Surviving the Transition to High School (Part 2)

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Letter of Introduction

If your child has learning difficulties, you have an extra task to do before your child starts high school. It is wise to prepare a teacher information sheet about your child and make 10 copies.

Personally hand this sheet to each teacher and the year coordinator so they all understand your child’s special needs. A one-page summary is all that is needed and give a full report to the school office, mentioning that it is available to all the teachers if they would like to read it.

An example of a summary sheet is included here.

Susan Smith

Date of Birth



Parent’s Names

Parent’s Mobile

Parent’s Email


Background History

Susan is the eldest of three children and has had her hearing and vision checked. She has been attending speech therapy for comprehension difficulties for two years and is also receiving maths’ tutoring once a week.

Assessment Results

Susan had IQ testing at the end of the last year (date) and the results found her to have below average verbal IQ but normal performance IQ – she will find oral instructions in the class difficult at times.

Susan was also assessed by a speech pathologist who identified severe difficulties with auditory memory and listening comprehension – she benefits from seeing instructions written down.


Where possible Susan will benefit from being at the front of the room to improve her capacity for comprehension.

We’re happy to speak with you at any time about Susan, please feel free to ring us at work or send an email.

Susan and John Smith

Fears about high school

It is common for children to have fears about high school. Fears usually fall into the following categories.

Schoolwork and homework such as worrying about not being able to understand what the teacher is saying in class, too much homework (and it’s too hard), not being able to do the work at all and feeling insecure about asking teachers questions or asking for help.

  • Social aspects such as making new friends, being teased or bullied, being bashed or physically hurt by other children, looking stupid or silly in front others and doing or saying something embarrassing.
  • High school structures and routines such as getting lost on school grounds, arriving late for class, asking strangers for directions, not being able to read the timetable, not knowing what books or materials to take to the next class and not knowing which class to go to for the next lesson.
  • Parental/ familial expectations such as not doing well at school, hating school, looking stupid and not doing as well as their sister or brother.
  • Myths and legends (stories about initiation rituals, teachers, neighbouring schools and other children) such as having your head put in the toilet while it is flushed and stories about mean teachers and principals.
  • Teachers and discipline such as getting into trouble during class, getting detention and scary teachers or not liking teachers.
  • Travel to and from school such as missing the bus or train, catching the wrong bus or train, getting lost, asking strangers for directions and being late for school.Fears and anxieties can present themselves in different ways. Children may have butterflies in the stomach, headaches and nausea or may sweat excessively. They may also be agitated and get the shakes.We suggest that you to talk to your child about how they cope with anxiety and what happens to their bodies when they worry or feel nervous.

Practical questions for your child entering high school

Here are some prompts for discussions with your child to talk about real things that happen at school and what actions can be taken.

  • You’re 10 minutes late for class. The teacher has already begun her lesson. You are standing outside about to walk in. What will you do and say?
  • You’ve arrived at maths class and realise that you’ve brought the wrong textbook. What is the best thing to do?
  • You miss your train and arrive 20 minutes late to school Describe what action you could take?
  • You hop off the train and realise that you’ve left your jacket on the train. What could you do?
  • You arrive home and realise you have left your geography textbook at school. You need it to do your homework. What could you do?
  • You are trying to complete your homework but you feel confused about what it is really asking you to write about. What could you do?
  • You feel anxious because you don’t understand what the science teacher is telling you. All the other students seem to understand. Who could you talk to?
  • You arrive at school and realise you’ve left your English essay at home. It is due today. What can you do?
  • You’ve attempted your maths homework but have been unable to get the answers correct for the first five questions. Should you continue? What other plan do you have?

Positive aspects of the transition

The transition to high school is not necessarily stressful all the time. There are many positive aspects associated with this very important time. Your child may feel or experience some or all of the following:

  • excitement,
  • increased motivation,
  • keenness to meet new people and make new friends,
  • more independence,
  • happiness because they know other children or adults at the school,
  • identify themselves or be identified by others as an adolescent and not as a child, and/or
  • a keen desire to become involved in more extra curricula activities such as sport and social outings with friends.They may also like the school they are attending and the new teachers.

How can you help your child?

