This is an updated version of a blog entry that I wrote some time ago and, in response to requests from parents, I’ve reposted it at the beginning of the school year a number of times. This version has been shortened down and is hopefully more ‘user-friendly’, ending with five simple things that parents can do to help support their child through the first few months of high school.
I’m sure some people have fond memories of their first day of high school – I’m not one of them! The move from a state primary school to a private high school was tough. I knew absolutely no-one and felt completely alone.
Thankfully, it’s now extremely rare for children to be thrown into high school and left to fend for themselves, with most schools developing and implementing transition programs to ensure that no-one ‘slips through the cracks’ during this potentially difficult time. Even so, it’s vital that parents realise the school can’t do this alone and that they too play a crucial role in ensuring a smooth transition and that those first few months of secondary school, in particular, are incredibly important …
But what has this time got to do with future alcohol and other drug use? Well, it’s all about making sure our kids are resilient, with research showing that the move to high school plays a key role in building (or potentially damaging) resilience. Resilience is the ‘ability to bounce back’, i.e., the capacity to overcome adversity and obstacles. We can’t ‘inoculate’ young people against possible problems (such as drug use or bullying) but if we can help them ‘bounce back’ (i.e., be resilient) should things go wrong, we’re at least arming them in the best way possible.
Andrew Fuller is the Australian ‘guru’ and the ‘go-to’ person in this area and he believes that this transition period is critical for building resilience in students. From a positive perspective, starting high school offers young people “an opportunity to re-invent or consolidate how they see themselves”. However, for others, changing schools (or even moving from primary to secondary within the same school) can be a stressful event and has been linked to a lowering in self-esteem and an increase in psychological distress should it not run smoothly.
The good news for parents is that if students have a smooth transition, by Year 10 they’re likely to have higher levels of school attendance, better academic results, low behavioural problems and lower rates of substance abuse. And there’s the link to alcohol and other drugs – positive transition, the lower the risk of future problems in that area. So why is this the case?
This move to high school requires all students, whether they’re new to the school or not, to establish new peer groups. New students result in a shift in the group dynamics. Amongst the ‘newbies’ there will be those that almost everyone automatically gravitates towards, others will have pre-existing issues, while there will be some who are strong academically or have athletic abilities. As these children are ‘added to the mix’, everyone is affected in some way. Established friendship groups from primary school are likely to change. One new child added to a year group can have a ripple effect, but in the first year of high school where there’s typically a much larger intake, things will inevitably shift and this can be extremely difficult for young people.
What is most concerning though is just how quickly things can go wrong at this time. In 2001, Andrew wrote a paper called ‘Creating resilient learners’ where he stated the following:
“I suspect we have no more than three months from the commencement of secondary school, and perhaps much less time, before a peer group develops negative attitudes towards learning.”
What he is saying here is that those first months of high school have the very real potential to significantly impact on your child.
During this time they desperately want to gain the acceptance of their peers, i.e., they want to find a friend or a friendship group. In addition, they will want to establish their place in the year group and, as a result, many will likely experience rejection to some degree. Not everyone is going to be popular and that’s difficult for anyone, let alone an adolescent beginning to struggle with a range of physical and emotional changes. The resulting self-doubt, lowered self-esteem and overall distress can adversely impact future resilience if they’re not supported during this time.
It’s also important to remember, as some bounce from group to group, trying to find one that will accept them and where they feel comfortable, there’s the potential for them to find themselves accepted by a peer group that could end up being ‘problematic’. Even though you’ve worked hard to instill positive values and attitudes in your child, it can all come undone during very quickly.
So what can parents do to support their child at this time and, in doing so, help build their resilience? And is it possible to ensure that they don’t find themselves in a potentially problematic peer group? There are no guarantees, but here are five simple things that a parent of a first year high school student could try to do over the coming month or so:
- keep talking to your child and show an interest – they may not want to tell you everything that is happening but keep asking the questions. Things are so different – they now have multiple teachers, they may be getting to school a different way and they’re meeting many new people – show an interest in all of it. But know when to stop – don’t be a nag! If they don’t want to tell you more, don’t push it!
- be involved – ask any high school teacher and they’ll tell you that they rarely see a parent unless something goes wrong. Try to be actively and respectfully involved with what is happening during this transition period. Don’t embarrass your child and show up halfway during an English lesson but make an effort and attend parent sessions the school puts on. Try to make a time to see their Year Coordinator to introduce yourself and see how things are progressing, particularly if you have any concerns
- meet their new friends – encourage your child to invite them home and take some time to get to know them. This is an effective way of staying connected and being more aware of what’s happening in your child’s life. It’s not about ‘vetting’ their friends but if you don’t feel comfortable with them for some reason, discuss how you feel carefully and respectfully. Ask them what it is that they like about them, you never know, your opinion may change as a result. Trying to ban your child from seeing certain people won’t be helpful, particularly during this transition period, but talk through your concerns and try to work through possible solutions
- meet their new friends’ parents – meet the friends, then meet their parents. You can tell so much about a child by having a brief chat to their Mum or Dad. If they seem to have similar values as you, grab them and hold them tight – they’re going to be useful in the future. If they don’t, be prepared, you’re most probably going to have work twice as hard!
- and most importantly, find a special activity for you and your child to do at least once a week. A positive parent-child relationship builds resilience – having an activity that involves you and your child ‘connecting’, particularly at this age, helps maintain a strong and positive relationship. It’s not about the quantity, it’s the quality of time that counts – just spending 5 minutes a week of real quality time with your child can work wonders. Whatever you decide on, it has to be fun for both of you, distraction free (no electronic devices that can interrupt you) and something neither of you does with anyone else
If your child is just about to begin high school, it can be very exciting for them but also very stressful. If they’re having trouble fitting in and finding friends, or they’re having problems with their old friends, they may find it difficult to talk to you about it. Sadly, there’s far more shame associated with not being popular today, mainly due to the role social media plays in many of their lives.
Taking the time to do these five simple things can make the difference between your child simply ‘surviving’ or ‘thriving’ during this transition period. Showing an interest, being involved, meeting their new friends and taking the time time to catch up and chat about what you’re doing and what’s happening with them can make all the difference.
Fuller, A. (2001). Creating resilient learners. Learning Matters 6, 22-25.