It’s about this time of year when Yr 6 students start thinking about high school next year. By now, many parents will have decided which secondary school their son or daughter will attend, and the kids themselves are already feeling ‘done’ with primary school.

Attitudes and behaviours are changing….and “Boring!” becomes the key word of the Yr 6 student – they are ready to take on a whole new set of challenges at high school. But are high schools ready for them?!

I have been working in this area of transition to secondary school for seven years now, after many years as a classroom teacher, and there are MANY schools which handle this transition very effectively. Sadly, there is not nearly enough commitment across the board. Potential disengagement from school starts not in Year 9…but now, in Year 6. What are schools doing about it?

‘Orientation’ is an event, whereas ‘transition’ is a process…..and I have worked with students in senior years who I believe are STILL transitioning into responsible, resilient, motivated young adults.

This particular transition coincides with massive physical, social emotional and cognitive growth and development. The adolescent brain is undergoing huge reconstruction, and the tendency towards impulsive behaviour and the expression of ‘odd’ attitudes can be confronting for both teachers and parents alike.

Adolescents in this age group vacillate between extremes of emotions; progressions and regressions in thinking and learning; swings between self-centredness and altruism; between dependence and independence; and between social behaviour and isolation (Arnold, 2000).

So how, as primary teachers, can we prepare those students we are sending off to high school…and how can high school teachers support the transition process with their new Yr 7 students?

There obviously needs to be more discussion between primary and secondary teachers. A common response to this is, “But what happens when we formulate a great transition program between us and our feeder secondary school, and then half the kids go off to different schools?” It doesn’t matter! If we consider transition as a process and prepare our kids for the personal, rather than academic, changes they will encounter in secondary school, it doesn’t matter which school they attend. This is all about supporting the student in developing an understanding of the five R’s of Relationships, Relevance, Rigour, Responsibility, and Resilience….not just the three R’s of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic!

Research has identified these five R’s as essential for long-term student engagement and well-being. So, regardless of which secondary school a student may attend, it is critical for teachers to reflect on how they can provide opportunities in the classroom to help students develop these skills…..starting in primary school!

Firstly, we need to develop an in-depth understanding of what makes this age group ‘tick’. If we understand them, we are a long way towards engaging them in the classroom.

Here are a few key points we need to consider when preparing our students for high school…and life:


* Relationships are critical to this age group – new high schoolers are more interested in how they ‘fit’ than how much they know. Peer relationships are uppermost in their minds, but role models, mentors, relationships with trusted adults are also what they seek. They don’t need adult friends, they need mutual trust and respect from us as teachers, year advisers, counsellors. They need to earn our trust and we need to earn theirs. (DET Vic, 1999)


* “When am I EVER going to need to know this!” – sound familiar? Kids look for relevance; something that sits with their sense of reality beyond the classroom. As teachers we need to frame the teaching and the learning in a real world context – not always easy. If we can engage students as co-participants in their learning….not just us telling them what to do, the results can be amazing (Pendergast & Bahr, 2005)


* One of the biggest complaints of early high schoolers is that their initial excitement at the prospect of being challenged by new, “harder” work is quickly replaced by disappointment. Because Yr 7 teachers may not yet know the capacity of their students, the inevitable ‘dumbing down’ and ‘revising’ of material already covered in primary school immediately undercuts the challenge of high school learning, and establishes low expectations and potential disengagement. We need to be rigourous and challenge our students; and have realistic and transparent expectations of the standard and quality of work we will accept. We are doing students no favours by having low expectations. (Lillico, 2006; Galloway et al, 1998)


* Responsibility is not only key to success at school, but to life in general! The PEEL Project, started in Victoria in 1985, implemented hundreds of proformas, rubrics and strategies for teachers to support independent, self-regulated learners. One of the most important developmental tasks for adolescents is to learn how to take responsibility for decisions, actions and consequences (Mitchell, Mitchell and McKinnon, 2001). In terms of personal responsibility, research suggests that increased anxiety, confusion and decreased motivation are direct responses to the stripping of responsibilities from incoming Yr 7 students. We need to provide not only opportunities for responsible learning, but also for increased leadership roles on entry to high school


* The ‘gold star for everything’ approach in schools does NOT support resilience. Student resilience levels decline from Yr 5 to Yr 9 (Krause et al, 2003) for a variety of reasons. We need to offer well-scaffolded academic and non-academic tasks to build self-esteem and self-efficacy. Promoting goal setting, open communication and recognising individual learning styles and learning differences are all ways we can support students to develop resilience.

Transition from primary to secondary school is a significant process…some kids handle it better than others. We have a high level of responsibility to provide the kinds of learning experiences that will not only assist them in their learning, but also to become resilient, responsible adults ready to take their place in the world. What we do (or don’t do) now will affect these young people for a long time to come – both academically and, more importantly, personally.

Angie Wilcock

High Hopes Educational Services