How to support your child as they start secondary school

17 September 2019

Starting secondary is a significant milestone in a young person’s life – new schools, new friends, new teachers and indeed new challenges altogether. Whether you’re a parent, teacher or practitioner, helping a young person through this transition can be one of the most impactful things you do for them. But how can we support them? Here our practitioners, team and friends share practical ways we can help pupils deal with such challenges.

1. Developing an identity

Fitting in, asserting an identity or gaining peer acceptance becomes even more prominent in a secondary school context. This undeniable reality can often lead to a dip in academic progress or intensify challenging behaviour.

“My challenge at school was a struggle between being a good student and getting the grades everyone (including myself) expected of me and wanting to be independent and assert my identity; who I wanted to be in this world and who my friends were,” says Sandra, Intervention Practitioner at Kineara.

Helping young people to express themselves authentically and take advantage of extracurricular activities is just one way of facilitating healthy social exploration. Sandra adds that it’s also important for parents and teachers to try to understand why someone is behaving the way they are instead of just trying to change it.

“Larger classes make it more difficult to have a closer relationship with students, which is where a service like Motivate to Educate (M2E) is helpful. It offers a listening ear and can help guide a student back on track,” she adds.

2. Bullying and peer pressure

Whether its physical, verbal, social, or online, bullying can take many forms. For parents, identifying any changes in your child’s behaviour, asking questions, and building meaningful relationships with their teachers can all make a difference.

Strengthening relationships between the parent and child, parent and teacher, and teacher and child, is one aim of M2E. “I was lucky that I had a good upbringing with parents who gave me a strong sense of self-worth that made me realise my potential. Without it I may have ended up in more serious trouble that would have been harder to return from,” says Sandra.

During the transition, it can be helpful to try to increase your child’s circle of friends by encouraging them to invite home their friends or participate in group activities. Educating pupils and their parents through assemblies, class discussions and workshops can also help to challenge stigma and raise awareness about the challenges that pupils are facing.

“Larger classes make it more difficult to have a closer relationship with students, which is where a service like Motivate to Educate (M2E) is helpful. It offers a listening ear and can help guide a student back on track.”

Reflecting on her own experience, Mel, Comms Lead at Kineara, highlights the importance of having quality support. “For me the main thing was going from a very small school where everyone knew each other to a school with hundreds of kids in each year; this was a bit intimidating at first! The key thing for me was that I had a close-knit group of friends that formed pretty early; they were my peers who I went to for support and we took each other through the whole secondary journey.”

“For pupils who are feeling shy or lonely, we often involve their peers by bringing them into our sessions to participate in group activities such as cooking and baking, which develops the child’s confidence and broadens their friendship circle,” says Gail, Kineara’s M2E lead.

3. Mental health and wellbeing

With 1 in 10 children and young people experiencing a mental health issue at any one time, it is important that we are clued up on the challenges of dealing with mental health, and how we as parents, teachers and practitioners can support pupils. What’s more, a recent Government Green Paper (2017) stated that appropriately trained teachers and school staff can make a difference in addressing mild to moderate mental health problems such as anxiety and conduct disorder, comparable to those achieved by trained therapists.

In delivering M2E, we’ve found that teachers and school staff can support pupils by  developing their understanding of mental health through relevant training such as MHFA courses, as well as receiving support with their own wellbeing. We have also seen how a school benefits from adopting a joined-up, wraparound ethos that focuses on wellbeing just as much as academic outcomes. As part of the culture, schools could consider activities that have been proven to help pupils manage high levels of stress such as mindfulness, yoga and relaxation/breathing exercises.

The people we work with have multi-entrenched needs, so our support must be intentional, therapeutic, adaptable. You’re not seeing a situation or a person as one-dimensional but seeing them in a holistic frame.”

After taking part in M2E, one pupil who was struggling to manage his temper said about the programme: “I enjoy having better relationships with people in school. I use my breathing techniques when someone is annoying me, and I listen to my relaxation before bed and no tech for one hour which helps my sleep.” In this case we found the main outcomes to be significant improvements in the pupils’ overall stress and behaviour, followed by an improvement in concentration and emotional awareness.

There are a plethora of online resources exploring different areas of mental health and wellbeing, from exam stress, eating disorders to responding to traumatic events. We have also written about the real impact of exam stress and why schools need to  focus on supporting mental health during this difficult time.

4. Hidden or complex challenges

For some, personal, hidden, or external challenges will take a toll on social and academic progress through secondary school, including the impact of educational inequality, a lack of adequate support for SEND pupils, family breakdown, or issues with housing. One way of supporting pupils through such a challenge is looking at the ‘whole-person,’ offering empathy and being emotionally available.

“The people we work with have multi-entrenched needs, so our support has to be intentional, therapeutic, adaptable,” says Maria, “When you’re talking to someone, it helps to see that person as a system – in that system is a person, their needs, background, parentage, education etc. You’re not seeing a situation or a person as one-dimensional but seeing them in a holistic frame.”

Maria explains that not everyone offers holistic support, neither does everyone have to.” As a school, for example, it’s about recognising that there are other organisations that can support with intervention on a holistic level. It’s about partnership,” she says.

Learn more about our education services.