Starting Secondary School: The Essential Handbook for every Australian family by Michael Carr-Gregg & Sharon Witt

Starting Secondary School (Penguin Random House Australia) by child and adolescent psychologist and founder of Canteen, Michael Carr-Gregg and experienced teacher and founder of the Resilient Kids Conference, Sharon Witt is a practical, easy-to-read guide. It is aimed at parents with a child entering Year 7 in secondary school but is also useful for parents of children already in Year 7 and further into secondary school.

Even though the school year has begun, the issues covered and advice given are perennial and the book is worth referring back to when particular issues arise throughout the secondary school years.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords on behalf of Michael and yourself, Sharon.  Starting Secondary School goes into more depth about each of the following questions but we appreciate hearing replies from you here that will give a taste of the helpful advice in your book.

What was the collaboration process between Michael Carr-Gregg and yourself? How did it work?

The collaboration process between the two of us was actually a dream. Being the first time we had actually co-written a book together, we both found it surprisingly fun. We assigned specific chapters to each other to write initially, and then read each other’s work, making suggestions as we went. We also met in person with our laptops on a number of occasions, lots of chats on the phones, emails and google docs. It was such a positive and fun experience for us both, and what a thrill to partner together from two expert angles- an adolescent psychologist and a long-term secondary teacher!

How has the book been updated and revised?

A number of years ago, I wrote a book for Australian students called ‘Surviving High School.’ It has been used by many schools and read by thousands of children entering high school around the country. However, it needed updating, and we realised there wasn’t a great deal of information out there to assist parents in guiding their young person through the transition into secondary school. I have to say, the majority of our new book is original. We just took some snippets from my original book that were still relevant.

Why is starting secondary school so difficult for many young people?

Starting secondary school can be challenging for many young people because for some, change can cause some anxiety. It’s a fear of the unknown. They may be facing a brand-new school, new timetable, numerous and varied teachers, new friendships, homework and generally – an entirely new school experience.

What are some key messages that parents need to give their children before they begin Year 7?

I think it’s really important that parents talk positively to their child moving into secondary school. Rather than focus on any challenges they may encounter, focus on the growth they will experience, the opportunities and new beginnings. Parents can also share some of their own positive experiences from high school.

Attitude is paramount. How can students improve their attitude?

Attitude is so important when beginning secondary school. Sometimes you have to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’ Encourage your child to look at all the positives of beginning high school. It’s a chance for a fresh start, wonderful opportunities of growth, taking on new challenges, and increasing their confidence.

What is the ReachOut website?

ReachOut is a fantastic online resource that can provide some valuable information and support for young people. With one in five young people potentially meeting the criteria for developing a mental health concern, ReachOut has some supportive suggestions, assistance, guidance and strategies.

(Also at the moment the ReachOut website has great tips about coping with a pandemic. https://au.reachout.com/articles/10-ways-to-take-care-of-yourself-during-coronavirus)

Why can perfectionism be as debilitating as obesity and smoking?

With children who are prone to perfectionism, we need to help them set limits with their time and efforts with their schoolwork. Many, I believe, have the somewhat false assumption that they have to compete with others and top the class because they see how competitive it is out there now in the workforce. My advice is, do your best but remember that high school is not the ‘be all and end all’ and will be over before they know it.

What can a shy Year 7 do to make new friends?

Navigating friendships can be challenging for a child beginning secondary school. One of my favourite quotes says ‘In order to have a friend, you have to be one first.’ I encourage young people entering secondary school to look out for other students that may also seem shy and less outgoing than other peers. Encourage your child to use eye contact with others, smile, and help them with a script including some basic questions they could ask someone:

‘What school have you come from?’

‘Do you play sport?’

‘What area do you live in?’

When should parents contact the school if their child is being bullied?

Often a young person may hide bullying at school or online bullying and harassment from their parents because they fear their parents’ reaction – they may lose their online privileges, or by telling their parents, they can potentially inflame the situation because it may be taken to the school authorities. My greatest advice is this- parents- you KNOW your child best. Look for behaviour that would seem out of character or not the norm for your child. This may include:

-unexplained fatigue

-loss of appetite

-a sense they are hiding something

-teary for no apparent reason

-secretiveness

The best thing to do is have conversations with your child from as early as possible about online, or any type of bullying. Have conversations around the question ‘What to do if…’ What would you do if you received threatening messages online, or via messenger or text? Tell your young person that they can always come to you and you will deal with it together. Remind them that they have the right to be safe and feel comfortable always. Tell them that bullying is never okay and should never be tolerated. Reassure them that they can come to you with ANYTHING.

Encourage them to always screen shot and save anything that could be seen as bullying.

Inform your child’s Year Level co-ordinator as soon as you are aware there is an issue with bullying. Please reassure your child that they have done the right thing by coming to you. Remember, schools can only deal with the information you bring them.

What are three tips for helping young people sleep well?

-Have a sleep routine such as setting a regular time, so their bodies get into the habit of getting rest.

-Avoid any caffeinated drinks at least 2 hours before going to bed

-Keep devices out of the bedroom e.g. televisions, phones, ipads

What strategy or app do you recommend for reducing stress?

There are some wonderful apps available to assist in reducing stress In young people.

ReachOut

Calm

Smiling Mind

What is your view about phones at school?

It has been such a positive move in my opinion to finally have mobile phones removed from the normal school hours. This has meant that for our students, they have at least 6 hours per day when they are not having to check messages and have their attention given to checking their phones. As teachers, we have seen a dramatic rise already in students interacting, playing outside during breaks and greater connection – which is so important during these adolescent years.

How should parents monitor their child on social media?

Parents need to remember that their job is to be gatekeepers of their child’s online and social media use. Firstly, they must stick to the specific rules of holding a social media account- minimum age of 13 years old- no exceptions.

-Limit screen time

-Phones being kept out in the family room (not in bedrooms)

-No phones in the bedroom at night

-Ensure privacy settings are set currently to private on their child’s social media accounts

What is the twenty-minute rule?

Young people have a limited time they are able to concentrate and work well. This is generally in blocks of twenty minutes. When they are at home completing homework, or studying for exams, encourage your child to set a timer for twenty minutes. Then take a break- have a quick walk, eat a healthy snack, grab some fresh air, before getting back to work.

What should a parent do if their child is suffering from anxiety?

Talk with your child about what they are worried about. Anxiety can often simply be the body’s way of letting us know that we are worried about something e.g. a speech in front of the class, a test coming up, school camp etc.

This can be normal anxiety.

If your child is experiencing anxiety for a period of over 2 weeks, and it is impacting their ability to enjoy activities they normally would – book an appointment with your local GP to have a full health assessment.

It is always helpful to communicate your concerns to your child’s Year Level Coordinator. There may be an issue at school, or further information that may assist.

What is the X Plan?

The X Plan is just one way a young person can communicate with their parents or caregiver by text if they find themselves in an ‘at risk’ situation, but they need an ‘out’. It takes a bit to explain, so it would be best to read that specific section in the book.

Thank you for your very informed and generous responses, Sharon. Readers will be able to find out more about each topic from the book. As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, your advice is relevant for young people (and their parents) not only when they are starting secondary school but throughout these important years and even later in life.

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