Supporting successful transitions from Primary to Secondary School for children with SEMH needs

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Transitioning to secondary school can be made less daunting for children, writes Jamie Goodall-Barber. 

The move from a Primary to a Secondary School can be an intimidating experience for many children. It is the time children go from polo shirts to blazers and ties, and when they move from a school with a small number of adults providing education and support to a much larger environment with multiple adults, a greater number of classrooms, and also a greater volume of children. Secondary schools are a louder busier place than most children have ever been taught in and can be a source of worry and anxiety for many children transitioning into year 7. This move can be significantly challenging for children who have Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs. 

To put this into context, one in four children will display traits of a mental health need, with the most prevalent being anxiety and depression. Three children in every classroom will have a diagnosed mental health disorder. In a recent survey, 83% of young people who have a pre-existing mental health need have said that Coronavirus has made their condition worse, and many children who were ‘just about coping’ before lockdown are now struggling. Children with SEMH needs are shamefully overrepresented in permanent exclusion rates across the country and also for fixed term exclusions. It is now considered that half of all mental health problems will manifest themselves before a person becomes 14 years old and that a child’s mental health needs have a significant impact on all aspects of their learning and progress, behaviour in school, attendance and also chances of them becoming Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) at the end of year 11. For Secondary schools to produce young people who can leave school confident and interested in the world, they must to seriously consider how they support children with SEMH needs. This must start with the transition from Primary to Secondary. 

Before the child transitions

Before children with SEMH needs transition into Secondary school, it is vital that they have been identified and that adequate planning has been undertaken to support them. Children typically attend transition days in year 6 at their new school where they will spend time with their new teachers, get to know the children joining from other primary schools and also becoming more familiar with the layout of the school. This may not be sufficient for children with SEMH needs, as these children may not be confident to ask questions or seek support during these days if they need it. 

It would therefore be beneficial to children with SEMH needs to be provided with additional visits to schools. Some schools will offer this during the summer holidays or at other times when other pupils are not in to become familiar with the school’s layout and will also be given visuals and maps to help with this. Children with SEMH needs should be shown where toilets, canteens, and shops are, where they can go when they are having morning or lunch break and also who they can go to if they become upset or ill. In my own secondary school, we would also have ‘pen portraits’ of all of the staff along with their photo so children would be aware of who all of their teachers would be before they started and what they looked like. 

After the Transition

School uniforms can be an expensive purchase for many families, and it should be considered that due to vast numbers of adults having lost part or all of their income due to Covid-19, this is going to be a particularly difficult purchase. Schools could support children by showing a greater level of flexibility towards their uniform policy during the first month of the winter term so not to penalise children who may not be wearing the complete uniform for reasons beyond their control. 

Schools also need a robust approach to assessments and identifying children with additional needs and ensuring these children have access to appropriate professionals such as the local authority’s specialist teaching teams or CAMHS. Part of this is also having strong working relationships with parents and carers and having in place support plans for children. A frequently overlooked area to these plans is ‘What are we doing to do if we do not see the improvement or alleviation we would like?’ Therefore, proper planning should also include what is the next layer of support and intervention will be if the current approach does not work. 

Lastly, and most obviously, it is vital to remember that all children need to feel part of the school community to ensure their participation and attendance. Something as simple as a meet and greet for children and a short conversation each morning about how they are and what they have been up to can really make a difference for some young people. 


About the author

Jamie has previously been the head teacher of a school for children with SEMH needs and has held various positions within local authorities.
Currently as an Education, Health and Care Plan Coordinator.

LinkedIn: Jamie Goodall-Barber

Jamie Goodall-Barner
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