Coping With High School - A Transition For Students And ParentsBy Angie Wilcock
We prepare our young so well for school - playgroup experiences, enrolment in pre-school for at least one or two days each week and a variety of social activities. By the time our five year-olds walk into the classroom on their first day, they are as prepared as they could possibly be. Why is it that we expect our twelve-year-old sons and daughters to be instinctively ready for high school?
Transition to high school is considered by some to be one of the most traumatic experiences our children will encounter. This period in a young person's life is already associated with huge physical, emotional and cognitive changes - and they are expected to cope with social and academic change as well! Changes in school structure, classroom organisation, teaching strategies, academic standards and teacher expectations are both challenging and daunting for the new high school student, and if these concerns are not openly addressed, then doesn't it make sense that student motivation and confidence will suffer?
IQ alone does not determine the level of success or achievement experienced by students - motivation and attitude play significant roles in success. In fact, motivation is considered by many to be a key factor in predicting essential educational outcomes (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000), with this middle years stage being regarded as "a period of urgency… with a heightened awareness of emerging adulthood" (Anderman & Maehr, 1994)
The NSW Department of Education and Training has recently released its education strategy for Years 5 - 9 in NSW schools for 2006-09. The document, entitled "Our Middle Years Learners - Engaged, Resilient, Successful", focuses on a commitment to encourage students to reach higher to achieve their goals, through enhanced teaching and learning processes; to encourage an independence in thought and to develop an understanding and appreciation of values and relationships; and to encourage stronger connections or links between primary school and high school.
Whilst this raft of initiatives will go a long way towards establishing stronger links, both academically and socially between primary schools and high schools, there is still a huge gap in the delivery of practical assistance to smooth the transition process for both students and parents. We need to ask these questions:
- Do our sons and daughters leave primary school with the basic tools and skills to cope with the increased demands of high school?
- Have they been guided towards developing effective work habits?
- Do they understand the need for developing a balance between work and play?
- Are they organised?
- Do they have a positive attitude about high school because they understand how different it will be?
- Have they been taught effective time management skills to cope with the increased workloads of high school?
- How can parents help?
After having spent the past two years teaching a Stage 3 Opportunity Class for gifted and talented students, it became very clear that whilst these students would be academically prepared for high school (with the majority to attend selective high schools), they were not necessarily prepared for the increased demands of multiple teachers, unfamiliar subjects, increased workload, transparency in teacher expectations, and examinations. To counter this, I developed a number of management strategies, which not only gave students the opportunity to develop effective time management skills, but also the ability to organise themselves under pressure - something which beginning high schoolers often quote as being one of the major sources of frustration. For parents as well, the common cry is "We weren't ready for this!!"
We may ask what role parents or carers can play in the development of skills to prepare their children for high school. In the main, parents WANT to help their children, but they are often uncertain as to HOW they can help. As children progress through school, parent involvement certainly declines (Zill and Nord, 1994). Parents feel intimidated by the demanding curricula, and they often feel that it is better to offer no advice at all rather than poor advice. In addition, there is also a sense that high school is the beginning of independence, and that help or advice may be seen as interference.
However, whilst it is seen as the classroom teacher's responsibility to adequately prepare his/her students for high school, time management routines and strategies which operate in the classroom setting need also to be supported at home - by parents or carers. Students, too, need to be given some of the responsibility for their own learning. Transition from primary school to high school can be far less stressful for all concerned if there exists the mutual, collaborative support and involvement of all three groups - teachers, parents and students.
Based on more than twenty years of personal classroom teaching experience, it is clear that there are at least four essential ingredients which need to be thrown into the "mix" in order to achieve a more confident approach to entering high school - for students and parents!
Firstly, striking a Balance between work and play is a life skill - not just a skill for high schoolers! Developing a healthy lifestyle, establishing effective work habits, keeping lines of communication open between parents and students, parents and teachers and students and teachers all contribute to a solid foundation of routine and structure. Students who operate on an overcrowded schedule of after-school activities and have an ad hoc attitude towards completing homework or assignments will struggle to meet the demands of high school. The sooner they strike a balance between work and play, the sooner they will settle into their high school routine.
Part of striking this balance, is the understanding of individual learning styles. We all learn in different ways, and if we are not aware of how we learn best, it becomes increasingly difficult to both establish work routines and learn effectively within that routine. We are all either auditory, kinaesthetic or visual learners - sometimes a mix of each - and we achieve best when we understand how we learn.
