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Transition from Primary School to Secondary School

The transition from Primary school to Secondary school is one of those life events that most people can recall in some way or other. In the main, it’s a fairly manageable period and one that parents often get more emotional about than their children. The purpose of this article is to outline the major issues involved so that the experience can be facilitated and undertaken with minimum stress - for the whole family!

Big fish to little fish

By the time a child reaches their final years in primary school, they will be totally familiar with their school environment. They’ll know their teacher very well, be comfortable with most if not all of the people in their class and will probably know most of the other faces in the school too. By sixth class, they are the most senior people in their school, they will be used to being given responsibility and they tend to be looked up to by the younger boys and girls in the school.

But within the space of two short months, September 1st sees these same students revert to being the most junior again in a brand new environment in a different location, with a different smell and atmosphere. Change can be a daunting task for any one of us but when you are 12 or 13 – with so many other ‘complications’ in your life - it is a change that takes quite a lot of adjusting to.

The important thing to constantly remind yourself is that children and teenagers are more resilient and adaptable than we are (or give them credit for). Remember too that within a few short weeks, their new surroundings become more familiar and they’ll be running from the PE Hall to the Science Lab and on to the Art room without the slightest stumble. The first couple of weeks can be quite tough and this section offers both parent and child a survival plan to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Constant routine becomes constant change

The biggest change when entering the secondary school system is probably the constant change in the day-to-day routine. In primary school, they had one teacher all day in the one classroom. In Secondary school however, that routine changes utterly. There is a subject change every forty minutes approximately, and with this subject change there is a change of teacher. It is not unusual for a student to encounter eight or nine different teachers during a typical school day. A tip to help your child cope with this is to advise them to write down the name of each new teacher beside the name of the subject.

Some subject changes will involve a change of classroom too and the second big change that the new 1st years have to cope with is the constant movement between classrooms throughout the day. Depending on their subject choices, students will be moving all around the school. Getting lost during the first few weeks will be inevitable for some. A good tip is to advise your child to always stay with at least one other person from the class...there is definitely safety and confidence in numbers!

All of this ‘new-ness’ is bound to have some effect on the student and in these early days of adjusting, parents should try to be supportive, understanding and encouraging, ensuring their child eats well and gets plenty of rest and ‘down time’.

Number of Subjects

Another big adjustment is the number of specific subjects your child is covering. Depending on the school and the subject-choice structure, students in 1st year can cover anything up to 15 different subjects (some will only be by way of introduction, to help students to select the subjects they wish to take for the Junior Cert.). Many of these are new and unfamiliar. An example of a typical timetable is included here, to give you an idea of what a typical day might look like.

Sample first year timetable

10:40MusicIrish HistoryArtGeography

C.S.P.E.: Civic, Social and Political Education
S.P.H.E.: Social, Personal and Health Education

As you can see from the diversity, it is therefore important at an early stage to help them to develop a methodical approach to learning. Discuss all the subjects at home. Getting your child to explain what they have learnt so far in a particular subject will have two beneficial effects. It will help you to better understand a subject. It also helps to get your child to summarise a subject and that exercise will help to highlight in their mind where they are at with it.

It is important to try to encourage a balance between all subjects. Everyone will have their own favourites and will excel at certain subjects. The problem is that neglecting a subject in the early stages – due to its perceived difficulty or maybe a personality clash with a teacher - may have an impact on subject choices in future years. Taking an early dislike to Science and dropping it after 1st year or the Junior Cert. might limit the career choices available come 6th year. Certain courses require at least one science subject for example so be careful in choosing to take or drop subjects. Take a look at the Career / Third Level section on page XX and be sure that you or your child (preferably both) talk to the career guidance counsellor / principal regarding subject selections.

The Schoolbag

Their timetable will take a lot of getting used to. Part of this new routine will involve the organisation of the schoolbag before each day. It’s a new skill that some may struggle with and a little help in the early days will ensure they have the right books, and the right homework on the right day!


Homework time is obviously going to increase and with it comes several new adjustments to be dealt with from the Primary School homework routine. Not all subjects are covered every day and not all subjects involve homework. This may mean that your child has two hours homework on one night and maybe one hour the next night. One of the best skills you can help your child to learn is that of effective time management. Help your child to even out their homework pattern by encouraging them to develop a homework timetable.

Certain subjects get homework nightly (Maths), others on every other day, others still on a weekly basis (Irish essay). Help them to devise a method to spread out the workload over the 5 nights of the week. Don’t under-estimate the importance of getting a structure and a sense of organisation at an early stage of their secondary school lives. Learning how to successfully manage their time is an invaluable life skill and will make the transition into their new environment a whole lot easier.

School Reports

A new experience that comes with secondary school is the regular reports that come home from the school. Aside from the exams reports, most schools have a regular report that must be signed by the parent. It will usually have a mark per subject and space for any comments by any of the teachers. It might include number of days absent or late and any general notes relating to your child’s performance. Again, these should be monitored and taken seriously, particularly in first year.

It is important that your child sees you as an extension of the school system – if you’re dismissive of feedback from the school, it allows a negative attitude to develop in your child which is not in anyone’s interest. If you have an issue you would like to discuss with a teacher or the principal, it is best done without the involvement of your child in the initial instance anyway.

Extra-curricular activities:

Taking part in after-school activities is a great way of getting to know more students in the school. Whether it’s in the drama circle, the computer club or on the playing field, each student should find activities which they enjoy. Taking part in such activities builds confidence, they get to mix with other students from other years and as a result, they settle into the school environment a lot quicker. Students should be encouraged, from both home and school, to try out new activities.

Even if they may have tried something before, or even if they don’t know what the activity entails, students should be encouraged to try practically everything available through the school.

Support Network

As stated, most children take the transition from Primary School to Secondary school in their stride. Schools have generally recognised the potential difficulties and have a good support network in place for 1st years. Most schools operate the system of the ‘year head’ (a teacher who has specific responsibility for the entire year). Many schools also appoint class ‘tutors’, ‘mentors’ and 6th Year ‘buddies’ or ‘prefects’ who have the task of making the introduction to the school as pleasant and as painless as possible.

As parents, we can often feel a little helpless – our role is to be supportive, interested and encouraging. If you have any concerns about your child, the advice is to make contact with the school.

Take Heart!

Finally, with all the ups and downs of the first few weeks, rest assured that by the time Sept 1st comes round again the following year, your child will enter the establishment as if they’ve been there forever. They will laugh at the new 1st years for getting lost, again, and will boss them around with all the authority that only a 2nd year student can assume.

Source: The Essential Parents’ Guide to the Secondary School Years by Brian Gilsenan, published by Primary ABC