6 Ways to Make the Early Years of Secondary School a Success

As a parent, it can be hard to know what to do when your child first goes to secondary school.

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It’s undoubtedly a big step – daunting for them and perhaps even more nerve-wracking for you, especially if they’re your eldest child so you haven’t been through it before. You want to get them into good habits so that they make the best possible impression from the start. At the same time, you don’t want the teachers at their new school to think that you’re an obnoxious helicopter parent; or to cramp your child’s stye in front of their new friends. It can be a hard balance to strike. And that’s once you’ve already tackled the stage of choosing the right school in the first place.
From supporting their friendships to making sure that they fulfill their academic potential, there’s a lot to think about as a parent when your child is in the early years of secondary school. In this article, we take a look at what to prioritise – and what you can save yourself the trouble of worrying about.

1. Support kids in learning core skills

Allow them to develop core skills, not subject-specific ones.

Your kids probably have an idea already of the subjects that they’re good at or bad at. They might get top marks in Geography but struggle in History, for instance. And you might find yourself worrying that this means at secondary school, they’re going to end up falling behind in the important subjects that they consider themselves to be bad at.
This, thankfully, can go into the categories of things that you don’t really need to worry about. Can you remember much of what you learned in primary school science or humanities lessons? Probably not. That’s because the important part of what your child is learning isn’t about the facts and figures that they might be regurgitating in exams: it’s about core skills such as reading comprehension, writing fluency, ability to take in and retain information, basic critical thinking skills, and the introductory mental arithmetic that acts as a foundation for much of the Maths and Science they’ll study in future.
If your child identifies as being bad at History, you might want to see if this is down to struggling with these core skills – for instance, are they struggling with being able to analyse historical events? If it’s just that they find it tricky to remember what happened in 1606 compared with 1660, then don’t be too concerned; it’s probably less that they have a History-related difficulty if they’re good at their other subjects, and possibly more to do with their teacher and their interest in the subject. And those factors will change from year to year at this stage in their school career.
There’s one other reason why your child might identify as being bad at a subject, and that’s because they’re imitating you. If you’re inclined to say that you could never get your head around languages, or you’re terrible at Maths, try biting your tongue before coming out with that sort of thing. Some kids will enjoy proving that they can do better than you, but others will be disheartened, or will stop seeing the subject as important – which is undoubtedly not what you want.

2. Don’t put too much pressure on at exam time

Students get enough pressure from the teachers at exam time.

The UK school system undoubtedly has a lot of exams. While your child won’t have to do any national exams until they take their GCSEs (typically at the end of year 11, but some modules and some subjects might be sat early, in year 10), the school will want to monitor their progress and start to teach them exam skills for the future. This will mean minor tests throughout the year, and probably formal exams at the end of it that will mimic the kinds of exams they’ll be required to take later in their school career – including keeping to time and not bringing anything into the exam room that they shouldn’t.
As a parent, it’s best not to put too much pressure on when these exams come around. Yes, their marks will have some consequences – such as being put in a higher or lower set for a particular subject – but most of those consequences are reversible and what’s much more important (and what the school is often trying to teach their students) is how to approach exams generally. Internal exams like this will teach your child how to revise, how to write notes that are good to revise from, how to keep to time in an exam room, how to check over their work to correct their answers, and most importantly, how to deal with the pressure and nerves of an exam situation.
Internal exams help nervous students learn coping mechanisms. Treating these exams as life and death undoes that work and makes exams into something big and scary at a time when the school is trying to make them seem manageable and mundane – so that when they come to an external exam that really matters, they won’t freak out. You might start to worry as other parents offer their children rewards for top marks or require them to study for weeks in advance, but ultimately they are hindering rather than helping their children in succeeding in exams in the future as a child that treats exams as the be-all and end-all is the child that’s likely to panic under the pressure of something like GCSEs. And if your child is naturally inclined to fret about these things, then do your best to stop them from putting too much pressure on themselves as well.

3. Promote experimentation over avoiding failure

A lack of fear of failure is a valuable trait.