Recognising a child's learning style moves teachers closer towards gaining maximum results, parents towards a better understanding of how they can help their child with homework and study activities, and students to maximise not only their results, but also the use of their time. There seems to be very little use in establishing solid work routines if students are not studying in a way that suits their individual learning needs.
Finally, in working towards achieving balance, consideration needs to be given to goal setting. Professor Mel Levine, author of "Ready or Not, Here Life Comes" (2005), believes that mutual trust and strong family ties are essential for a successful transition to adolescence - and high school - and parents need to be encouraging open communication and realistic goal setting. We need to remember that setting unrealistic goals or expectations can set children up for failure, as well as destroy their confidence to learn and take reasonable chances.
Whilst Balance is a stepping stone towards achieving a confident and positive start to high school, developing Organisational and Time management skills is vital for maintaining this confidence. Whilst the gifted and talented children I taught were obviously capable of achieving high academic outcomes, it was clear that, like all children, they needed guidance and practice in the art of time management and organisation. If adults attend time management courses in the corporate world, why do we assume that children should be able to organise themselves in their work schedules, without assistance, once they have reached high school? These skills, just like throwing or catching a ball, are not developmental or maturational - children do not just "grow into it"! These are learned skills and, as such, need to be taught.
Professor Mel Levine (2005) claims "schools are mainly responsible for teaching kids how to learn and parents should take on the assignment of teaching them how to work" (p.153). Again, if effective work and organisational skills are to develop, particularly through this transition phase, a strong collaboration between parents, teachers and students is essential.
Children in primary school need to begin learning and developing sound organisational and time management skills if they are to achieve their potential in high school. Commonly, parents will ask, "How can I help my child be better organised?" The answer is really quite easy - if the parent is an organised person! If not - then it will be an uphill battle to help the child! So, parents need to look at how well they organise themselves in their day-to-day lives. If they are constantly running late for meetings, appointments, deadlines etc, or if they are notoriously forgetting, or can't find, important documents or equipment for their day's work, then it is going to be quite difficult to encourage an equally disorganised son or daughter to change their habits…. but change they must if they are going to survive high school!
Recently, I overheard a conversation between a father and his son regarding an assignment (at this point, incomplete!) the day before it was due. It was the final day of school holidays and the son was complaining that he had to go home and do a "stupid assignment". Son was whingeing, dad was bemoaning the fact that son was disorganised and then dad turned to his mate and said, "Well, I was just the same when I was a kid. What can you do?" The answer - PLENTY!
Traditionally in primary school, students keep all their belongings in one single, plastic tote tray - labelled with their name - and that is as organised as it gets! Everything goes into that tray, including the occasional unwelcome banana peel or unwanted sandwich - not the best filing or storage system. High school is a huge shock for students when they discover that they can store at least some of their belongings in a locker. This, at least, ensures that some of their belongings will not go astray, however students still need to develop a system of storing assignment sheets, worksheets, assessment tasks, folders, text books and notebooks - for both school and home use. What they need and when they need it is very much determined by constant referral to a diary or timetable. Without these essential aids, students will flounder in high school.
Primary school students should start to practise using a diary in preparation for high school. It may sound a little strange, but there is definitely an art in using a diary correctly and effectively - and students need to be shown how to do this! The use of a diary, a timetable and a term planner are vitally important if students are to establish and maintain sound organisational skills. At home, students should have a calendar and noticeboard where all important dates and reminders can be clearly seen.
It is really important for students to have a designated work area for study and homework - the days of finding a corner on the dining table or working on the kitchen preparation area are over. The stark reality is that there will be more homework, more assignments, more study for exams etc - and this cannot be achieved while working in front of the television or in amongst Mum's carrot peelings. Much of the work in high school is long-term i.e essays, assignments etc - and ideally, students should be able to pick up the next day where they left off, if they have their own work space. Having a clear desk at the beginning of each homework session, but still with the required books, worksheets etc in view, is a much more efficient way to work, and saves students a lot of "set-up" time. The sooner students pick up on these habits, the easier they will cope with the increased workload.
Open lines of communication are essential, and parents/carers need to be actively involved in helping their child become a more organised and effective learner. Monitoring routines, ensuring that the child is aware of the expectations of the task, and allowing plenty of time to complete tasks are all ways parents can help.
