Psychological Impact of Primary to Secondary School Transition
Published on 6th January, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
Moving from primary to secondary school is a rather stressful experience. Students go from being the most senior in school to being the newbies again. They have to cope with more intense academic pressures in an entirely new environment while surrounded by new faces Further complicating matters, students are also going through puberty at this stage which might make them more emotional. The biological changes coupled with the stress of being in an entirely new environment can make one more self-conscious and anxious (Bowker & Rubin, 2009). Parents too are in a transitory period as they learn to loosen their grip on their growing child. In Singapore, the primary to secondary school transition might be even more intimidating and stressful (Renjan, 2018). This is because secondary school students in Singapore are not only subjected to higher academic scrutiny, but they are also expected to take on additional extra-curricular activities and tuition classes (Renjan, 2018).
Feelings of loss and fearing the unknown are some of the many common emotions felt by students (and parents of students) all over the world who are in this transitory period. These emotions can be distressing to the point where they might further impact the student’s psychological wellbeing, academics and relationships. As most research has focused purely on the academic impact of the transition, Bagnall and colleagues (2019) investigated the emotional experiences of students and parents of students who were moving from primary to secondary school in the UK.
Bagnall and colleagues (2019) conducted face-to-face and online focus groups with 45 first-year secondary school students and 8 first-year secondary school parents. The focus groups revealed 3 main themes across the experiences of the students and parents:
1. Recognition of emotions
Students expressed that they felt conflicting emotions such as excitement and fear about entering secondary school. One student highlighted that he was sad that he had to “leave all [his] friends behind” but at the same time he was “happy” that a new chapter in his life was starting. It is rather common to frequently alternate between these conflicting emotions. A mother noticed that her child would be excited one day and be fearful the next day about entering a new phase of life.
Feeling a sense of loss was also commonly reported by the students. Leaving their primary school felt as though they were “leaving part of [their] family and [themselves] behind”. Additionally, for students who were going to a different secondary school as their primary school mates, having to lose their familiar peer support group was an anxiety-invoking experience. Some students also did not want to talk to their parents about their grief. They were under the impression that their parents don’t “understand as much” “because […] when they were younger it [was] different”.
As these negative emotions can be rather overwhelming, many students intentionally avoid thinking about the upcoming transition altogether. A participant reported that he tried to “make [himself] forget so [he] wasn’t worried”. As a result, most students do not talk to their friends about their fears about leaving primary school. However, repressing emotions led students to feel as though they were alone in feeling worried and nervous about entering secondary school.
Parents too might also find themselves in an emotional disarray as their child enters secondary school. Although parents were glad that their child was growing up, they reported feeling sad that they had to start letting go of their child to let them grow into young adults. As students leave their “primary school bubble”, they become more independent and take on more ‘adult’ responsibilities, like going to school on their own. With this, parents also feel a sense of loss, as their child might not rely on them as much as before.
2. Managing relationships
As mentioned, most students would have to say goodbye to friends when they enter secondary school. As a result, they not only have to deal with the loss of these relationships but students have to gear themselves up to forge new friendships in a new environment. Many students reported that they were afraid of being alone in their new school and felt that if they had friends with them to face the new changes it would be “a lot more reassuring”. Students were also feared that they might be bullied in the new school. To combat these fears, some students tried to connect with unfamiliar primary school mates who were going to the same secondary school and also tried to build up their self-confidence to better face the new school environment.
The transition from primary to secondary school also changed the relationship between students and their parents. Parents had to adjust how much control they had over their child. They also had to set more appropriate boundaries to give their child more space to independently explore. For instance, parents reportedly had to trust their child to make their own decisions. Also, instead of demanding their child to inform them about the happenings in their lives, parents had to trust that their child would share whatever they feel comfortable sharing.
3. Managing Expectations
Students also reflected that having a more realistic expectation of what secondary school might be like would have helped them adjust better. Many times, adults might avoid discussing the potential challenges students might face in secondary school for fear of stressing the student. For instance, parents might assure their child that everyone will be nice to them when in fact, that might not be true. The students highlighted that doing so made them feel unprepared to enter secondary school. However, when parents made a big fuss over their child’s wellbeing, the students became excessively worried and anxious as it felt as though they were “like soldier[s] preparing for war”.
Parents who were dealing with their child entering secondary school for the first time reported even higher levels of stress and anxiety. This is because they did not know what to expect and how they could best support their child through this stressful period. Bagnall and colleagues (2019) suggested that parents should take time to talk to their child’s secondary school teachers about this transition so they can be more familiar with the new system.
The findings of this study examined how the transition from primary to secondary school can be an emotionally distressing period for both students and parents. Sometimes, the stress of the transition might not be noticeable until later in the year after students are more settled in and the honeymoon period has faded away. Therefore, being aware of the potential psychological distress that entering secondary school might cause could help both students and parents be more ready to cope with this transition and not be blindsided by it.
You can also find out more on how to cope with the anxiety and stress caused by major life transitions here.
Bagnall, C. L., Skipper, Y., & Fox, C. L. (2019). ‘You’re in this world now’: Students’, teachers’, and parents’ experiences of school transition and how they feel it can be improved. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–21. Retrieved from 10.1111/bjep.12273
Bowker, J. C., & Rubin, K. H. (2009). Self-consciousness, friendship quality, and adolescent internalizing problems. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27(2), 249–267. doi: 10.1348/026151008x295623
Renjan, V. (2018, March 18). Commentary: School transitions can be a stressful and intimidating struggle for many students and parents. Retrieved December 26, 2019, from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/school-holidays-transitions-stressful-struggle-10017694.
Article written with Charmaine Leong. Charmaine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Charmaine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues in Singapore. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.