Advice: Starting Secondary School

How are international schools in Singapore preparing students for that all-important step up from primary to secondary? finds out...
Advice: Starting Secondary School
By Carli Allan
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Do you remember your first day at secondary? The time you jumped from being a big fish to a small fish in the sea of secondary school? It’s a time of change and the end of an era for your child – and however big they may look in the primary playground, they will suddenly look very small in a crowd of teenagers.

This August, Year 6/Grade 5 students will be taking their first steps into secondary school with a host of new challenges to overcome. Maybe they’re beginning to have concerns about the transition? It could even be you as a parent who's getting worried about the ‘big-move.’ speaks to school leaders in Singapore to find out how they are helping to smooth what could otherwise be a bumpy journey.

How are schools supporting students through the transition from primary to secondary?

Year 6 students at Chatsworth attend a taster secondary lesson

The end of Term 3 is usually the time when students look forward to their 'jump up' day – the time when they find out who their new teacher and classmates will be. Schools may also hold induction days – also referred to as transition or transfer days – for students to familiarise themselves with their new routine and class.

It is a time for students to meet their older peers and experience a taster of secondary school, as Dr Tyler Sherwood, Head of School at Chatsworth International School, explains.

“Middle school students at Chatsworth are scheduled to come into the Year 6 classrooms to talk about their transition the year before, providing some advice and reassurances that Middle School is a welcoming environment.

"Year 6 students spend periods experiencing what it is like to be a Middle School student, where they have an adjusted schedule and attend Year 7 classes over a few days in order to experience different subjects and a new timetable where they have to move independently among the different classrooms and buildings.”

Dr Helen Rader, Elementary School Counselor at International Community School (ICS), explains the transition process at her school.

"I set up a Shadow Day for all of them to spend the day with a MS buddy – they go to all the same classes, eat lunch together, and participate in afternoon electives before returning to class to debrief with the principal and I. This gives them the opportunity to get a feel for switching classes for each subject, the length of each class, as well as the overall types of classes they will have the following year. 
Additionally, I also talk to the students about what they can do to make the transition smoother.  For example, getting involved in sports, drama, and music events helps them settle in faster.  Making sure they have a good planner system for keeping track of their assignments and organizing their homework and papers in folders is also helpful."

At UWCSEA, there’s also a full transition programme for Grade 5 including a school tour, class visits from heads of secondary, visits by Grade 6 mentors, and a welcome video made by the Middle School Student Wellbeing Action Team.

Ardene Mandziy, Middle School Vice Principal (Pastoral) at UWCSEA (Dover), explains why it’s so important for students to know their way around the secondary campus.

“When we ask Grade 5 students about their biggest concern in moving to Middle School is, it’s always the fear of ‘getting lost’ as they move between classes.

"As such, as part of the transition day we take Grade 5 on a tour of the school in their class groups to give them a real opportunity to get a feel for the school and explore everything from the future classrooms, drama and dance rooms, science labs and design technology buildings.

"The tours are led by the Middle School Principal, Vice Principals and Heads of Grade. We take the students to the Middle School office and assure them if they do get lost there are so many people in the office that can help them out. They seem so much more confident after the tour."

Restrictions imposed in 2020 due to Covid-19 saw students meeting their secondary teachers virtually and experiencing virtual taster lessons from their new tutors. After a welcome return to on-campus learning in 2020, schools have reinstated their pre-Covid transition programmes.

Rachel Leonard, Middle School Vice Principal (Pastoral), UWCSEA (East), adds:

“This year we can once again have our Grade 5s spend a day in Middle School, getting excited about some of the individual subjects they might not have done before. Teachers ignite their curiosity by preparing ‘hands on’ activities in science labs, drama, food technology and design technology spaces.”

Students at all-through schools such as Chatsworth and UWCSEA have the advantage over children coming from standalone primary schools. They will already be familiar with the campus, know some of the teachers, and be part of the school community (for example, getting involved in house events from day one).

As Dr Sherwood (Chatsworth) says: “Our primary students already have an added level of comfort and familiarity with secondary school due to the numerous activities they are involved in from kindergarten.”

In a country that is so transient with large numbers of Year 7/Grade 6 students arriving into Singapore every year, and lots of movement between different schools, there’s plenty of support offered to new students, too.

Ms Mandziy at UWCSEA Dover says:

“For our new families, we invite the students in for a day during the school holidays just before the new school starts. Our Head of Grade spends the day with them exploring the school, we have lunch together and many existing Middle School students come in for the day to help out. We play lots of games and have lots of fun.

