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Returning to school, moving class or changing school?

Posted 2nd September 2019

Everyone knows that starting primary school and then starting secondary school are big events in any child’s life, but what can sometimes be overlooked is the impact of moving up a class each September.

Moving up a class – primary age

Moving up a class can be very exciting but also a big challenge.  Children have to get to know a new teacher, they may be expected to do more or to be more grown up, and they might miss their old teacher, teaching assistant and classroom a lot.  New children may have joined the class for the new school year, sometimes classes are swapped around.  There will be a new room to get used to, maybe there is less play time than previously (particularly moving from reception to year 1) and expectations are likely to be higher.  Children may be hearing a version of “I expect better of you now you’re in year x”, and may feel this as a pressure, however exciting the new things are as well.  There may be lots of small changes that you won’t necessarily know about – perhaps they now have to share the toilets with older children and find this a bit scary, perhaps they get their lunch later than when they were younger or they need to use a different part of the playground where it feels more exposed. 

Your child might not say that they are finding all of this hard, but you might notice that (for example) they are slower to get ready for school in the morning or they are more clingy, they get into more arguments or they are complaining of stomach ache or sore throats.  Maybe they are not sleeping as well as previously, they are late getting ready for school or grumpy when they get home at the end of the day.  Changes in behavior are a communication that something is wrong and your child needs your help to think about it.

It can help children to talk about what or who they miss about their old class.  They might want to pop back to the old class for a quick visit or make a card for their old teacher or teaching assistant.  You can help your child by talking about the good things about getting older and moving on, like going on new trips and knowing lots of new things – but also take time thinking with your child about the hard things about getting older and moving on.   Take seriously the impact of small changes on your child – they have had a known routine for the last year and it’s not surprising if it takes time to adjust to the differences.  Your child might need extra hugs and reassurance that it’s normal to have mixed feelings about being in a new place / with new people / different expectations.  It can also be very hard to sticking to a routine (and getting up early) after six or so weeks of being much freer – for children, but also for parents and carers, so this may also take a few weeks to feel normal again. 

Moving up a class – secondary age

By secondary age you might expect that your child may be used to the annual September ritual of moving up a year.  Often this is exciting, it means having new opportunities, being one of the older ones within the school (or at least not the youngest any more) and having a new start, away from some of the difficulties of the previous year. 

But moving up at secondary age can also have its issues.  For some it means that work is starting to really “get serious”, teachers may talk more about looming GCSEs or other exams, expectations are likely to be higher.  It might mean being away from friends that your child used to sit with, perhaps due to groups reshuffling or children being placed into different “sets” from their friends.  Not all new teachers / subjects may feel like good news, and there may be a large number of different teachers to get used to, each with their slightly different approaches and expectations.  In addition your child may be thinking about the fact that that they are one year closer to leaving school / becoming an adult, which can feel like a very scary thought.

While at primary age a cuddle with your child and some reassuring words might feel helpful, at secondary age your child might be less willing to talk about their anxieties or let you help.  You might notice that they are becoming more hostile at home, less communicative or that they have withdrawn, or there are changes in eating / sleeping patterns.  Maybe you start to get notes home from the school about low-level difficulties such as missing homework or lateness to a lesson. 

One way that you can help is by understanding that each change of year group is a major shift for your child to get used to, and by giving your child a chance to talk about this if they want to.  You can have it in mind that if your child’s behavior changes at the start of September then it’s very likely that it’s connected with the return to school.  If you demonstrate that you’re aware of some of the difficulties that moving up a year involves then your child might be more able to let you know what they are finding hard.  There’s a big difference between a conversation where you open with “What’s up?”, your child says “Nothing” and then you say “Well something is up, you’ve done x wrong and y wrong…” leading to a defensive child & an argument, vs. opening with some version of: “I’m noticing you don’t seem yourself this week… Is year 9 a bit tougher than you expected?”  This avoids condemning the behavior and makes it clear that it’s to be expected that moving up a year might be hard and that this can be connected to changes in behavior, without this becoming oppositional.  If your child confirms that all is not brilliant in the new year group you could then show you have some idea of the sorts of difficulties they might be facing – the teachers? changes or issues in the peer group?  extra responsibility? loss of a particularly valued teacher from the year before?  Showing you can both take this seriously and also hold onto some hope that things are likely to get better after the first few weeks is likely to be helpful. 

It’s important that if your child does open up to you then you take their concerns seriously whatever they are.  You could ask your child what would help and make sure they have wind-down time after school (rather than necessarily straight onto jobs or homework).  Try to remember your own experiences of school and how intense it could feel, your own experiences of entering “exam years” or of being moved away from your friends.  Showing empathy is going to be very important.  If your child is overly preoccupied only by the negative aspects of the changes you might be able to help them notice some of the positives as well as taking the concerns very seriously.

Whatever their age, if your child is not feeling more settled four or five weeks into the new term then you may need to get some more specialist advice.  You might start with talking to the school about your child’s worries and difficulties, and if this is not enough you might also consult a child therapist who can help you / your child unpick this further.  However, for the majority of children, whatever the teething problems are at the start of the school year this soon becomes the new normal and the start of the year anxieties soon become distant memories.