hesitate to go to the school if there is a problem.
“I find it useful to talk to kids about the two types of friends they will find – true friends and fair-weather friends,” Fuller says. “Often kids will say they are being bullied or left out when they are up against someone who is a fair-weather friend and not a true friend. There is a difference.
“It's useful to try to get them to broaden their bunch of friends. Go through the names of the kids and ask them to tell you who they feel is on their side, who is neutral and who hates them. The next step is to work out how they can befriend some of the kids on the neutral list.”
DR JOHN IRVINE'S TIPS FOR A SMOOTH TRANSITION TO HIGH SCHOOL
Don't go it alone. Parents need to meet other parents at the school so they have a reference group to check things with.
Take an active interest in your child's school work and activities. Attending school events is critical and getting to know the teachers can only help your child – and you.
Build resilience. Help your child learn how to deal with problems such as bullying, isolation and time management. If there is a problem you and your child can't sort out, don't hesitate to go to the school to discuss it.