You’re Not In Primary School Anymore: The Secret To Succeeding At Secondary School

What would you most like your child to gain from secondary school life?

In a recent webinar by Northland Secondary principal Tan Siew Woon, she shared that parents have commonly expressed a wish for their children to become more confident and independent while in secondary school. Perhaps some other desires might be for children to develop their career interests, build their communication and leadership skills, and get a good grounding in values that will guide their way in adulthood.

Note that these are all big-picture goals, as opposed to the narrower view that parents have been accustomed to in the primary school years. Parents will have to get used to the shift in perspective, where the focus is no longer about how to write a “model” composition, or how to use the right “keywords” when answering a science question. Further, familiar subjects will be covered in greater depth, and new subjects will be introduced. Parents who have previously overseen every aspect of their children’s school work will find it much more challenging to maintain the same level of involvement during the secondary school years.

As a result, for some parents, secondary school is the time to step back, wean their children off tuition, and let their children develop independent study skills. This would be the ideal situation because an excessive reliance on tutoring is unhealthy and financially unsustainable — these funds could go towards your child’s tertiary years instead.

So the big question remains: what is a parent’s role during a child’s secondary school years, and how can we best prepare our teens for this new journey? Below, we highlight four key areas that parents can oversee, to ensure that teens are well-equipped to make the most of their secondary school experience.

Don’t Take Extended Breaks

The school holidays are a time for rest, but sadly, long breaks can also undo all the work that teachers (and students) have put in during the school term.

US-based studies have suggested that students could lose up to a month’s worth of learning during the summer holidays, and that these losses were more pronounced for math than for reading, and more obvious at the higher grade levels.

The learning gap between students from higher- and lower-income families could also widen during vacations, as students from higher-income families are more likely to continue engaging in learning activities, compared to students from families with fewer resources.

That said, these studies are based on the US school year, where the summer break is about 10 to 11 weeks long. In comparison, students in local secondary schools have shorter vacation periods — the June holidays are only four weeks long, whereas the year-end vacation is about six weeks long.

Nevertheless, any extended break in learning can potentially lead to math learning loss, and this is due to the fact that kids will typically have less time to engage in mathematical thinking during the school holidays.

If your child is taking a second or third language in school, a break could also be detrimental to your child’s progress, especially if your family doesn’t speak the language at home. Anecdotally, it’s not uncommon to hear of language teachers bemoaning their students’ loss of vocabulary after a learning break of several weeks.

As a parent, what you can do is talk to your teen about how he or she would like to spend the school holidays. Does your teen want to pursue any interests, or spend time with friends? How much relaxation time is considered enough, and do you have rules about screen time? When it comes to school work, is your teen willing to set aside a few hours a week for tutoring or self-learning, e.g. online research that may help him or her to better understand the next year’s material? Structure is beneficial for most people, so your teen will have a more fulfilling holiday — and an easier time switching back to the routine of school — if there are plans in place.

Learn Through Questioning

If your child is to do without a tutor for any subject, he or she must learn to maximise the time spent in the classroom. Check with any teacher and you’ll probably find out that the better-performing students tend to ask more questions in class to clarify doubts, and they don’t wait till right before the exams to do this!

As for what sorts of questions to ask in the classroom — it’s not about asking “smart” questions, but asking questions to better understand what the teacher is saying. Even simple clarifying questions such as “Can you repeat what you just said?” or “What does that term mean?” are very helpful for making sense of new material.

If your teen has a basic understanding of what has been taught in class, you can then explore some questioning frameworks together. For instance, it’s useful to formulate questions while one is doing revision, in order to check one’s understanding, or to identify learning gaps and areas for further exploration that one can then consult a teacher for. (See a simple example of a questioning framework here.)

To make asking questions a habit, create a culture of questioning at home or with your social networks. One way to do this is to bring up fresh topics of interest at the dinner table on a regular basis, and let your child see you asking different types of questions for better understanding, to make connections, to highlight inconsistencies or inaccuracies, and to introduce alternative viewpoints and ideas.

Seek Growth Opportunities Beyond The Classroom

Signing up for a CCA (co-curricular activity) is compulsory during the secondary school years. It would be a mistake to view this as a waste of time, or to let your teen opt for an “easy” or “relaxing” CCA just to fulfil minimum requirements.

On the other hand, some teens and parents feel that CCAs are pointless if one is not representing the school. Apart from CCA bonus points, it’s true that much can be gained from being on a school team where you train intensively for competitions and deal with the pressure of having to perform and compete against others. It’s unfortunate that not every teen can be exposed to an activity at this level, but even picking up something for leisure has its benefits too. If your teen can have fun for two hours a week learning a new skill or sport, that is a valuable experience, as it helps your teen to feel a greater sense of joy and belonging within the school community.

If you truly feel that there are not enough growth opportunities for your teen within the school — i.e. he or she has not secured a class or school leadership position, and is only involved in a CCA at the recreational level — you may want to look beyond the school for activities that your teen can grow in. Ask your teen if there is something that he or she would like to learn, and look for an enrichment school or club that offers exposure opportunities through showcases, performances, or competitions. If your teen is particularly interested in world affairs, you can help him or her to link up with like-minded teens through events such as Model United Nations. For teens with a nurturing heart, get them involved in volunteer work or peer tutoring, which offer rich learning experiences as well.

If your teen is interested, he or she can enrol in the National Youth Achievement Award (NYAA) programme, which is helpful for securing CCA bonus points as well. This is a self-development programme available to young people in Singapore between the ages of 13 and 30. The programme’s activities (which your teen will take on in his or her own time) are designed to provide young people with a platform to develop personal qualities and skills to make a difference to themselves and the community at large. To find out more, your teen can either enquire with the school’s designated NYAA coordinator (if there is one), or get in touch with the NYAA Council directly.

Friends Matter

Friendships are pivotal in the teen years, and you will want to have open conversations with your teen, to make sure that he or she can tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

If your teen comes to you for advice on a friendship’s viability, try this three-question test: 

  1. Do I feel lighter being with this person?
  2. Do I feel encouraged?
  3. Do I feel valued?

If your teen answers “yes” to all three questions, the friendship is likely a healthy one. “No” answers may indicate that the friendship is a strain on your teen’s emotional resources, and if it doesn’t improve, a decision may have to be made to cut the negative friend loose.

Typically, parents are also worried about negative peer influence, and they may hope to see their teens befriending others who are studious, obedient, and generally from similar backgrounds. However, this could actually be limiting for a teen. Having a diverse group of friends ensures that one is exposed to a variety of ideas and experiences — if we are assessing our teen’s friends, we should be looking at their hearts, and not at their abilities or backgrounds. 

Finally, don’t forget that friendship is a two-way street. Is your teen being a good friend to others? If your teen is having trouble making or retaining friends, you can use this checklist to kick off discussions with your teen about how to be a better friend.

Is your child unhappy over school allocation? Read a counsellor’s advice for helping your child to accept his or her new secondary school.