Small fish in a big pond

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It seems like only yesterday you were waving off your precious little bundle for his long-anticipated first day at primary school. While you proudly snapped away, documenting the smart, new, too-old-looking uniform for the family album, you secretly worried about whether he would be happy, settle in, make friends, keep up with the class, eat his lunch and remember to use the toilet and wash his hands. So how can it be, in just a short blur of school assemblies, plays, concerts, parents’ evenings and camps, your child is nearly old enough to start secondary school? The same list of worries (plus or    minus a few items) is now looming large again.

But this time around, when you proudly snap away at the smart, new, too-old-looking secondary uniform, it won’t just be you feeling a mix of excitement and apprehension. This time, your precious bigger bundle is old enough to be much more aware of the changes that lie ahead, and will probably have a few niggling concerns of his own – whether he chooses to admit them or not. So is there anything we can do to ease our children’s worries and help prepare them for their secondary school years?

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What’s new?

Going from a relatively cosy primary school, where you are one of the oldest and (hopefully!) wisest, where you know the buildings, the teachers and the routines like the back of your hand, and then landing in a much bigger campus, with blocks and classrooms everywhere, a sea of unfamiliar, grown-up-looking faces, a host of new rules and an unfathomable timetable, can obviously be daunting. Most of us can remember our own bewildering first days at “big school”, trying to work out what we were supposed to be doing and where we were supposed to be doing it.

Blake Harding, head of Year Seven at West Island School in Pok Fu Lam, describes the changes, saying, “The analogy of a big fish in a small pond (primary) becoming a small fish in a big pond (secondary) is very accurate as a description of the transition between primary and secondary. Differences and changes include the school environment, with the actual size of the school structure doubling, classrooms being spread over a larger area, an increase in subjects that students study, an increase in opportunities for students to be involved with extracurricular activities and the start of a journey to becoming mature global citizens.”

For parents, one of the main changes of secondary school is that the focus shifts from parent to child – students are expected to be able to organise and be responsible for themselves. Blaming Mum for anything that is late, forgotten or generally scruffy just doesn’t wash any more! If your child is late for school, he will get a detention. If he doesn’t do his homework, he will get a report card. If he forgets his games kit, he will have to take the flack. The days of dreading the teacher heading your way across the playground for a “quick word” are largely over.

Clearly, with the heightened expectations and increased independence of secondary school, plus a whole new system to get to grips with, the more organised your child can be, the better. Of course, some children are naturally more organised than others, but what if – like most children – yours is more of a Captain Chaos than a Perfect Peter?

Order from chaos

The good news is that organisational skills can be worked on and, like any skill, will improve with practice. The bad news is that sometimes children have to learn from their mistakes. My own Captain Chaos spent his first half-term at secondary school carrying around a heavy-as-lead rucksack, which was stuffed-to-bursting with every text book and exercise book he had been given. He was so nervous that he might turn up for a lesson without something vital that he carried everything around with him at all times. Despite my asking, pleading and begging him to get organised and use his locker, it wasn’t until he developed a sore back and a broken strap on his rucksack that he finally started to go to his locker every morning, look at his timetable, and just carry around the books he needed. Lesson learned. Eventually.

In those first few weeks of term, your child might feel overwhelmed with new information and a heavier workload, and may despair of ever being able to be in the right place at the right time with the right kit and homework. But according to Blake, it will all fall into place. He says, “Some students do need that extra time and support adapting to these changes in daily routine, but when they find themselves practising good habits, it becomes natural to them.”

To help skip the sore back and broken rucksack, teachers advise that you get your child used to organising himself as much as possible before secondary school is imminent. For example, you could gradually let him take responsibility for packing his school bag and organising his homework schedule. At first, you might be tempted to follow him around like a shadow, with timely reminders and occasional (or constant!) nags to make sure he has everything covered – after all, who wants to see their child mess up? But the reality is that the sooner you relinquish control and let him (or make him!) take responsibility, the sooner he will learn. And the more he can learn to organise himself at home, the more he will be able to do it at school – and the less likely he is to need a chiropractor.

