‘It makes me nervous’: how to help your child prepare for high schoolResearch 29 Jun 2023 6 minute read
As the school year hits the half-way mark, many Year 6 students and their families will be starting to think more about the move to high school next year.
Moving to secondary school is a big change for young people. In addition to hearing stories – good and bad – on the school grapevine, students today also see stories via platforms like YouTube and TikTok. These may or may not be helpful or reflect what their experience will be like.
To discover the actual challenges Australian students face, in 2021, the Australian Council for Educational Research conducted a series of student forums with 444 year 6 to 8 students at 15 schools around Australia in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.
Students do feel excited
In the forums, students talked about their experiences of moving to high school, their main challenges, as well as potential solutions. We also had conversations on what they felt they needed to know about the move to secondary school.
When asked about their feelings about high school, the responses were mixed. More than 30% said 'happy', 'excited' or 'confident'. But 25% replied 'fear' and 13% said 'uncertainty'.
But they are also worried
When asked to explain their fears and uncertainties, 44% of students said academic work. This included concerns around both the difficulty level and amount of academic work in secondary school, as well as increased expectations on students’ performance. As one student told us:
Everyone says there is lots more homework in high school
About 30% of respondents also said the new school environment was a concern. This included familiarising themselves with a new campus, finding their way around and the culture of a new school. For example, learning 'how things are done at this school' as well as the rules for each classroom. As another student said:
It makes me nervous, knowing that I might get lost.
And 21% said social aspects worried them. This included making new friends, keeping in touch with old friends, as well as the complexities of managing the usual ebb and flow of friendships and interactions at school. One respondent explained:
I feel nervous because there will be new people.
Students also discussed self-management. This included getting up on time, managing public transport, changing to and from sports uniforms, making sure they were prepared for class (having done the homework and brought the correct materials), as well as general time management to fit everything in. Another student told us:
In primary school I had heaps of time. I used to play hockey every weekend. Now I don’t.
What students want
The key message from students was that they wanted independence in their school transition. Students said they wanted some help with the move, because, of course, it was new territory. But they strongly felt that once they had guidance, they were old enough to take care of the challenges themselves.
As some students told us, 'take deep breaths in and out when scared', 'the Year 8s have helped me a lot', 'make one friend at a time', and 'just be yourself'.
How parents and carers can help
So, how can adults help, while allowing for plenty of independence? The starting point is simply to engage with your young person: ask questions about their move to high school, share your experiences and identify the details of what your young person wants and needs to know.
Here are some practical things parents and carers can do:
share helpful family stories about change (moving schools, new job, new lifestyle), particularly where there are examples of feeling nervous, making mistakes, and asking for help.
practice travelling to the new school together during the holidays, so students feel confident doing it on their own when the school year begins.
look at the high school’s website and social media pages together to see what sort of information you can find. Follow up with the school if you or your child have questions.
check in with your new school about what orientation activities might be planned. And talk to your existing school: do they have any transition activities?
importantly, talk with your young person about how they and their classmates are feeling about the move to secondary school. What are their challenges? What could help?
There are more examples of how to help in non-profit organisation Life Ed’s Guide to Thrive. Their examples and resources build directly from the research above.
The big picture
The bigger picture is change and uncertainty is a fact of life. Transitioning from primary to high school is an opportunity for young people to learn skills for managing change they can use again in their future.
Read the full report:
Sniedze, S., Felgate, R., O’Grady, E., Buckley, S., & Lietz, P. (2021). What Australian students say about transition to secondary school. Final report. Australian Council for Educational Research.