Another really important way parents can help their child become a more organised student is not to over-organise them! Parents feel that if their child is busy, they will stay out of trouble - a great hypothetical, but not realistic when it comes to coping with the extra demands of high school. Although our intentions may be well founded, the bottom line is that students need to work to an organised study/homework pattern if they are to succeed at high school. Multiple after-school activities are not the best way to establish an organised pattern of work, and results in additional pressures on the child who is trying to keep everyone happy - parents, teachers and, lastly, him or herself! Over scheduling ultimately takes its toll when too many people are going in too many directions, and parents should start to establish limits during the final years of primary school.
Teachers can assist with time management and organisational issues by ensuring that both their instructions and expectations are clear. Guidelines for allocating time for set tasks are essential for assisting students to develop time management skills, and guidelines or criteria for marking and assessing should be transparent.
Some, but not all, schools use diaries for their senior students. The purpose behind this practice is to introduce students to a system of organising their homework and assignment schedules. This is all very well and good, however teachers need to demonstrate clearly how to use a diary. I recently had a parent tell me about her son - who left at the end of Year 10, more out of frustration than lack of ability - who had completed Year 7 without having the slightest idea about how to use a diary. He had carefully entered the date when the assignment was given, but had omitted to enter when it was due! Consequently, he was never on time with assignments, and eventually he gave up altogether. Teachers need to be diligent in their approach to the correct use of diaries in the final years of primary school, because most high school teachers assume that students know how to use one.
It is also important in these final years of primary school that teachers "spell out" very clearly what they expect students to achieve in any given task. High school assignments and assessment tasks generally come with a set of marking criteria attached. For students who have not encountered this in primary school (and most haven't), it can be very daunting. As adults, isn't it easier if our boss tells us what he or she wants rather than us trying to guess or assume? It is no different for students!
It became very obvious to me that I needed strong and transparent criteria when marking or assessing the work of the students in my gifted and talented class, as the level of competition was extreme amongst students (and parents!), and results needed to be awarded according to a transparent and objective set of criteria. However, this "transparency" should not just apply to gifted students - ALL students need to know what the teacher wants or expects so that he or she can work towards addressing the specific objectives outlined in the task.
Finally, in terms of time management, the technique of "chunking" needs to be introduced in the final primary school years. "Chunking" is simply breaking down tasks into smaller, more achievable "bits". For primary school students, most of the homework is written on the blackboard, with most instructions clear and simple. So, imagine the horror of being given a History assignment in Year 7, written on an A4 sheet - and the sheet is full! Not only are students overwhelmed by the length of the assignment, they are also daunted by the prospect of even beginning to understand the task!
The technique of "chunking", or breaking down, the components of the task can make even the most complicated assignment so much more manageable. So, basically, one large task is broken into a series of smaller, more achievable, steps - with each step given its own timeframe for completion - using a diary or a term planner. If students in Years 5 and 6 can be given some exposure to this technique, and become used to "chunking" their own work, then life at high school will be far less stressful for them.
Students also need to step up and take some responsibility for their own organisation and time management skills. They can best help themselves by ensuring that they listen to instructions, ask questions if they do not understand, discipline themselves to beginning homework at a reasonable time, and avoiding distractions such as TV, mobile phones and using MSN to message friends - these are all very enjoyable, but time-consuming, activities which will ultimately lead to reduced concentration levels and incomplete work.
The fourth ingredient, which I see as essential in developing a confident approach to high school concerns Attitude. But why is attitude important?
We know that attitude affects how we feel about our jobs, our learning, our peers and our family. We also know that attitude can cause conflict with others; it affects how well we achieve, and can even predict behaviour. Our attitude, not just our IQ, can affect our performance. It is vital to encourage and mentor a positive attitude in students before they move into high school. Both parents and teachers need to promote a positive attitude by being positive themselves - they need to reassure their child or student that transition is tough - but it is tough for everyone.
Encouraging children to openly express their concerns or anxieties about moving into high school, without fear of ridicule, will result in questions answered and fears put to rest. Children need to have their opinions respected and valued, particularly during this ‘topsy-turvy' transitional phase. Teachers have a vital role in promoting a positive attitude - they need to be seen as positive role models, supporting positive work ethics, and encouraging their students to work on team and individual tasks.