"It also means our new students start school on day one surrounded by a few familiar, friendly faces.”

What issues are parents likely to witness as their child moves from primary to secondary school? 

Students at UWCSEA are supported with a full transition programme for the move from Grade 5 to 6

The transition from primary to secondary school coincides with adolescence and the advent of major changes that will last throughout the teen years. As Ms Mandziy (UWCSEA Dover) says, “During this time students are not just experiencing a change in school, curriculum and teachers. They are also changing physically and emotionally.”

It marks a period of time when your child may feel overwhelmed, find self-regulation and organisation challenging, and see their friendship groups change.

“Your child may become moodier as they transition through puberty, and self-esteem and self-compassion could hit an all-time high or an all-time low. Some students will breeze through this transition; for others it can be very challenging,” adds Ms Mandziy.

Dr Sherwood (Chatsworth) says parents can expect their child to become more independent during this stage of their life, perhaps wanting to spend more time with friends than they do with family. “Parents may be surprised at some of the new friendships their child has or how their child navigates some of these new friendship circles as this did not exist in primary,” he adds.

“In terms of what you might see with their studies, you may see your child lacking organisation in their work and daily lives, an increase in energy during the day and a desire to sleep in each morning (secondary students require more sleep than you may think and their internal ‘clocks’ actually shift during adolescence), less overt dependence on asking you for help (but still needing it), and some initial struggle in keeping up with their assignments.”

As well as dealing with changes in adolescent behaviour (which they have no control over), students are transitioning from a highly supportive primary school environment into a situation where they have more teachers, more subjects – and this requires some adjustment.

“It can feel overwhelming for children who, up until now, have had mostly one teacher, their class teacher, every day,” says Ms Leonard (UWCSEA East).

“Another aspect that can be daunting is having to move from one class to another. We know that all of this is part of the transitioning phase and support our students, guide them and reassure them as we see them navigate through the Middle School corridors. At home, Mum and Dad can do this too by letting them know that they will get there, as they are all experiencing the same sense of adjustment! 

"It is important for parents to remember too that for some children, it will take longer than for others to adjust to that transition, and feel that ‘they’ve got this’, and that’s ok.”

Peter Dart, PYP Coordinator at EtonHouse International School, adds:

"Many may sometimes perceive the secondary school environment as being less nurturing when compared to primary, as there are fewer hours spent with an individual teacher. However, the reality is that the environment is not less supportive, it just needs more time for relationships to be nurtured in secondary school, as there are more teachers with whom students develop these relationships."

What can parents be doing at home to support their child’s move from primary to secondary school?


The move from Year 6/Grade 5 to Year 7/Grade 6 is challenging at the best times, and there will be mixture of excitement and trepidation. After such a turbulent couple of years, it’s never been more important for parents to step in and help address the most common worries and smooth the transition to secondary school.

“How parents respond is really important. If parents overreact or are critical of their child then their child may not communicate or confide in them.

"Parents need to remain the significant adult in their child’s life, and it is important that children feel they can talk with their parents, share any concerns they have and know their parents will listen and can give them good advice,” advises Ms Mandziy (UWCSEA Dover).

The key advice for parents is to make time for conversation, and keep open that dialogue you’ve had with your child in primary school. While your child may be exhibiting signs that they want a more independence, they still require guidance and support.

Dr Sherwood (Chatsworth) says:

“Parents can help their child to relax, first and foremost! Talk about middle school as a rite of passage where your child will have an increase in independence but also an increase in responsibility.

"Remind them that their teachers are there to help them be successful and are used to having new secondary students. Your child will still have a homeroom teacher whom they will see every day and spend time with during pastoral lessons. Just like in primary school, their homeroom teacher is their primary point of contact with any questions or concerns.”

Ms Mandziy (UWCSEA Dover) adds:

“Sharing your own stories with your child is a great strategy too. Letting them know about you how you coped with the change to Middle School, challenges you overcame, subjects you found hard, times you showed resilience, how you made new friends and how you cope with the ups and downs of puberty will show your children that their concerns are okay and they can be overcome. It’s also a great way for you to connect with your child (and it’s okay to modify the truth a little too!).”

Help your child get organised with their new timetables and responsibilities is a key to easing the transition.

Dr Sherwood (Chatsworth) adds:

“During the first weeks of school, be sure to attend any school information sessions and ask your child regularly what they are doing in school. Become familiar with the way secondary school communicates with you and your child (Managebac, Google Classroom) and sit with your child regularly to go through assignments and assessments.

