Transitioning to High School: How to navigate changed academic expectations

For many students, it can be a long jump leap from primary to high school. And one of the most important shifts is the increase in academic workload and expectations. Dr Selina Samuels shares her tips for parents and students to enable a smooth transition.

Dr Selina Samuels Education expert BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Wednesday, 24 January 2024

Entering high school is an exciting time for most students, and it can also be daunting, particularly if they are going from one school to another. Most students starting Year 7 will notice a steep change in how much they are expected to do and know in high school. They may find the changes to the way that they are expected to navigate their schooling even more challenging.

Some students may find that their primary school did not lay the right foundations for the secondary curriculum, and they need to catch up on key skills or knowledge. New subjects can be challenging even for more academic students. Navigating the proliferation of subjects offered in high school also takes organisational skills that many students have not yet mastered. There is certainly an expectation that secondary students have the maturity to organise themselves and meet their homework deadlines without constant reminders or hand holding. Most students in primary school are used to having one main teacher, who comes to know them very well. In high school they may have a form teacher or year advisor who manages their academic welfare, but they will now have a different teacher for each subject. Not being known or understood by their teachers is one of the greatest concerns that students can have, so this can feel quite alienating at first.

Students are likely to encounter more homework in high school compared to primary school. While it can be a contentious issue, the most up-to-date research tells us that homework, particularly in secondary school, is a valuable learning tool, and can have a positive impact on learning outcomes of up to 5 months. The most effective forms of homework enable students to practise and apply what they have learned in class on one hand and prepare for lessons on the other. To have the greatest positive impact, homework should be integrated into the learning plan for each student and should attract regular feedback from their teachers. The greater emphasis on homework in high school also means that there will be greater pressure on the household as well as each individual student to accommodate the time and space that needs to be devoted to learning at home.

A child moving from primary school to secondary school is a transition for the whole family! These are my recommendations for the best way to navigate and make the most of the changes ahead:

  1. If your child comes home from school complaining that they don’t know what is going on in class, it is important to understand if they are feeling challenged by the concepts and material they are covering, or it is more that they are overwhelmed by the changes in the ways they are expected to organise and manage themselves.
  2. The ATAR is still a long way off but learning how to prepare for tests and assessments – which they may not have experience of outside NAPLAN – is useful. If assessments make your child anxious, remind them that their academic results are less important than practising and learning from their mistakes.
  3. You should nonetheless take gaps in knowledge and skills seriously – these gaps get bigger and more difficult to address the longer you leave them.
  4. Navigating the social challenges of being in a new school or part of the school, and a member of the youngest rather than the oldest cohort, is not trivial. Until they have a group or even just one friend to sit with at lunch, your child may be distracted, which will affect their learning.
  5. If you are concerned that your child is spending too much time or not enough on homework, make sure you understand the school’s expectations. I suggest that a child in Year 7 should be doing a maximum of one hour homework per night.
  6. Starting high school is a good time to establish homework and study routines by setting up a comfortable workspace at home, ideally in a common area, and a consistent time every afternoon for homework. See how to create a positive learning environment at home.

Although it can be daunting, change is an opportunity to learn and grow. The more positive you are about this transition, the more likely your child will adjust quickly.

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