How schools can prepare children with SEN for the move to secondary school
The move from primary to secondary school marks an important point in most children’s school career. Children have to cope with many changes to routines, teaching styles and school organisation, which can be quite unsettling and can interfere with their learning.
Research points to a variety of factors affecting pupils’ attitudes, engagement and academic progress during transition1. Planning for transition can help to make it a more positive experience. In addition, it can help to prepare children for the social and emotional changes, such as changes to friendships, affecting self-esteem and self-confidence.
Transition often coincides with children’s growing independence and becoming more responsible for their own learning. Not all children are ready for this responsibility and some may find self-organisation difficult.
The challenge for children with SEN
Many children, regardless of whether they have SEN or not, typically feel nervous, scared and excited about the move to secondary school. These challenges can be even greater for children with SEN, making it much harder to focus on their learning. Some children with SEN may take much longer to adapt to their new school.
For all types of SEN there are many possible areas of difficulty, including:
Getting to know the new staff
Some children may have difficulty understanding that they are leaving the school and staff that have become so familiar. At secondary school, it can be a challenge to learn and remember all the staff names, what they do and even what they look like.
Understanding the way secondary school is organised
Children need to understand, for example, the different subjects (such as physics, chemistry and biology rather than just science), the timetable, layout of the school, tutor groups and homework (in different subjects and due to be completed on different days).
Being more independent
Secondary students often travel to school without an adult or have to organise their homework around many different deadlines.
Making new friends and being in a much larger school
Some children with SEN can find it hard to make friends and going to a school that may be further away from home can lead to them losing contact with friends in the local area.
Understanding their feelings about change and worries
In surveys2 children often report being concerned about bullying (or their perception of it) and being able to cope with the work. Some children with SEN can find it difficult to understand the difference between bullying and, for example, light-hearted teasing.
Five indicators of a successful transition3 are:
- developing new friendships and improving self-esteem and confidence
- parents feel they have settled well and don’t have any concerns
- showing an increasing interest in school and school work
- getting used to their new routines and school organisation with great ease
- experiencing curriculum continuity, for example, where learning in primary links to learning in secondary school.
In order to achieve a successful transition, both primary and secondary schools should consider the following:
Start planning from Year 5 for those children with recognised needs and build this into the annual review process. Staff can help by identifying possible secondary schools and perhaps arranging visits for the child/parents. Support agencies, such as your local parent partnership, and third sector organisations can provide useful information.
Moving into the final year of primary school, plan sessions for introducing and practising skills for supporting transition.
Make it visual and practical
In the planned transition sessions, use real examples of school plans, homework planners and timetables from the new secondary school to help children understand what they are and how to use them. Simple colour coding and picture symbols can be introduced to help understand these. Visits to the new school and photos of the new staff can also help children.
Organisation and independence skills
Practice with timetables and school plans will help the child to find their way around, know what equipment they need and when homework is due. During the final year of primary school, children can gradually be introduced to tasks that will encourage them to start thinking more for themselves, such as using a diary or calendar for making sure that an extended homework project is handed in on time. Take practice journeys to the new school before term starts, using reminders such as photo cards to help remember the landmarks on the way. Make sure to include some contingency planning, such as what to do if they miss their stop on the bus route.
Support the social and emotional aspects
In the transition sessions, work on emotions and feelings associated with change, ways of making new friends and understanding bullying behaviour (and what to do about it) with visual resources and role play. Some children may benefit from pictures and posters as reminders to refer back to when they have started at secondary school.
Don’t forget the parents
Support parents to understand the changes to routines and organisation. Share transition plans with parents and invite them to contribute to them.
Primary school staff need to pass on information about children with SEN to the new school’s staff. Consider also staff development time to build up background knowledge about children’s needs. Teaching assistants may have a wealth of information about particular strategies that work well or are to be avoided for certain pupils. For children with SEN statements (or equivalent), invite the secondary school SENCO to attend the primary school final annual review.
Making it work
Planning and preparation for transition will help most children to settle in, get used to new routines, and develop their self-esteem, self-organisation and social skills. These are areas with which many children with SEN will benefit from extra support in order to ease their transition.
Jonothan Wright is Communication Advisor at the children’s communication charity I CAN. The charity’s Moving On! transition resource can be found at:
1: Evangelou, M., Taggart, B., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons,P. and Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2008) Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education 3-14 Project (EPPSE 3-14) What Makes a Successful Transition from Primary to Secondary School? Research Report DCSF-RR019.
2: Evangelou et al. (2008) op cit.