Easing into boarding school
THE transition from primary to secondary school is a huge change.
It can be an exciting time, but it can also disrupt a child’s learning and sense of security.
To help children cope, parents should start talking positively about secondary school early, not expect children to be immediately happy at secondary school and involve them in every step of the process, from curriculum decisions to uniform shopping, according to experienced educator Julia Winter Cooke.
Ms Winter Cooke is head of middle years at The Hamilton and Alexandra College in Victoria’s Western District.
She has specialised in the Year 7–9 age group for the past 20 years.
“Middle years schooling is an incredibly important phase for a whole lot of reasons,” she said. “One thing I have learnt over many years is that sometimes transition, really setting into secondary school, can take up to 18 months. Particularly for boys.
“Research has shown, over a long time, there is a natural academic dip through Year 7, both in literacy and numeracy. So, it is quite natural to have a confidence dip.
“I’d rather take pressure off the grades and reinforce it is actually about the learning habits, not about grades, particularly in Term 1.”
Her advice to parents was to slow down routines at home, have frequent communication with school staff – boarding staff for boarding families – and check in with children regularly.
“It is the little checking in that makes the biggest difference,” she said.
“Students need to understand the challenges that occur and realise that transition is just a normal process.
“It is OK to feel uncomfortable.”
Her main mantra is ‘slow everything down for long-term success’.
“Just be comfortable with the transition space,” she said.
“It is about slowing down routines if the kids are getting overloaded; slowing down homework; slowing down expectation to make instant friends.
“It is about reassuring both children and parents that it is OK to feel a bit worried.”
Ms Winter Cooke said consistent bedtimes, clear expectations about homework and leisure time and “not catastrophising” problems would give children a stronger sense of security.
“I do notice that parents can get very anxious,” she said. “Particularly if their children are struggling in the morning to get on the buses or they are very much at sea.
“I think if parents can just keep quite calm and communicate daily if they are anxious, too.
“If there is that vent at home, then parents may become quite alarmist because of the dumping and yet the child has had a really good day.
“If parents understand it is natural for them to come home and dump … they just need to work out if it is serious by coming back to the school.”
In terms of a school’s responsibilities to smooth the transition and concerns, Ms Winter Cooke said parents should absolutely expect open and frequent communication from staff.
“We have to ring home at the start of every year to have that initial conversation,” she said, explaining she invites all parents to contact her any time.
“Through those phone calls, parents also know that you are serious about wanting to care about their sons and daughters.
“And we follow up with both individual and group emails, so the expectations are clear.”
From the Australian Boarding Schools Association: Speak positively about school and all that your child can expect to gain. They will pick up on your anxieties so be positive. Talk through any fears or anxieties and come up with solutions together. Discuss homesickness with them and how they might manage this, and also try to think about how them going away may affect you. Make sure they know how to use a mobile phone to make calls. Put the important family numbers in the phone.
Say goodnight in the lounge room, instead of the bedroom, in the six months before school starts. Insist students do their own chores, including making their bed and putting their dirty clothes in the laundry. Know that students will phone when they are at their lowest point and “dump” their problems. Ring back and speak to staff to check the situation. Help them develop good personal hygiene habits. Allow them to go on sleepovers and school camps before secondary school. These experiences build independence.
PREPARING FOR BOARDING: The Australian Boarding Schools Association says talking positively to your child about what they can gain from boarding school will help ease the transition.