Preparing for transition

Sarah Gomm | Oakham School | Autumn 2016
The transition from prep to senior school is one of the most stressful and challenging periods in a child's education. Sarah Gomm, Deputy Head (Pastoral) at Oakham, looks at how parents can help.
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You've decided which senior school you’d ideally like your child to join. After all the entrance exams, your thoughts will soon turn to the logistics of starting a new school; getting all the paperwork done and when to buy their uniform to avoid any last-minute growth spurts. But what are your child’s thoughts about their big move? Now is the perfect time to begin to tackle transition – you have a year to work on it – together as a family, and with the support of your current prep school and your chosen senior school. Think of transition as a natural change in gear for your child’s life – and you can very much help to ‘oil’ this gear change, so that it goes smoothly.

Let’s think about it from their perspective for a moment. Transitioning to senior school is one of the first major changes that a child encounters. It can be a stressful and challenging time, more so even than the transition to university. The reason being is that this move coincides with adolescence, which sees children go through some of their biggest physical and mental developments. It’s a cacophony of change which can be unsettling, and potentially result in anxiety. One of the most important things you can do to help your child is to understand, and then discuss with them, the process of handling change. Children need to know that ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ are completely normal. By understanding this, it will hopefully reduce their worries or stop them escalating.

So what are the key concerns that children have about their move to ‘big school’? In my experience, there are many popular worries but you obviously need to start by asking, and then really listening to, what your child says is causing them un-ease. Encourage them to clearly articulate their concerns, but avoid the words ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’, so as not to amplify their worries. Also, as parents, we can sometimes fall into the all-too-easy trap of dismissing our child’s apprehensions as trivial. The first real challenge is to recognise and acknowledge all the worries your child may have about transition: they may seem minor to you, but for your child, they are all encompassing.

One key worry often concerns friendships. Making friends is vital to children at this age. They’ve been with their peers for a good number of years, and now they are all potentially moving on to new and different schools. Children worry a lot about whether they will fit in and make new friends. You need to bust the myth that they are losing their old friends, and emphasise that they will be making additional new ones. You also need to remind your child that they have made friends before and will do so again! Explain that there are some clear steps that everyone goes through to make friends, and that it’s important to be patient and work through each stage. This is an important lesson because ‘jumping in’ to becoming best friends can cause more problems later down the line. Take time to discuss how they will make friends, and that this is something that happens over weeks and months, not on the first day! Children also worry a lot about fitting in – having the right electronics, clothes, and interests. This is closely related to their confidence and their concerns about making friends. Encouraging them to be confident and comfortable with who they are is therefore key.

Another big worry is getting lost! Pupils moving from a small school to a large senior school can often be over-awed by the sheer size and scale of the buildings and campus. If they haven’t managed to get a sense of the school’s layout during tours or visits, then spend some time studying the school map, or if possible, taking an additional walk around. You need to reassure your child that they won’t be left to their own devices and be required to find their own way around from day one! At my own school, we ensure new joiners are familiarised with the campus through tours and fun games (including treasure hunts!) to help them learn to navigate their way around.

Children often worry if they forget something. Tell your child not to panic, as the school will reinforce the most important information. You can help them to remember too, by discussing the places you’ve seen during your time at the school. Most importantly, focus on building your child’s confidence, so they won’t feel anxious if they get lost, and their independence to know they’ll be able to find a solution for themselves. Encourage them to ask for directions when you are out and about, so they are accustomed to approaching people to ask for help.

Pupils often worry about the details of their new timetable and the logistics of their working day. Make it a priority to find out about all the small things that may be playing on your child’s mind. Remove any niggling concerns such as: lunch (how does it work – can pupils choose what they eat, can they choose where they sit?); what happens at break times (what can they do, where can they go, what is the ‘norm’?); how and where do they store their possessions (do they get a locker code or key, what happens if they forget them?). Children also worry about who they will be able to ask for help (a particular concern for boarders), so encourage them to really focus on this when they visit their new school.

Many pupils are also concerned about how they will cope with the requirements of senior school. They are worried about whether they’ll manage the workload, but also whether they’ll be able to organise themselves to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment! They know the onus will move to them being more self-sufficient, and that they are expected to be more independent. One of the most important things you can do therefore is to help prepare your child to be more independent. Ideally you need to begin to expect more from them, to step back from just doing it on their behalf, and to really praise them for anything they do (or attempt to do!) by themselves. Whilst many of these things don’t directly relate to school itself, your child will feel a small sense of achievement and independence – vital, small building blocks for transition. So, just like the National Trust produced a list of 'things to do before you’re 11¾', here’s a (much more useful for transition) list of six things children should really be able to do by 10¾:

1. Make a journey by themselves
2. Ask an adult for directions
3. Use the internet to book an event
4. Cook a favourite meal and pack up a lunch
5. Telephone to arrange a sleepover and pack for it
6. Operate a dishwasher and washing machine.

Ultimately, your role as a parent is to be excited (not anxious) about your child’s move to senior school. Parents’ anxiety and children’s anxiety are very much interlinked – so you need to work on your own concerns as much as helping your child overcome theirs.

Sarah Gomm is Deputy Head (Pastoral) at Oakham School.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Attain.

About The Author

Sarah Gomm

Sarah Gomm is Deputy Head (Pastoral) at Oakham, a co-educational day and boarding school for pupils aged 10 to 18. Oakham aims to nurture intellectually ambitious thinkers, giving them the ability to learn effectively.

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Preparing for transition

The transition from prep to senior school is one of the most stressful and challenging periods in a child's education. Sarah Gomm, Deputy Head (Pastoral) at Oakham, looks at how parents can help.

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