Moving from primary to secondary: What we need to know


Part I

SEPTEMBER 2022 represents another significant period of transition in the life of some of our students, those who will be making the transition from primary to secondary school. One author has described it as “one of the most pivotal changes that a child will experience in their young life.” It is also a period that coincides with puberty. Not only will they experience changes in their physical environment, but biologically and psychologically it also represents a major developmental change for our youngsters.

Like with the preceding levels of schooling, this transition will be characterised by changes in the school environment in terms of the physical layout. For example, they will not always be confined to one classroom throughout the day, but from time to time will have to move to other classrooms or physical environments (labs, outdoors) to access their various classes.

Additionally, while at primary school children had to contend with one teacher who was present throughout the day and who taught them all of their subjects, they will now have to adjust to having a new teacher for each subject discipline. With each new teacher will come new expectations to which students will have to adjust also, even as they attempt to find their niche and comfort level.

Apart from the newness of the physical setting and the teachers, students will have to adjust to changes in rules and procedures, and changes in relationships with peers, teachers and family members. And, as they negotiate these changes, they also have to grapple with the changes being brought on by puberty. The transition from middle childhood to adolescence is not an easy process and the adults in these children’s lives need to become more knowledgeable of and sensitive to how these changes may impact on their children.

Let us talk a little about these adolescent changes.

Similar to the early childhood period, adolescence is a period of rapid developmental changes (biologically, psychologically, cognitively, emotionally and socially) for children. Please note the emphasis on children for this is what they still are until they attain the age of 18 (legally at least). Of particular significance is the changes in brain development that is happening.

Adolescents are at a stage in which the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive action is well developed, while the pre-frontal cortex, response for problem-solving, critical-thinking and associating consequences with action, does not fully develop until a person is in his/her mid-20s. What does this have to do with a discussion about the transition from primary to secondary, you may ask.

Well, there is a tendency among parents to begin to think of their adolescent children as having the ability to act rationally at all times. You often hear the comment, “Yuh big and yuh have sense, you should know better!” However, both teachers and parents must be cognisant of the fact that during this period of development, the amygdala is doing the work.

These children are relying on their emotions to guide their decision-making which inadvertently leads to conflict between themselves and the authority figures (read parent and teachers) in their lives. Please note, this is not a deliberate attempt to frustrate. On the contrary, it is a natural part of the developmental changes they are experiencing and for which they will need help to navigate successfully.

It is also important to note that adolescents are not to be underestimated. The suggestion here is not that they are unable to think rationally and do what is right. In fact, they can think rationally and do know the difference between right and wrong. They should expect to be held accountable for their actions. The issue becomes how can this be done in an emotionally neutral way that respects their dignity.

One of the keys to this lies in the relationships we foster with them. For adolescents, three fundamental relationships in the context of schooling are peer relationships, family relationships and the relationships with educators.

Having all been adolescents at one time, as adults we can all appreciate the significance of peer relationships during these years. Good peer relationships are important to their overall well-being. Indeed, peer social support protects their mental health and acts as a buffer from feelings of anxiety and alienation. Moreover, research suggests that young people who feel comfortable and valued by their peer groups have fewer behavioural problems, which of course can auger well for their engagement with school.

To be continued


"Moving from primary to secondary: What we need to know"

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