  • The first way you can help is to be organised yourself. It will help you stay one step ahead in the transition process.
  • Make sure you set routines for your child. It may help to develop and write down before and after school routines with your child so that they know what to expect once they start high school. These routines may include set times for homework, chores and breaks. It may also be helpful to put this routine up on the wall above their study area.
  • Encourage your child to talk about their thoughts and feelings, especially in relation to their fears about high school. Listen to and acknowledge your child’s fears.
  • Do not dismiss how your child feels as it may only make your child feel worse. Talk about your own experiences (if you can remember them).
  • Encourage your child to discuss any potential fears or problems and think of ways to solve any causes of anxiety. Making sure your child practices going to and from school should go a long way towards alleviating anxiety about travel and its potential problems.
  • Go through all the possible problems you can think of and discuss options for what to do it they happen – it all helps in preparing your child.
  • Talk to your child about how they cope with anxiety and feeling lousy and what happens to their bodies when they worry or feel nervous.
  • Encourage your child to take up relaxation techniques or offer other suggestions. Ask them what sorts of things make them feel better.
  • It is important that your child has different and creative ways of dealing with stress. It may be helpful for you to participate in these activities in order to foster appropriate role modeling as well as providing practical support.
  • Relaxation techniques can include meditation, listening to music, aromatherapy, massage, yoga, visualisation, progressive muscle relaxation, walking the dog, dancing or having a bath. The key to relaxation techniques is that they are practiced daily and in a quiet and safe environment.

Communication is the key

  • It is important that your child feels that he/she is able to tell you if they are not coping with high school.
  • You can encourage your child to talk to you by making time available to just be there for them, praising them often so that they feel good when they are with you and talk about your fears to them.
  • Encouraging a positive attitude can be very important. Encourage your child to develop positive thinking and self-talk about themselves, others and high school.
  • Look at your own expectations of your child. Do you have unrealistic expectations or pressures? Ensure that your expectations of your child are clear and reasonable.
  • It’s not always easy in this fast-paced world where many families have two parents working just to repay the mortgage. Parents are people too and need their own down time and their own safe haven.

Above all, prepare both yourself and your child.

A little preparation before the important transition to high school can make the difference between a very hectic and stressful Year 7 and a smoother transition coping with the little hiccups that are a normal part of everyday life.

Supporting your child’s learning in High School work and expectations are different in High School. ‘Study’ and ‘Essay’ are new terms for your child. Children often confuse homework with study and may benefit from being taught how to study (take notes, review work, complete practice questions). The process of structuring paragraphs and essays will be covered in School, however your child with Learning Difficulties will need more time and support to master this. It is recommended you consider enlisting the help of a teacher for extra support early in High School to maximise the chances of success.

Tips for Teachers and High Schools

 High school can be a difficult time for many children. One in every five children will have some sort of learning difficulty or disability, whether it is diagnosed or not. School rules can be flexible and considerate, while still ensuring that the school runs well.

  •  Lockers – many times children find that they cannot easily reach their locker and often those with higher lockers have to wait until the children with lower lockers have finished before they can access theirs. Careful allocation of lockers and reasonable access rules can help minimise problems. Small students should not be allocated lockers that are too high for them to reach. Children could be given an opportunity to make sure they can reach their locker and see into it prior to final allocation. Similarly, reasonably long access times, staggered times or perhaps a wide range of access times could be considered. This would take into account that in each set of lockers where there are three or more lockers in a vertical column, only a couple of children can comfortably access their locker at any one time.
  • Timetables – do timetables need to vary each week for children in Year 7? Could variety be kept for the older children? If variation is the only way of organising everyone, can variations be limited to a fortnightly cycle at least for younger children? If weeks are not the same, schools might like to consider making sure that the timetable has dates next to each week for the coming term. Even children without learning difficulties often struggle to remember which week is week two of a two-week cycle, let alone anything more complicated.
  • Coming to class with the wrong books – If a Year 7 child is continually coming to class with the wrong books, it is highly unlikely that they are doing it on purpose. Perhaps some careful questions might get to the bottom of the problem and have it solved in no time. If the child is too embarrassed to answer, perhaps a call to a parent might help. Don’t overlook the fact that even in high school, some children find reading difficult.
  • Instructions – some children find it hard to follow a series of instructions. Instructions given slowly and carefully sequenced might help children understand what they need to do. Children continually getting instructions confused could be approached to discuss possible solutions. Don’t overlook a potential learning difficulty as the cause of the problem.
  • Passwords – it is wonderful how much access children have to technology at school. Although long and complicated passwords may be desirable for security, it is impossible for children with learning difficulties to remember these passwords. They can spend lots of time trying to remember this, being locked out of their device or waiting for teacher assistance – all the while not actually completing the work you’ve asked them to complete. Consider whether an exception can be made to simplify the passwords for these students.


Emily’s story

Emily is a student with learning difficulties.

I have been working with Emily for many years, teaching her how to read, write, spell and master simple mathematics skills.When she was in Year 6 we contacted the high school and provided all the necessary paperwork – assessments, reports and details about previous intervention. The school was sympathetic and explained that they would monitor her progress during Term 1 before deciding on an appropriate course of action.

