Can you remember starting high school? I know I can, in a lot of detail. Those memories are very clear for me, and this happens during significant times in our life.
While I think we have a better understanding about transitioning to high school now, we have very little (almost zero) understanding of what it is like in 2020/2021.
We talk about the pandemic a lot. We know what we have experienced ourselves, but it is arguably near impossible to understand what the transition will be like for children this year (and last year of course).
This year it seems that many high school visits are cancelled due to Covid. Can you imagine turning up to high school on the first day for the first time? That huge building versus feeling so small?
So what CAN we do?
I think we can try to put ourselves in the shoes of young people this year. I think we should absolutely ask them about high school NOW, and how they are feeling. Sometimes we fear that talking about it can increase anxiety, but avoidance is actually the main culprit. (I will caveat this and say that this is general advice, and of course it depends on the child - neurodiverse children or those who have experienced trauma may benefit from a different approach). But in general, avoidance increases anxiety.
Encourage children to explore and process their emotions about leaving primary school. Sometimes we forget the loss that is experienced at this point. A loss that is sometimes overshadowed by our focus on the 'excitement' of high school. We can just let the feelings roll, and appreciate this process. As adults, we can perhaps liken it to leaving one job and starting a new one. There are SO many emotions flying around. Even when we are overall glad to leave a job, we can still feel sad at the (sometimes tiny) parts we felt attached to.
Offer children a physical place to record their feelings. It can be a notebook, a 'worry box', or a journal. Ask if they want to share their drawings or words with you, and respect it if they don't. When we leave the emotional door ajar, children are far more likely to come back to talk in their own time. As adults we know that we only share our vulnerability when the conditions are 'right' - when we feel safe and seen.
In the absence of a school visit, get familiar with the journey and the building during the holidays. Walk or drive past many times and spend time there in a relaxed state. Associate the school building with good stuff. With sunshine, nice snacks, and good music! When our brain tries to process the unknown, it can make up exaggerated stories in our minds. The facts are so helpful here. If it is not possible to walk or drive by the school grounds, be sure to explore the school website and see if there are any virtual tours and photos.
Use the preparation as an opportunity for choice. We can feel empowered when we make our own choices - school bag, shoes, pencil case etc. Of course these choices are within reason (uniform and cost), but it is such a significant time for the development of identity. The smallest of negotiations might be more important than we think. This engagement is also the opposite of avoidance. It will naturally elicit conversations about high school.
We can educate and normalise how difficult transitions can be for people. We can talk about our own experiences and our own ways of coping. By high school, there have already been transitions, and we can reflect on how these have gone in the past.
Some children like to talk to older children/siblings already at high school, and ideally the school they are going to. They can ask questions, and feel more secure in knowing that older children will be at their school. We all love a familiar face.
Listen, observe, be present and leave that emotional door ajar......
The website mentallyhealthyschools has some great transitions resources.
Thanks for reading,