Secondary school: top tips for parents at the start of the journey

The Telegraph, 02.09.16, HMC Chair Mike Buchanan, Head of leading independent Ashford School gives his top tips for parents at the start of the senior school journey.

The uniform has been purchased (at greater or lesser expense), name tags have been sewn in (or the service paid for), books, new pencils, calculator, new smartphone (“Everyone will have one, mum; do you want me to get bullied?”) are all ready to go.

You know what is expected of you as the parent of a primary school kid but what happens now?

If this is your first child to move on to secondary school, here’s a guide to the simple and general dos and don’ts.

1. Independence

The most difficult thing to adjust to is that your child will not want you to have anything to do with their school.

It may take a while to happen, or it might happen on day one, but eventually you need to understand that teenagers want nothing more than to be left alone by their parents, particularly when their mates, or prospective mates, are about.

In their minds, it would be easier without parents; despite the fact that they provide funding, food, lodging and transport. So, if you are delivering them to school in your 4x4 or SUV, it’s best to drop them some distance from the school gates so that they can walk the final 100 metres themselves.

The most difficult thing to adjust to is that your child will not want you to have anything to do with their school

If they ask you to drop them outside the school’s front door, resist the temptation; now is the time to start building independence, even if it means them carrying their own school bag, sports kit and double bass.

Ideally, and after suitable training, get them to make their own way to and from school.

2. School gossip

Given the primary school-gate gossip mechanism is now closed to you, you will need to use other means to find out what’s going on in your child’s school life.

You won’t get anything useful directly from a teenager by asking “what did you do at school today?” other than a non-committal “nothing much”.

Remember, it’s their school and they are going to protect their privacy as much as they can.  After the heady, euphoric early days, the most you might get is “it’s boring”, “the teachers are rubbish” or “I’ve done all my homework already”.

None of these are likely to be true, so don’t take them at face value.

Be patient and let snippets of information drop from their mouths when they are ready. This may be in the car on the way home, or over dinner. It may take a day, a week or a month for information to filter through.

Encouraging general conversation allows them to make a contribution when they are ready and when they are not the focus of attention.

For example, a family conversation about politics, “a country that works for everyone and not just the privileged few”, might provide the perfect opportunity for them to drop in something about post-war Britain and a universal NHS garnered from a recent history lesson.

Use this opportunity to engage them in the conversation, as you would any adult.

3. Behaviour

So how do you know if all is well? It’s best to remember that teenagers and teenagers-to-be are driven by two completely opposing things. The first is to be as individual as possible and the second is never to stand out from the crowd.

Be prepared for these to dominate most of their teenage years and don’t worry when the tension between them comes out in stereotypical teenage behaviour, such as sullenness, silence and sleep.

If you are concerned at all and you want to see whether the behaviour at home matches the behaviour at school, then do phone the school and check it out. Don’t wait while the behaviour builds; get in touch sooner rather than later.

Sometimes they match, often they don’t. What you can generally be sure of is that one of the two main drivers (individuality and conformity) are at the root of testing behaviour.

Fortunately, the turmoil of the teenage years is often no more than a few ripples on an otherwise calm pond. Teenagers naturally take risks (particularly boys) and we positively want them to do so within the relatively safe environs of home and school. This is how they learn who they are – the ultimate quest of a teen/adult.

The turmoil of the teenage years is often no more than a few ripples on an otherwise calm pond

All of this means that spotting the signs of trouble can be difficult for us parents and teachers. So look for patterns of behaviour and note when they change.

For example, a previously vivacious child becomes withdrawn or more secretive about what they are doing or who they are seeing. Neither is a definite sign of trouble. What you are looking for is a significant change in behaviour that is corroborated by other sources, such as the school.

Keeping in easy communication with the school is essential, so be prepared to work at the relationship.

4. Problems

Finally, things might go wrong. Grades won’t be stellar all the time, homework might not be set or even marked. Occasionally, your child might fight with another or be the subject of sexting, the school may mess something up, or relationships with friends will go sour.

Don’t assume that what you have been told by your child is the full picture, or even the truth (I know, your child would never lie; but they do).

Just please don’t come into my office all guns blazing looking for my head on a platter (sorry, mixed metaphor). Do, however, come with your concerns as soon as they arise (not seven years later as your child leaves and I can do nothing about them).

I and my fellow heads will be delighted to help.

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