The early years of secondary school, where your child goes from being a preteen to a teenager, are a time where they will be getting to know themselves and their own personality. They’ll be getting a better handle on their own interests (more on that later) and they might be starting to learn what they are like and what they enjoy, rather than reflecting you as their parents, or imitating older siblings. They might try out new fads and fashions to see which ones stick and which ones don’t.
Ideally, this experimentation shouldn’t just be confined to their social lives. It can and should be in their academic lives as well. The early years of secondary school are the time when your child will be learning the foundational skills of academia, such as carrying out research, running experiments, revising previous work and writing essays. There are good ways and bad ways of doing each of these, but there’s no single approach that’s best for everyone.
For your child to work out what suits them, they’ll need to experiment – and like unfortunate haircuts and 80s fashion, experimenting can involve some errors as well as successes. Those errors might mean that you see their marks fluctuating more than you might like, but it’s best not to panic. Instead, understand that a long series of bad marks in a particular subject is a bad sign, but fluctuations may well be an indicator that your child isn’t afraid to take a calculated risk rather than playing it safe – and in the early years of secondary school, that’s an academic trait that’s worth encouraging.

4. Let kids experiment with new hobbies and interests

Tennis is out and climbing is in!

Another part of your child getting to know what they enjoy is experimenting with hobbies and interests. Your formerly keen tennis player might now be going to a school with a climbing wall and might be begging you for a new climbing harness rather than a restrung racket. Some kids of this age will be enjoying the mastery they’re beginning to feel over longstanding hobbies, while others will be yearning to try something new. By the time they’re in the early years of secondary school, they should be starting to get a handle on what they enjoy and what they don’t, and have the maturity not to give something up just because it’s hard. For the same reason, if there’s a hobby that they’ve definitely tired of, they’re probably old enough to make the decision to quit if they want to.
Experimenting with new hobbies and interests isn’t just a worthwhile thing to encourage in and of itself. Hobbies and interests also represent an opportunity for your child to get to know new friends, who might be more varied in age, background or interests than the friends they had at primary school. This can help expand their horizons and grow their understanding of the wider world.

5. Develop good relationships with their teachers and be interested in their work

There is such a thing as too little – or too much – interest.

The one factor that affects children’s progress at secondary school more than any other is whether or not their parents take an interest in their education. That’s often misunderstood. It’s not about helicoptering over their homework, paying a fortune for private tutors or in extreme cases, doing their work for them.
Instead, it’s about getting to know what’s going on in their education. Do you have a rough idea what it is that they’re studying in each of their subjects – for instance, what their set text is in English, or what period they’re focusing on in History? If they have a test in a particular subject one day, do they feel comfortable telling you that, and will you remember to ask how they got on in the evening? If you do, that’s the kind of interest that is all-important; it’s not stifling or obsessive, it’s just about a quiet reminder that you care about their academic progress, even while knowing that it’s not all-important.
A further part of this is developing good relationships with their teachers. You might not see them all that often, so this can be helped along by responding to any emails or returning any signed slips promptly. It’s also about being a friendly and supportive face when you do see them, such as at parents’ evening, and listening to what they have to say about your child. It may well be that when your child advances in the school, you’ll need these teachers’ support or want to ask their opinion. Getting to know their names and being polite now can make all the difference later.

6. Encourage their independence

Give them more freedom, or they will start to push the boundaries.

There are different ways in which your children might express their independence at this age. The obvious way is socially: letting your children stay out later, travel on their own, stay at home with less supervision and so on. If you live somewhere where some of these kinds of independence would be unsafe, then you can find other ways to let your child have a bit more freedom – for instance, by sending them to a summer school where they can live more independently for a week or two, or by ceasing to monitor the books they get from the library.
But another form that their independence can take is in matters academic. At primary school, academic success is mostly about doing what their teacher has told them to the best of their ability; doing better is about getting closer to the spirit of the teacher’s instructions. But at secondary school, that changes. Secondary school teachers want their pupils to do what they’re told, of course, but the how can be up to your child, and there might be options to use their creativity and go above and beyond what they were asked to do that will be rewarded.
One example of this is in research. They might have been asked to research something with the assumption that they’ll look in their textbook and maybe try Wikipedia or the first page of Google results for their search term. But the early years of secondary school are a great time for your child to build up the research skills that will be so important in the rest of their academic career. Encouraging your child to find out answers in non-standard places, or to look a little further than the instructions they were given, will stand them in good stead in their future studies. It may even make their studies more enjoyable, and helping your children to enjoy their academic experiences is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. 
Images: rock climbing wall; kids in classroom; two girls in sports clothes talk; ; boy wears VR glasses to paint; three girls study together; stationery; girl with backpack stands on street corner