Students, too, can help themselves by viewing high school as an "adventure" rather than the "deep end". They need to have acquired the confidence and skills to ask questions, take some responsibilities on board and develop an attitude of "I can…" rather than "What if…"
I know I have already mentioned goal setting, but for students to have a positive attitude to school, it is surely obvious that personal goals and goal setting go hand-in-hand with student success, achievement and feelings of self-worth. Teachers want their students to perform to their ability and reach their potential, parents want their children to be successful and happy - but what about the students themselves? If children are constantly moving to the beat of someone else's drum, they are not really setting or working towards their own goals.
Certainly teachers and parents have a role to play in helping children set and, hopefully, achieve goals but, as children develop and move into high school, they need to understand the value of effective goal setting. In his book, "How to Motivate Your Child - for School and Beyond" (2003), Andrew Martin states "goals that are effective are more likely to lead to persistence and success" (p.147)
Goals need to be achievable, realistic, specific and meaningful to the student. It's not very productive if a parent wants their child to be a brain surgeon but the child wants to be a tree surgeon! At the end of a child's primary school years, they should be encouraged to set some goals for high school - not be the smartest in the class or the fastest runner - but immediately achievable goals like meeting new friends, getting to their next class on time without getting lost, keeping their diary up to date, finishing class work on time etc. Achievable and realistic goals lead to a positive attitude, and more challenging goals can be set as they begin to move through high school with more confidence.
Clearly, transition to high school does not just involve the physical re-location of students - it involves a comprehensive range of physical, emotional, educational and perceptual issues which, to date, have been inadequately addressed. We need to remember that the schools of the 21st century are indeed very different from the schools of past eras, and our young people are constantly confronted by an ever-changing and demanding education system. We need to remind ourselves that these young people are, in fact, still children when they move from the protected world of the primary school to the much bigger and more intimidating world of high school and they need to be equipped with a multitude of skills - as do their parents and carers!
The NSW Department of Education and Training has taken some of these issues on board through the implementation of its Middle Years strategies, however the real grass-roots concerns and problems faced by every pre-high school student and his or her parents are not adequately addressed. For these students and their parents, beginning high school is very big challenge - children want to feel that they "fit" into this new environment and that they can cope, and parents want to be reassured that they have the knowledge to help in the preparation process before Day One of high school.
The B.O.A.T Program, which I developed, is a workshop which is offered to Stage 3 students and their parents, and addresses commonly asked questions in the areas of Balance, Organisational skills, Attitude and Time management and serves to fill a gap which has existed at the grass-roots information level for too long. With the collaborative effort of parents, teachers and students all taking their share of the responsibility, surely it will be our young people who will benefit in the long term, decreasing their feelings of insecurity and disengagement and increasing their chances of achieving their full potential at the high school level.
As I see it, if students are to make a successful transition from primary school into high school, there needs to be a stronger focus on the development of personal skills rather than academic skills. If a student can strike a happy balance between work and play, if they are on a path towards establishing and maintaining positive work routines through sound organisational and time management skills and if they begin their high school journey with a positive attitude, then it seems obvious that these students will flourish rather than flounder in high school. These skills are life skills, not just useful skills for high school, and surely our aim is to produce more effective students, not just more "academic" students.
Not all students are academically gifted, nor do they all have lofty ambitions, but if we can better prepare our children for the new challenges of high school through a process of developing skills which they can utilise beyond high school, surely we are guiding them towards a path of enhanced personal success and achievement. These students can become organised, effective adults both in the workplace and in their personal lives - and don't we all want to make the most of every minute and every opportunity? The sooner we get started, the better!
Books (one author)Levine, Mel D - "Ready or Not, Here Life Comes" 2005
New York: Simon and Schuster
Martin, Andrew J - "How to Motivate Your Child-for School and Beyond" 2003
Journal ArticlesAnderman, E. M and Maehr, M. L (1994)
"Motivation and Schooling in the Middle Grades" Review of Educational Research, 64, 287-309
Wigfield, A and Eccles, J. S (2000)
"Expectancy - Value Theory of Achievement Motivation" Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 68-81
Zill, N and Nord, C. W (1994)
"Running in Place: How American Families are Faring in a Changing Economy and an Individualistic Society". Washington D. C: Child Trends