By the end of Term 1 Emily was at crisis point. She failed to turn up to one of her lessons with me so I phoned to find out why. Emily did not come to her lesson because she was on detention.

Emily is one of the most polite, cooperative and eager students I have ever met. I could not possibly imagine her being naughty in any of her classes. But she was not placed on detention for being naughty – she didn’t bring her books to class.

This seemed a bit extreme, so at Emily’s next lesson I began to talk to her about the issue further and nothing could have prepared me for the scope of her daily nightmare at school.  Emily cannot read her timetable effectively.

Her high school has a six-day timetable with Thursday being its own day every week. This means there is no continuity from one week to the next about the requirements of the day.

Monday in Week 1 is Day 1, but is not Day 1 again until Week 4. Because Emily cannot read her timetable she rarely has the correct books or materials for her classes.

After two or three warnings Emily started to get detention notes sent home for forgetting her PE uniform. Emily is a sporty girl and enjoys PE, but because she can’t read her timetable to know when she has PE she forgets her PE uniform and is placed on detention for it.

On a few of those occasions Emily has forgotten to go to detention and was not allowed to go on school excursions in Term 2. Initially I thought the timetable was Emily’s biggest concern. So I spent time helping Emily to read her timetable and recognise which materials were required for each class.

This is where the story became even more complicated.

Emily was also on regular detention from three of her other teachers. I could not understand this – we had taken what I thought to be all the necessary steps to adequately prepare Emily for High School, but there was a whole new story unfolding.

Emily couldn’t reach her locker at school and so can only grab the books she can reach after performing amazing gymnastic feats. This meant that even on those few occasions when Emily has read the timetable properly she might still not be able to take the correct book to class because she may not be able to reach it.

As we were talking about the barrier of physically reaching the books, Emily also mentioned she confused her books at times.

On the first day of school Emily was really organised and eagerly covered all her books and labeled them correctly using her three favorite rolls of contact. This means that some of her books are covered in the same contact.

This compounds the locker situation further as Emily not only has to reach the book, but distinguish which one is correct for the class by pulling them all down and reading the labels.

Emily wasn’t doing this (because she couldn’t) and instead grabbed the first one she could reach and took that one to class.

Her French teacher was not impressed by Emily’s solution to this difficult situation. Emily’s French and English books were covered in the same contact and were the same size. On a regular basis Emily would take her English book to her French lesson.

French was hard enough (that’s another issue entirely!) without having the previous pages to refer back to.

Emily would be reprimanded for not having her French book, had a note written to her mother in her diary because the homework she completed the night before was not handed in (it was sitting in her locker). She constantly struggled to complete tasks in class without the appropriate book.

The English teacher was a little more understanding, asking Emily to complete the work on scrap paper and copy it into her correct book for homework, commenting how beneficial the extra practice would be.

Emily left school each day with a bag filled to the brim with scrap paper of her days work (often unfinished), diary (useless) and a collection of exercise books (rarely the correct ones). She would get home and begin the arduous task of making sense of the mess in her school bag.

The end product was that each day’s work was not written in the correct book (so there was no record of the days activities when it came time to study for exams), homework was not finished completely (there were ramifications for this at school the next day) and the correct items for the next day may or may not have been packed back into Emily’s bag.

This cycle is horrific enough, but it continues.

Emily’s pencil case was not big enough to hold all of the items she needed for school, like her calculator and protractor set, so she had two pencil cases.   I challenge you to draw a circle or measure an angle without a compass or a protractor or try to take notes with a compass. Another problem!Emily is a great dancer and joined the dance troupe at school but was asked to leave after a term because she had only attended five rehearsals.

The reason for the missed rehearsals – Emily didn’t write them in her diary or wrote them on the wrong day so wasn’t sure when the rehearsals were on. The one aspect of high school that Emily would have enjoyed and excelled at was a failure for her as well.

This is a situation I would like to never see repeated again.

Many of these issues could have been avoided by some simple planning and negotiation with the school. This is what we did for Emily.

  • Emily has had her locker moved to an area where she can reach it and see into it easily.
  • Emily’s diary, books and materials have been colour coded. Every time she sees anything written in blue in her diary she knows she will need her blue French book, blue folder for class and will store everything in her blue box at home.
  • Emily’s mum goes through a checklist each evening to check Emily has the correct tools for the next day.It was simple but it worked. Emily can now go to school excursions again and has also been allowed back into the dance group. The dance teacher has written the dance rehearsal dates into Emily’s diary.

Emily doesn’t cry every morning – she is happy to go to school.

She has now begun to take the correct books to school and has not been on detention since.