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The nitty-gritty

Another way to help your child become high school-ready is to prepare him for the itsy-bitsy, nitty-gritty of his new school life. Your child might be travelling to school on his own for the first time, either by bus, by MTR, by ferry or on foot – or any combination of the above. Make sure you practise the journey and top up his Octopus card beforehand, plus discuss a few contingencies – transport does not always run to plan. If you know any other local children who will be attending the same school, could you set up your children as travel buddies? The new school day will probably involve an earlier start, so try to rein in bedtimes before term begins so your child is not snoozing all the way through his first few weeks.

When it comes to kit, make sure all uniform, equipment and stationery is bought in good time, and that everything fits – no one wants to turn up at a new school with a shirt that is three sizes too big. And on the subject of uniform, it is often worth investing in extra sports kit, as this seems particularly prone to going walkabout. Another thing to find out is if there are any restrictions on haircuts or styles and, for girls, jewellery and make-up. And what about lunch? Will your child bring a packed lunch, or buy lunch at school – how much money will he need?

Technology has also added a new layer of responsibility onto many children’s secondary school lives. Your child might be given – or have to provide – a laptop or an iPad, so make sure you know the requirements beforehand. Will your child be given a locker to store his device safely when he is not using it – and if so, will he need to bring a padlock? If your child has a phone, does he know the rules about phone use in school?

Communication between school, students and parents will be essential, and it is worth finding out how this will work – there may be a weekly email or letter, but there may be other ways (such as teachers’ blogs or parents’ access to areas of the school website) to find out about things like drama rehearsals, sports fixtures or extracurricular activities. And how – and how often – will the school report to you on your child’s academic progress? Can teachers be contacted directly with any concerns? The more of the nuts and bolts of day-to-day life you can sort out beforehand, the more confident you and your child will feel when his first day finally rolls round.

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A new start

If nerves are surfacing (either yours or your child’s!) as the start of term looms, you can rest assured that the teachers will have been preparing for their new students for months beforehand. As well as providing plenty of information sheets and booklets for families, schools will often invite new students to come for an orientation day, or have them start term a day earlier to give them a chance to get to know the buildings and routine before the older pupils arrive. Teachers may also plan lots of  “getting to know you” activities for the first few weeks, so even the most reserved of students are guaranteed to meet new people.

As well as meeting other new students and making new friends, you can reassure your child that he can look forward to a much more diverse day at secondary school as he starts to study a broader range of subjects, taught by specialist teachers who are passionate about their subject. He may also have the opportunity to try a whole range of extracurricular activities – anything from debating to drama, or orienteering to orchestra. Such a big change in routine can be unsettling, but Blake says that teachers are there to make the transition as smooth and successful as possible. He says, “For new Year Sevens starting secondary school, teachers are there to introduce them to new ways of thinking, explore enjoyable ways to learn and to provide a network of personal and social support.”

Secondary school can be an exciting new start, and there are things we can do to prep our children for the change. We can help them learn to organise themselves, make sure they have all the kit and information they need for their days to run smoothly, and be there to listen to their worries and to ease them through those first few weeks of information overload. But as well as all the things we should be doing, is there anything we shouldn’t do? According to Blake, one thing to avoid is stifling a child’s growing independence. He says, “While all families are different, parents not allowing their child to flourish in a new environment by not letting them be independent can sometimes hold students back.” If we want our children to bloom at secondary school, we have to give them the space to grow.

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Rachel Kenney
Rachel was born on a stormy night in Bristol in the south west of England, and grew into a quirky child who used to clean the bottoms of her shoes and hold her breath until she fainted. Aged three, she said she wanted to be a cow when she grew up (which, hopefully, did not come true!), but later settled for a career in journalism and has since worked for a variety of publications. Rachel loves travelling (which is strange, considering her extreme fear of flying) and has managed to pack a two-and-a-half year backpacking stint, nearly five years of expat living in Hong Kong, and as many holidays as practicable into her life so far. Married with two children, Rachel spends her spare time drinking too many lattes and planning her next escape.

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