So, you’re about to make the big dive into high school….

The journey from primary to high school can have a number of tricky obstacles to negotiate along the way, but it’s easier with some understanding.  It’s handy to have some practical understanding of the differences between primary and high school and it’s really important to understand the social aspects of the transition.

There are a number of obvious practical and physical differences between high school and primary school. High schools are generally much larger than primary schools and there’s a difference in the physical layout of the school. Instead of having one classroom for the entire year, classes are usually spread out over a campus and timetabling can mean students may have to go from one end of the campus to the other very swiftly. It’s very rare for two consecutive days to have the same subjects, teachers and classes. Many students worry about getting lost or not being in the right place at the right time.

Also, high school usually means that you will usually have more than one teacher, everyday. Instead of one classroom teacher at primary school, at high school, students have different teachers for different subjects. Each teacher will have his or her own teaching style and level of interpersonal skills. Teachers might vary of a continuum of “strict” to “totally casual”. This can take some getting used to. Some teachers may tolerate a little bit of chatter in the classroom and others just don’t. Students should be encouraged to notice these differences.

Under the obvious differences between primary and high school, lie some more subtle differences. In primary school, there are plenty of ways for parents to be involved in day to day classroom activities. Parents are welcome to have input in many high schools, but tend not to spend time in the classroom. Socially, students move from wanting their parent to be close and a source of support to worrying that their parents will do something embarrassing.

When we take a close look at what’s happening developmentally in the adolescent brain, we can begin to understand why high school worries might be a little different to primary school worries. While there are many practical things to be concerned about, the student transitioning to high school is likely mostly concerned about friendships and fitting in. They may worry about social acceptance from deep in the core of their brains.

Adolescence is a time of massive growth in the brain and the transition to high school is going to be managed with some rather different brain-wiring than the start of primary school. On the upside of this massive brain growth, students can begin to learn so much more and learn quite quickly. In high school, students start to shift to a deeper knowledge of the World around them because their brains can allow them to have that kind of understanding. Some high school students might still worry that the work will be too hard and they won’t know anything, but many will be less likely to speak up about their concerns because they start to worry more about what others think about them.

The adolescent brain grows especially quickly in the social parts of the brain (the amygdale and associated areas). The growth in the social part of the brain occurs out of sync with the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes are also maturing quickly, but not as quickly as the social parts of the brain. The frontal lobes help curb impulse and govern our attention – they help guide us to make sensible decisions. With a social brain developing faster than a sensible frontal part of the brain, the transition to school for high schoolers can often seem to be more about managing friendships and “fitting in” than about learning algebra.

Also, emotions begin to be more strongly felt in an adolescent brain. Researchers tell us that the pleasure centre of the brain is also changing during adolescence.  Love, hurt, sadness, rejection, and anger can all seem more magnified.  So, if someone isn’t in the same class as their friends, this can actually feel like it is “the end of the World”. The job of parents and teachers is to listen and acknowledge the felt experiences without dismissing them, but also to encourage students’ attempts to problem solve, sit with strong feelings and ask for what they would like or what they need.

So, with this in mind…..some early-high-school-year-tips….

Students –

  • It helps if you can do the practical chores about being organised. Be sure you have your timetable somewhere handy. Check in the morning that you have the correct books for the day’s classes

  • If you get lost, ask for help – most teachers will understand. Most students will be helpful. If they are not helpful, ask someone else.

  • Know that even if no one says it, everyone else is worried about where they fit in. Different students have different ways of showing it – some will maybe want to puff themselves up to give the impression that they are managing, some will want to cling tightly to friends (and maybe exclude you), some will get cheeky and try to protect themselves with humour. You will find your way. Although, you should try to avoid making others feel lousy to make yourself feel better.

  • If you are separated from others you know well, make some rituals or meeting places where you’ll catch up. Monday morning muffins from the tuck shop can be a nice catch up ritual or Friday lunchtime frisbee. Encourage everyone to bring other new friends to these places or events to catch up, too.

  • Try to get involved in activities you enjoy – sport, debating, volunteering – or just give them a try. Like trying on shoes, high school can be a great time to try on a few activities to see whether they “fit” you.

Parents –

  • You have the tricky job of finding the right path in the middle of hovering over your child to letting them be completely independent…and this will be your job for some time yet (research now tells us that brains take 25 years to be fully developed). Be available, but not in their face. Step in when there is danger. Encourage them to explore, and sometime push, boundaries when it is safe to do so.

  • Even though your child may roll their eyes, continue to ask them about their day. Sometimes this is easier to talk about when you are doing something else together with your child – the drive home together when you are both facing the road ahead can be a useful time and can feel less confronting than face to face across the dinner table.

  • Don’t confuse your own past experiences of high school with that of your child’s experiences. This is the next exciting (if a little nerve wracking) chapter of their life story. Let them know you are there for them, but refrain from stalking them.  Stay side by side or backing up from behind rather than leading the way through the obstacles.