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Primary going on Secondary: How parents can help in the transition

26 Mar 2019

Starting the secondary school journey marks a big change as students contend with a new environment and adapt to a different routine. Find out how you can help your child develop the confidence to start a new chapter in his life.

The year got off to a bumpy start when Michelle Choy’s son entered secondary school.

“The first week was berserk – all the things that could go wrong went wrong,” the parenting blogger recalled.

Her son spent his entire week’s allowance on his first day, got lost while taking the bus, and developed a fever on the third day.

The adjustment from primary to secondary school is a major milestone, bringing challenges that can be both exciting and stressful. Often, children just need time to adapt.

It has been a few months and Michelle’s son is now settling well into the new routine and environment.

“Now, he’s up at 5.30am, showers, packs up, goes to school and comes home – and is able to take public transport by himself. There are no issues now, although he does come back late on CCA days and doesn’t get enough sleep,” she said.

“He’s still getting used to the workload and the different subjects. It’s all part of the learning process.”

Michelle, who is behind, should know. She has six children, aged 6 to 20, and the five older ones have made their successful transition to secondary school. She shares some useful tips and experiences.

Tip 1: Develop independent learners

Every child is different. Some may be late bloomers, while others may breeze through the academic demands with an increased number of subjects. Even children who performed well in primary school can find themselves struggling with not only the increased workload, but also longer hours in school.

While tuition may be the answer for some, Michelle sees it as a last resort. She prefers to teach her children to study independently so that they will learn to handle the workload themselves.

Rather than being a “helicopter parent”, Michelle advises parents to help their children hone life skills – such as critical thinking, planning ahead and problem solving.

“My kids don’t rely on tuition or their parents for their school work. They have been trained from primary school to handle it themselves, so transitioning to secondary school wasn’t such a rude awakening for them,” she observed.

In developing independent learners, parents should recognise that effort and attitude matter more than grades.

“As long as your child shows that he is trying, he does his work, gives his best, and his attitude is positive – to me that’s enough. It’s not all about the grades,” she said.

“The process and mindset is more important.”

Tip 2: Helping your child with time management

Longer school hours, increased number of subjects and CCAs are part and parcel of secondary school life, and your child might need time to adjust to the new schedule. With eight or more subjects, the workload is a far cry from what they experience in primary school.

“They have a lot more homework in secondary school. And because these subjects are so new to them, it also takes them a longer time to complete each assignment because of the variety of subjects,” Michelle shared.

It is therefore critical to equip children with good time management skills – something that she encourages parents to instil from a young age.

“In Primary 1, my children were already able to plan their own timetable. Time management is a skill that they will keep for life,” she said.

This involves getting down to the nitty-gritty and setting aside time for everything – from homework and revision to play time and sleeping.

Tip 3: Health is wealth

As school gets more intense, children may find themselves staying up later to revise or work on assignments.

It is, however, important for parents to help teens cultivate healthy lifestyle habits. This means sleeping well, eating healthily and getting enough fresh air outdoors, said Michelle.

When children take good care of their minds and bodies, they are able to focus better and have better energy. The likelihood of falling ill also decreases, she added.

It can be challenging, but parents should try to get children to bed as early as possible, as it helps them to be attentive the next day in school.

Tip 4: Choose the right co-curricular activity (CCA) together

When it comes to choosing a CCA, discuss with your child on their choices and areas of interests, said Michelle.

“Leave the final decision making to them and give your best support. Your child should choose a CCA that he or she is going to enjoy – not one that would be a drag for the next four or five years,” she noted.

Given the stiff competition for placement in certain CCAs, she advised parents to help their children see what skills and benefits they can derive from other CCAs if they end up in their second or third choice CCA.

“One of my daughters chose netball as her first choice, but got into concert band instead. Another was accepted into hockey by direct school admission (DSA), but dropped out and joined dance after an injury. They eventually grew to love their new CCA and made lifelong friends,” Michelle shares.

Tip 5: Help them work out their commute

Commuting to secondary schools is a different ball game altogether, especially for children who have been on the school bus for the last 6 years.

“It could be quite far, which makes commuting alone a real logistical issue,” she added.

It is important to accompany them for a few trial runs of the route to school during the year-end holidays before letting them travel on their own – so they are well-prepared when school starts.

The duration and complexity of the journey can complicate matters. For instance, some of Michelle’s children have to switch from the bus to the train midway, then board another bus.

“Taking public transport on their own takes some practice, so it helps to have a parent around at the start, and to guide them home whenever they end up getting lost at a faraway interchange,” she shared.

Tip 6: Communicate with your child

Coming home with stories about what happened in school might be a common routine when your children were younger. But as they turn into teenagers, you might find them becoming more tight-lipped.

 “When my kids come back from school, they just need their space. They might eat lunch in silence and get over the things that went on in school. I would talk to them at dinnertime or before bedtime instead, it helps to give them some space and time,” she noted.

“However for other kids, they might need to offload everything that happened once they get home, so the best time to be there for them is at lunchtime. Every child is different.”

It is also important to be a good listener instead of one that is quick to interject or judge.

“When they say something, we often have a million things to say in response. But when we keep doing that, they will eventually not want to talk to us,” she observed.

Parents have to treat their children with respect when guiding them. “Don’t talk down to them. For instance, we shouldn’t always turn away and lament, ‘these teenagers’,” she added.

Talking to your children can also help them cope with other personal challenges, such as getting used to a new school environment and adapting to a different school culture which can be nerve wracking.

“Help prepare them by walking them through the differences between their previous and current schools in your daily conversations,” Michelle suggested.

Tip 7: Set boundaries

As children grow into teens, they naturally begin to yearn for greater freedom and autonomy, which results in them pushing limits. Parents should take a calibrated approach in setting clear and consistent boundaries, and learning to let go slowly.

“Set clear boundaries and be firm. For example, it is very easy for teenagers to lose themselves in their phones,” she noted, referring to a common issue of constant usage of mobile devices.  

So she set a house rule for her teens: All phones have to be placed in the charging docks after dinner.

“If they cross the boundaries, then we’d take away their privileges. They will have to face the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes,” she said.

“This way, they will have the autonomy to develop mentally.”

Adapting to a new environment might be overwhelming at first. Parents can, however, support and encourage your child. This will help them tide through, maybe even thrive, in this new and exciting phase of their lives.