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The Big Leavers : Helping Kids Transition from Primary to Secondary School

By Julie Ferry, Writer and Jessica Hawley, Director of Primary School Development, The RAP Project

After nine years of shepherding my two children through primary school, my youngest finished Year 6 last term and heads to secondary school in September. Like any family, this change signals a turning point for us all. More independence for them must mean more worry for me. Right?

Friends with teenagers raise their eyes when I talk about looking forward to a day when I see both my kids growing into young adults, being able to take more ownership of their decisions and carveout their way in the world. ‘Just you wait,’ they seem to say with very serious expressions on their faces. When I was teenager, the only thing I had to worry about was figuring out which route to take on my paper round. Today, our kids face all sorts of other issues, including how to navigate social media and the online world.

I’ll admit that my children having access to social media scares the living daylights out of me. I’m worried about how they will cope with multiple platforms, the pressures to conform to certain body types and continuous access to content that is far too mature for their young eyes. I ask myself, “Will they become addicted to their phones? Cyber-bullied? Exposed to an onslaught of inappropriate content? Will they follow perfectly groomed influencers who will negatively affect their body image and self-esteem? Will they be attracted to posts that espouse toxic views and negatively change the way they think about the world? Could they be groomed?” I think most people would agree that it’s a minefield. And for parents on the cusp of giving their children the incremental freedoms that are part and parcel of growing up and promote healthy separation from their parental figures, it’s a lot to contend with.

So, what to do? In any other part of my life, I would bury myself in research. And there is a lot of it out there when it comes to secondary school age children and how they interact online. From scientific based studies to Insta psychologists, there is a ton of information. It can be confusing. My approach has been to take it slow, delving into the facts when I feel like I have a chunk of time to devote to it, and share the most relevant ones with my kids to encourage discussions. I figure my interest in the subject will indicate to my children that I am attempting to understand the world they will grow up in, despite my fears and misgivings. Also, I try to remember that every family is different, so if I find an approach that chimes with me and could see working with my children then great, if not, I swiftly move on. There are many, many options out there.

The RAP Project’s Director of Primary Development and Training, Jessica Hawley, works with hundreds of school children every year helping them with the transition between primary and secondary school. Here, she gives her advice for navigating this period of the education journey.

Have you noticed any recent trends with kids and devices in primary schools?

According to Statista’s report ‘Share of children owning mobile phones in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2023’, 53% of children aged 7-11 own a smart phone. The percentage of young people owning a smart phone aged 12-15 jumps to a whopping 96%. What worries me is the high percentage of kids who sleep with those devices in their bedrooms. Kids as young as Year 3 have an increasing autonomy over where they are using these devices and we know that most problematic behaviours happen at night. We need parents to reclaim their responsibility to set boundaries with their children on these devices. The other aspect to this is that people tend to lead busy lives, and screens are an easy point of childcare. I think modelling good habits around screen time is key, so having regular time away from your own device and keeping it out of your bedroom are great ways to set a good example.

What advice would you give a Year 6 student going to secondary school?

Based on many conversations I’ve had with headteachers at secondary schools, the best way to feel like you are part of a larger community is to join clubs. At first, secondary schools can feel really overwhelming and kids often feel lost, so the idea of finding your people through clubs is a compelling one. You meet new friends, you can experiment with activities and it’s good to be very open to that and try things out, as it may lead to making connections with other kids. Another thing to be aware of is that friendship issues are very common in Year 7. There is a lot of anxiety about not having made your best friend in Year 7 or if you’ve gone to secondary school with a lot of kids from one’s primary school, there is anxiety over maintaining these relationships, or being left behind. I think some of the best schools are those that are light on homework in the first term because social issues are such a predominant factor for kids. Parents can help by equipping their kids with the skills of how to be social, so advising their children to be patient, talking about what friendships are, how you make friends and that it doesn’t just happen by itself.

What tools do we need to teach primary school pupils to build empathy towards each other?

Building empathy is a practice to be learned, so we need to first move to the mindset of teaching children how to be empathetic and then practice it. This might look like teaching kids how to intervene when they see something that’s not ok and showing them the difference between name calling and calling out behaviour or how to recognize that all of us are human and will all have moments when we feel down or want someone to stand by us. If we practice these things and have role models within the school community that are already doing it, kids can learn to be more empathetic and find ways of being a better friend. I highly recommend Brene Brown’s short video Empathy vs Sympathy, which you can watch with your children.