Growing up and starting secondary school: Some personal tips for young people and parents

Published on: 29 September 2021 Author: Natalie A Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry

Natalie A Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry remember all too well what it was like to start secondary school. Drawing from their personal experience and well-earned wisdom, they share some heartfelt advice for both children and families.

Illustration by Emily Rowland

Top tips for young people: ‘Don’t dim your light!’

Natalie A Carter

I loved my first day of secondary school but I didn’t expect to. I made some lifelong friends and, while there were tough times, I have memories which I still hold very close to my heart.

On my first day, I was so nervous about making new friends, whether I had packed the right things in my bag, and about getting lost on my way as it was the first time I was taking the bus by myself to my new school. I was going to a school with six other classes in my year, which was a big change from my small primary school with 20 other students, which was five minutes away from home. I hated my new uniform and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make friends or keep up with the work.

Once I walked into my first class and started making friends, all my worries slipped away.

Here are a few tips if you are worried about making the jump into secondary school – like I was:

  • Be confident: Going to a new school is a fresh start. You are meeting new people and new teachers for the first time. Don’t be nervous about anything that has happened at primary school – this is a chance for you to start over! Try to make a good impression by being active in class and talking to others. You are an interesting and fun person with so much to offer – don’t dim your light! Give everyone you speak to good eye contact and don’t be afraid to start chatting!
  • Don’t be intimidated by anyone or anything: Everyone is just as nervous (or excited) as you are, even if they aren’t showing it. Don’t be afraid to ask your teachers questions if you are unsure about what you need to do or where you need to be. This is a big change for you so you won’t get everything right straightaway and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, all your new classmates are in the same boat. Don’t be afraid to try new things, one of the best things about a new school is trying the new activities that your school has to offer. Remember, don’t worry about making mistakes, you are at this new school to start a whole new phase of learning.
  • Be organised: At first, it might be difficult to balance the new classes and homework diary and having a different teacher for each subject but you will adjust in time. Make sure you pay attention and take notes and if you are confused about something, make sure you ask so you understand. Try to set up small habits for yourself, such as looking at your homework diary or organiser when you get home, so you can prepare for your classes that week. Try to do your homework the same day you get it so that you aren’t rushing to do it just before your class.
  • Be you: You are your BEST thing. Don’t pretend to be someone else to try to fit in. You belong in any room you walk into. You don’t have to change yourself to suit others. Love who you are and be confident.

Help for parents to recall that first day: ‘There has never been a scarier project than secondary school’

Melissa Cummings-Quarry

Our “firsts” set the standard. Great first kiss? You’re gassed – you feel like you are the world’s best kisser. Bad first kiss? Well, that’s it: you will never kiss another person for as long as you live!

Your first shot at something can often feel like your only shot and often we put so much stock into getting things “right” the first time around that failure seems like the end of the world.

Your first day at secondary school is something a lot of us adults don’t really think twice about now – we are more focused on securing the bag, paying bills and making sure we get our steps in. But if we are truly being honest with ourselves, looking back, there has never been a scarier or bigger project than secondary school. It’s the place where you started to shape your identity, learnt how best to navigate relationships, and were made to feel accountable for your actions.

Getting school “right” is an important part of your self-growth journey and whilst there is often a huge focus on academics, we have to remember what it felt like when the most important thing wasn’t whether you got 10/10 on a quiz but whether you were cool enough to be invited to the big party.

It may seem insignificant now but picture this – it’s July and you are the oldest, tallest and smartest person in your primary school, everyone knows your name, you have the privilege of playing the main character in the Year 6 leavers’ assembly, the dinner lady always gives you two big scoops of ice cream because you’re ‘a big girl now’, and all your friends have signed your school shirt with good luck messages. You’re on top of the world. You have completed life. Finally, it’s here. You are going to big school.

Fast-forward six weeks later and you’re standing in the school yard with your blazer at least two sizes too big (Mum said you would grow into it) with a crisp white starched shirt, new pens and pencils and brand-new Clarks that are nothing like the Kickers you desperately asked her to buy so you would fit in. To make matters worse, you don’t recognise anyone, but it seems like everyone else knows each other. But how can that be? Isn’t it everyone’s first day?

Sound familiar? We spend a lot of time telling children to “face their books” and explaining to them how important it is that they work hard at school. But as adults we know that the friendships we form are a big part of us becoming who we are. It’s vital that we help the kids in our life develop their soft skills by actively giving them the right tools to make confident, healthy and well-informed decisions.

Natalie A Carter and Melissa Cummings-Quarry are the authors of Grown: The Black Girls’ Guide to Glowing Up

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