WhichSchoolAdvisor.com spoke to Ross Addison, cognitive behavioural therapist at The Lighthouse Arabia and Dr Shola Faniran general paediatrician and developmental paediatrician at The Children's Medical Centre, to learn what the common transitional problems are at this stage, how to spot issues early on… and how to help your kids 'sail through' their first few days of Secondary School...
Ross: Many children will experience anxiety when transitioning from Primary to Secondary school and this can be an extremely stressful period in their life.
Not only is there the change of school which can be difficult, but children will be aware of increased work load, having many more teachers than they’re used to, having to be more independent, making new friendships and the increase in school size.
Parents should expect to see anxiety, worries, stress and possibly behavioural difficulties due to these concerns.
Some young people may develop school fears or phobias and other children may develop symptoms of separation anxiety (fear of separation from their primary caregivers) from their parents due to their worries.
Dr Shola: Moving to Middle/Secondary school for some children may be the same as starting a new school year, especially if the child is in a school that encompasses Primary, Middle and Secondary school.
This transition has it’s own peculiar set of anxieties attached to it. The children are at the cusp of adolescent and are more image conscious and body aware. They are more focused on how they will be perceived and accepted by their peers based on their body image, dressing, accessories etc. Parents play a role in containing these anxieties and not feeding into it.
Support your child by going shopping with them but encourage them to maintain the boundaries set by your family.
Over the long summer months, friendships and allegiance may have changed and this may be a source of anxiety for some children. Parents should be tuned to their children and find opportunities to discuss friends with their children. Hopefully, the children would have maintained contact with their friends over the summer months.
Irrespective, it is a good idea for parents to encourage or help their children organise meeting up with their peers in a social setting before the first day of school.
On the academic side, expectations for Middle/Secondary school children are very different from Primary. This may also be a source of anxiety for some children. Parents can help relieve this anxiety by helping their children organise their school materials.
For children moving to Middle/Secondary school in a different campus or new school, other concerns may include going to a new environment where they do not understand the culture and where things are.
Hopefully, these children would have had the opportunity to visit the school before hand. If there is an open day before the first day of school, parents should make it a priority to attend. It is also a good idea to drive round the school to familiarise your child with the school.
Ross: Anxieties and worries can manifest in many ways. For some children they may become clingy, which would be a trait of separation anxiety. Others may become tearful as the new school year starts and especially when school does start.
We often find that the very first day is the most stressful and the day that children find the hardest. So, it is important to look out for behaviour changes in your child that would indicate that they are worrying.
Some symptoms may include sleep disturbance, complains of psycho-somatic concerns such as stomach aches, headaches, feeling sick or even feeling panicky.
However, in transition difficulties one of the most prominent symptoms is avoidance. Your child may try to avoid going to school in any way possible, but this can be due to fears, the unknown and uncertainty of the new school year or sometimes worries about their safety.
Many children have told me about worries they have that their parents will not be there to pick them up from school or that they worry that something bad may happen to themselves or their family. These would all be indicative of separation anxiety, and whilst it may resolve itself on its own, professional help can support the transition and reduce worries.
Ross: What’s most important that is that you provide a non-judgmental pair of ears. Children and young people often find it very difficult to talk to family and friends about their worries, often from fear that they may be judged.
When you notice symptoms that your child is worrying, find a relaxed environment when they look calm and ask them about their worries.
Much of the time people worry at night time, particularly when they get into bed. If you are noticing that your child seems tired, it may be because they’re not sleeping very well. Make some time during the bedtime routine to ask about worries and fears and you may find that they open up to you.
Dr Shola: In all children, starting school or returning, some issues do not develop until the child actually starts school.
It is important to deal with issues as they develop and not allow it to fester to become a bigger issue.
Be sensitive to your child’s moods and take the opportunity to discuss their day in school in a non-confrontational way. Some signs you may notice in your child suggesting they are struggling include: irritability, crying easily, poor sleep, nightmares, school refusal, not wanting to talk about school.
Make an effort to know your child’s teacher and her friends.
Returning to school is an eventful episode in each child’s life. However, if handled right, every child has a successful school year.
Ross: If your child is having difficulty talking about their worries then you could recommend that they write down their worries and perhaps keep them in a ‘worry box’.
When they feel ready to show you then you can work through them and afterwards it’s important to have a ceremony of ripping them up or burning them. This is an important process of showing that the worries have been resolved and are in the past.
It’s often very useful is you remain inquisitive about your child’s worries. Certainly do not belittle them but instead give them respect.
Ask questions but try not to give too many answers, instead what’s more effective is if you ask open ended questions then help your child to find their own answers. In addition to this it helps them to self-manage their difficulties and find helpful problem solving techniques.
I would certainly recommend that parents spend time reading about separation anxiety, which is often one of the big reasons for difficulties with school transition. More information can be found at www.helpguide.org.
If you’re keen to learn more about how to help your child to manage their own thoughts and problem solve their own difficulties I would suggest reading more around ‘Socratic Questioning’. This is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) technique that is used to help people to challenge their thoughts and find solutions.
A good article to explain this better can be found here.
Another great resource is ‘helping your anxious child’ by Ronald Rapee et al. Many parents have found this extremely useful. If you’re really interested in learning more you may even want to explore CBT, a good starting book is ‘An Introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: Skills and Applications by David Westbrook et al.