Why the big fuss about secondary school?

19 January 2018

For the past two years, Urban Hope has been working with the Caspari Foundation to provide intensive individual support to young people making the transition to secondary school. Each year, we work with six students who are moving into year 7 and have been identified by their school or family as being at high risk of struggling with the move.

In this blog post Caspari Educational Psychotherapist Elizabeth talks about the challenges of transition, why they are greater for some students than others, and the difference that additional support can make.

“Transition to secondary school is a big shift for all young people because it involves big external changes to the pupil’s routines – finding one’s way around in a much larger environment, getting to know new people and generally being a ‘small fish in a large pond’ – and also the loss of a secure base in primary school where teachers know pupils individually and can respond to their needs accordingly. Young people might lose friends going to different schools, have difficulty making new ones, and face the fear of being bullied as the youngest pupils in the school. All this happens during the onset of adolescence, which is a turbulent time in itself.

Some young people find the transition even more difficult than others. They may have already experienced significant trauma or loss – anything from parents separating to the death of a family member – and the transition can evoke the memory of these earlier experiences. The birth of a new sibling, a house move, a parent’s mental illness or struggle with addiction can all be factors that make adaption to new environments harder for a young person. Looked-after children, having experienced a much higher degree of family break-up and loss, tend to find transitions particularly hard. Feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, difficulties in keeping up with the new pace of learning and adjusting to stricter rules and regulations are common difficulties.

In the classroom, students who are struggling with the transition will often cause low-level disruption, chatting to their classmates, making noise, tapping on the desk and other behaviours, generally avoiding learning and disturbing the learning of others. In some cases they deliberately ‘misbehave’ in order to get sent out of class so that they can avoid the learning environment altogether. In time, and without intervention, they may give up and start to truant or refuse school altogether, or, be temporarily or permanently excluded.

Educational Psychotherapy is a way of helping children and young people who have emotional barriers to learning and who struggle with social development. In 1:1 sessions, a child or young person can explore areas of difficulty with the help of a trained therapist Educational Psychotherapist (EPt) through the metaphor of books, games and other media. Problems tend to be looked at in a slightly indirect or oblique way, which can seem less threatening to the young person.

As part of the transition project, an assessment is carried out over three sessions to identify any emotional issues a young person is facing that might be affecting their learning or causing behavioural problems. The sessions are conducted by an EPt who can relate those emotional issues to that student’s behaviour in the classroom. So, for example, a lack of security in their relationship with a parent or carer can make it hard for the student to accept and absorb knowledge from teachers or other staff.

Teachers, parents or carers and youth workers receive a copy of the report at the end of the assessment to help them understand the specific needs of the young person. It gives pointers as to their underlying emotional needs, and suggests ways of helping the young person engage better in the classroom. It can be really helpful for teachers to be made aware of what is behind disruption so that they understand what they are seeing in the classroom rather than interpreting it simply as bad behaviour. It also arms parents with more information about their child’s emotional needs during this uncertain period, and puts them in a better position to offer support while their child adapts to the new environment.

An Urban Hope youth worker will then begin regular mentoring with the student. They offer a neutral space, a secure base and an informed listener who the young person can talk to about any difficulties and get feedback. Urban Hope can also offer vital alternative opportunities for social interaction with peers outside the school environment at drop-ins and on residentials.

In the coming weeks, we’ll post further blogs looking at our transition project from different angles including talking to young people about their personal experiences of the move to secondary school, and a youth worker perspective.

Next - Hopeful stories: looking back at Year 7

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