"There will be an increase in homework and assessments in middle school so helping your child to organise themselves with a regular routine at home, and regularly checking in with them to ensure they are keeping up, will help them develop good study habits. It will also become the ‘norm’ for you to ask them about their school activities.”

The summer break provides the ideal time for your child to exercise self-regulation and a little more independence.

“Consider how you can give them more responsibility. Some very simple things include ensuring they make their own bed, or encouraging them to cook a main meal or a dessert for the family, and include your child in discussions about activities and holiday choices; kids love choice, see what they can come up with,” says Ms Mandziy (UWCSEA Dover).

It's also a good time to organise social activities for your child and their primary school friends.

Greg Hattle, PYP Coordinator at EtonHouse, says:

"As a child moving from Primary to Secondary School, we find the most common concern that students share is that there will be too much change all at once, especially in social groups. 

"We highly recommend parents continue organising or facilitating social activities between your child and their Primary School friends throughout the transition over the summer, even if the children are moving to separate schools in the new school year. This way, the children can share their ideas and preparations, and support each other through the process."

And finally, however worried you may feel as a parent, stay calm! Ms Mandziy (UWCSEA Dover) has this message for mums and dads.

“Emotions can be very contagious. If parents themselves are anxious about their child starting Middle School they easily transfer their anxiousness on to their child. Parents need to be very aware of this.

"Starting Middle School is an exciting time. Therefore it’s a great opportunity for parents to talk with their child about what they can expect; new teachers, exciting new subjects like Design Technology, Science and Drama, new opportunities for sports, activities and service and most importantly students will be able to expand their social relationships and make many new friends.

“Parents can let their child know that it is perfectly natural to be nervous about change but that change also brings about so many exciting experiences.”

And Dr Rader (ICS) adds the following valuable words of advice:

  • Be your own advocate and learn how to be assertive. Encourage them to email teachers themselves with questions about assignments. 
  • Children engaged in this transition process will want to redefine themselves and experiment. Encourage them to take this time to try out everything from different styles of clothing to different styles of writing. This is important to establishing their own sense of self-identity.
  • Get to know their school counselor and others at the school who can provide support by advocating for them. They need to build positive relationships with their teachers/adults in a positive way.
  • Parents need to stop bringing items to school for them when they forget things. Help them learn to be responsible. They will learn faster when they suffer a few consequences for forgetting these items.

And finally… top tips for trouble-free transitions?


Dr Sherwood (Chatsworth) has the following advice for parents.

  • Remember, first and foremost, that there is no ‘best’ solution to any situation your child might face. What might have been successful for your older child as they went through adolescence and middle school transition, or your neighbour’s child, might not be suitable for your current child.
  • Help them with organisation! This cannot be overstated. Help them organise a schedule for homework, an appropriate study/homework space, and ensure they are getting enough sleep. Adolescents require plenty of sleep (8-10 hours) during this period of rapid physical and emotional growth.
  • Speak with counsellors if you or your child need help. While it has decreased significantly in recent years, there remains a stigma about reaching out to school counsellors for some. School counsellors are experts in personal and social-emotional growth and development, and they speak with numerous children throughout the day.

Greg Hattle, PYP Coordinator at EtonHouse, adds:

  • Make sure your child is aware of any school procedures before school starts, such as daily timetable, weekly sports and ECAs, lunch options, etc.
  • If possible, accompany your child on a trial run of their transport to and from the school. This will help reduce the anxiety of taking the wrong bus or going in the wrong direction. 
  • Join the Parent Association group as soon as possible. It is a great way to find out more about the school, and the legacy parents will be able to share more tips and information that you may not get through other channels. 

And Ms Mandziy (UWCSEA Dover) and Ms Leonard (UWCSEA East) offer some more valuable advice.

  • Don’t try and solve all your child’s problems for them. It’s time for ‘them to step up and parents to step back’. Expecting the transition to be ‘trouble-free’ is unrealistic. There will be ups and downs. Talk with your child, guide them and give them the opportunity to come up with a solution themselves.
  • One of the many lasting impacts of Covid is that for many students their friendship groups have become very small, the transition to Middle School is an excellent time for parents to encourage their child to expand their friendship network and get to know others in their grade
  • Once students start getting into a routine, help your child to develop a realistic homework timetable that makes allowances for activities and personal interests. The timetable should be displayed in their study area and they should stick to it. Set homework times at home will help develop self-regulation and minimize procrastination.

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