While all the prep and meetings definitely help children adjust, possibly the most important thing for a successful transition is the time we as parents can take just to be there to help our children through the experience.
When my daughter started secondary school we were living in New Zealand. The experience was a typical community affair with an official Maori welcome and a special haka created for the girls (only men are normally allowed to perform hakas). We also had the usual welcome meetings, tours and teacher meetings before she started.
Fast forward two years for my son’s first secondary school experience and the picture was a little different. We decided to move back to the UK only three months before arriving and found ourselves in late May, on the other side of the planet, frantically looking for a good UK town to live in and an equally good school for our children.
We found a good school with two places available and, without ever seeing the school and knowing little about the community and locality, we signed up.
Arriving in the UK three days before the start of the new school year, we moved in to rented accommodation and made a jet-lagged dash to get uniforms and stationery. We then had a whistle-stop tour of the school with a helpful Headteacher and then the day arrived...
I know this may seem like every parent and child’s nightmare scenario for new school preparation but it did have its upside.
My children (and their parents!) had no time to be nervous and contemplate the stresses and strains of what might be. They turned up on Day 1 as Kiwi children (who had been in a NZ school only a week previously) with their accents and behaviours and a blank slate of UK school knowledge.
Daunting some might say and that is one way to describe the experience. But our joint experiences of newness, opportunity and trepidation definitely helped us share the load.
How we managed the first few weeks
- Time to talk. We joked about how different life was in the UK: how strange the accents were; how busy the roads were; how odd it was that teachers were referred to as Sir and Miss rather than first names; the different streetwise lingo used by the other kids; and how weird it was that school grounds were locked and you couldn’t simply go in and play in the grounds out of school time.
- Embracing difference. My children embraced their differences and talked about their Kiwi life. So when the boys wanted my son to do the haka at a football match he obliged and embraced the Kiwi jokes with good humour and an overemphasised accent.
- Homework loads and new routines. We dealt with the inevitability of new experience and homework loads in the way most parents do. We made sure we were around to offer help in those first few weeks and, although not easy, calmly sat through the panics while offering good routines for completing homework that fitted with our family evening structure.
- Being there. My husband and I really tried to go along to as many school and sports activities and make adult connections to help ‘bed in’ our children.
The thing I remember the most about that time was my son saying to me at one football match I attended – "do you know Mum you’re pretty much the only parent who regularly turns up each week – you’re like the team mascot!"
I guess if you told me five years before, that this is how I would approach my son starting secondary school I would have thought it was madness and irresponsible. But I now believe that while all the prep and meetings definitely help children adjust, possibly the most important thing for a successful transition is the time we as parents can take just to be there to help our children through the experience. As they say in New Zealand:
"Kāhore taku toa i te toa takitahi, he toa takitini"
(We cannot succeed without the support of those around us).
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