SOS: A parent’s survival guide to the start of secondary school
7 tips to get YOU through the start of Year 7
When I discovered I was pregnant for the first time, I was over the moon when a friend passed me a well-thumbed copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting. The book is as close as it gets to a baby bible, and helped me get to grips with the practical side of pregnancy with all its glory and OMG moments. That was thirteen years ago – a time before we all turned to Facebook for downloadable life hacks.
Fast forward five years when my baby was starting primary school and my go-to resource was a leaflet written by a wonderful parent governor. (Still no Facebook, friends.) When my son waved goodbye sweetly to his teacher at the end of the first day, walked calmly and very happily across the playground and within seconds of exiting the school gate turned into balling beyond-tired mess, it was okay. The leaflet had warned me.
But what about those of us who have not-so-little darlings starting or are just about to start secondary school? There seems to be less help at hand. Just like our offspring, we appear to be expected to #getonwithit. We’re all big girls (and boys) now. But it's an odd stage. Year 7s are not really that big; but they're not small either. If you haven't experienced the transition before, it can be quite unsettling. It's probably the biggest transition you'll face as family until they leave home.
So what should we expect when they take the giant step from their cosy primary to secondary?
When my son started in Year 7 last September, I remember thinking I would do anything to hit rewind and for us all to go back to his first day in Reception. Little did I know that within a few days it would feel like we were.
You see, there are a lot more similarities to starting Reception than you might think. The tiredness for one: the ‘being-fine-at-school, foul-at-home’ thing. Every day for what felt like weeks, there was NEW STUFF and then MORE NEW STUFF. Oh, and then some NEW STUFF.
But even worse were the gaps when THERE WAS NO NEW STUFF. The abject fear that rises when there are no school letters to pore over (see Point 5, below) and you have to rely on your child to give you key pieces of information. Yes I know: gulp.
In general, I tend to steer clear of advice lists as they often do little more than state the obvious. But the secondary journey can feel more cut-off for parents than starting primary, and so I'm going to give it a go. Here are seven pointers to help you survive the next few weeks.
1. The duvet check
Processing a new timetable along with new peers and a completely new set of buildings is exhausting. The start of Year 7 equals toddler-like tiredness. There is only way to combat this and that’s to stick to a reasonable bedtime. This can be hard when they come home later, eat later and have homework that leaves only a short time for Snapchat before they have to pack their school bag and start all over again, but it massively pays off. There's an expectation (from your child) that secondary means staying up later but their bodies haven't changed massively in the six weeks since Year 6 and there is no reason that their bedtime routine should either. The Sleep Foundation recently reviewed its recommended amount of sleep for children following research that showed that, on average, most children need more than sleep than previously thought. 9-11 hours are recommended for children aged 9-13. I used this as ammunition (‘It’s science’) when I was told, 'I am the only person in my WHOLE year who has a bedtime.’
2. Relish the 'schoolmoon'
Most families like the stability of routine – and, conversely, the delicious lack of routine in the school holidays – and many of us kick start September desperate to get back to 'normal'. A new school means finding a new normal and, be warned, this can take a while. I was really eager to settle us all into a new rhythm; I wanted everything to feel normal asap. I wish I’d relished the newness a bit more. Try and not worry that it’s Week 3 and the wrong books still seem to be being taken in on the wrong day. There are at least five years ahead of day in, day out slog. Think of it a ‘schoolmoon’ (like a honey- or babymoom), a special time that quickly passes. It's okay to not really know what's going on. Most of the other parents don't either.
3. Bye-bye bookbag; hello backpackitis
First off, you know by now that the first rule of secondary school is that there is no book bag. You've probably been forced to scour TopShop or Superdry several times over the summer to find THE bag. The significance of which seems to only be matched by THE shoes. The school bag is about to become a spine-stretching beast (read our 'Hello Backpackitis' blog here) and they will want its contents to be a complete mystery to you. Likewise, you want them to be independent and pack their own books each night. You’ve rehearsed the line: ‘You are at senior school now and need to do things for yourself.’ Truth is, many of them do need help in the early weeks and giving them a little grace isn’t awful helicopter parenting, it’s just common sense. They will be stressed if they have the wrong books and they DO learn quickly. Start by packing their bag with them, then just checking and then, after a couple of weeks, let then get on with it and forget stuff to their heart's content. (Note: most schools will appreciate the help they get at home to learn key organisational skills but won’t tolerate molly coddling. In my experience, they don’t take lightly to forgotten hockey sticks or textbooks being delivered to the school office after a frenetic ‘Mum, I’ve forgotten [insert missing item here]’ text from your child.)
4. Be wary of (un)social media
Pupils seem to get phones earlier and earlier these days but chances are secondary school will be the first time it’s okay for them to be checking social media at break times and messaging their friends all the way to and from school. This freedom comes with its own pressures and they need a break when they come home. It’s super hard to ban the phone the second they walk through the door – doing so may just delay home coming time and you don’t want that – but certainly no screen time during homework, dinner or for an hour before bed is ideal if you have the energy to enforce it. Their heads are so full; they need an opportunity decompress from social media before sleep. I find imposing my own ban helps. If we sit down to watch a movie together, I make sure I turn off my phone so I am not looking at texts or alerts. The ‘do as I do’ principle can be effective with pre-teens keen to challenge your every move.
5. Redundant fridge magnets
Primary school, for many, means letters. Things to read and sign. We grumble about it but there is something very comforting about physical notices and a fridge covered with lists and forms. Secondary school is all about the emails and relying on your child to give you information. Yes, it's a big step up. Fortunately, electronic communication works both ways, and it's okay to email a teacher or a tutor if you need information. This is normal at secondary school as you may well go weeks between parents’ evenings before having the opportunity to check or discuss anything face to face. Also make sure you can check your child’s school email, or equivalent homework portal. Not every day but it’s useful to see if messages are getting through. They tend to scan read emails for messages from mates and miss key items. They won’t like it but it only takes one missed match or meeting resulting in then getting a detention, and they'll agree. Again, they have so much information to process, it’s helpful in the early days to work through timetables and commitments with them. I know it seems a bit spoonfeeding-ish but it can speed up the settling-in process in the long run.
6. How was your day?
The combination of all of the above can mean you are very unlikely to get a decent response to this question – ever again. It can be especially tough on Day One when you want to know all about their day and hear those three little words: ‘It was AMAZING’. Truth is, most Year 7s don’t come bouncing out spouting hyperboles so it's a good idea to filter responses. Fine is okay. Okay is good. Good is amazing. Remember: these are not Reception children who think they have done one day at school and never have to go again. ('I loved it, Mummy. What do you mean I have to go back tomorrow?! Waaaaaahhhhhhhhh.') Year 7s know they now have to go back every day until they are at least sixteen and, oh and they have to do some work too. Try and ask specific questions to get a sense of how things went: who is in your tutor group? Who did you sit by at lunchtime? What was your last lesson of the day? (Admittedly the last one is pretty basic but it's about getting them to say something.) Talking around non-touchy/feely topics will often reveal much more than a big heart to heart. They are nearly teenagers after all.
7. Beyond the school gates
Finally, try and get yourself into the loop of meeting other parents from the school if there is a social or PTA event. Even if this isn’t your style and you have avoided the school quiz night religiously for years, it’s a good way to get inside the school gates and have the opportunity to hear how other children (and parents) are getting on. The school gates social goes out of the window at secondary and you rarely get to see your child in context. It's probably the biggest change for many from primary school and many parents can find it takes some adjusting to.
That's it! Whatever part of your school journey you are on, I hope this term brings a wonderful new adventure. And remember: it’s only 16 Mondays until Christmas!