Commentary: School transitions can be a stressful and intimidating struggle for many students and parents

Commentary: School transitions can be a stressful and intimidating struggle for many students and parents

Navigating school isn’t as easy at 1-2-3; more support from parents and educators are needed during critical transitions, says one clinical psychologist from the Institute of Mental Health.

Family Singapore
A family walking in Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: As the first school term of 2018 draws to a close, students heave a sigh of relief as the one-week school holiday gives many a temporary respite before the next term starts.

In recent years, there have been reports on youths in Singapore facing increased stress and anxiety in their lives. This is a concern we must actively tackle.

It starts with recognising a systemic source of apprehension. The period of school transitions, when a young person progresses from pre-school to primary school, secondary school to post-secondary education institutes can be particularly challenging.

There is no “standard” experience - some youths seem excited about starting a new chapter in their schooling life, while others are anxious and take a longer time to adjust.


For the average seven-year-old, starting primary school can be intimidating. Moving to a class size of about 30 to 40 students, with a highly-structured environment and stricter school rules, and going from being the oldest to the youngest in the school can be initially overwhelming.

So it is not unusual for Primary 1 students to seem unsure and nervous about their school experience at first. 

Common worries include whether the teacher will be strict, if they will have new friends to play and eat with during recess, worries of being bullied, and the stress of coping with homework.

Fortunately, schools have taken steps to ease their transition. For instance, schools often conduct orientation sessions prior to the start of school and during the first week for parents and Primary 1 students. These allow students and their parents to get accustomed to the primary school experience.

Some also have a buddy system pairing every Primary 1 student with an upper primary student who serves as a mentor to aid in easing the transitional period for the younger student.

primary school students first day of school 2018 (5)
A primary school student showing a younger student how to wash his hands. (File photo: MOE)

Some students may take a little longer than others to settle in. Being aware of a child’s temperament and personality may help to ease the transition.

Children who are slow to warm up or those with difficult temperaments may benefit from additional preparation and support, such as having some predictability in a routine at home and in school, informing them of what to expect at school, or in adults creating a quiet environment for them to calm down when they get upset.

Giving more time for shy children to feel comfortable may help. Adult figures can gently encourage exploration of new situations and foster independence at a gradual pace.

Parents and teachers can also help them identify, acknowledge calmly, and label their feelings, by describing what they seem to feel (e.g. “You felt scared about going to school”).

By doing so, children learn how to recognise their feelings, aiding in their emotional development. 

Teaching basic daily living skills such as practical money skills, organisational skills (e.g. packing their own school bag, listing homework tasks), and social skills (e.g. being polite, taking turns, what construes appropriate and inappropriate things to say) may also be useful for this age group.

Fern Green Primary School students
Students from Fern Green Primary attending a lesson on their first day of school. (Photo: Matin Akmal Mohammad Kamal) 


Moving to secondary school poses unique challenges. Some students (and their parents) may experience disappointment in not being posted to their top choice of school – remaining a positive outlook will be vital.

One other key challenge in the transition stems from this - Secondary 1 students are faced with almost double the number of subjects and longer school hours. They also have to learn how to juggle schoolwork, CCA, socialising with peers and carving out their own interests, which can be pretty stressful.

To compound these challenges, adolescence is associated with independence, identity development, a testing of limits, growing importance placed on peer relationships, and an awakening sexuality.

Being accepted and the need for freedom are important aspects of an adolescent’s development.

Parents can help by keeping communication lines open and by taking time to listen to their teenager's views. They should also take an active interest in their child’s interests and activities without being nosy. Spending one-on-one quality time can help to build trust and foster a stronger parent-child relationship.

For some adolescents, social media can be an intricate web to navigate, including dealing with cyberbullying and adult content.

O Level students
File photo of students receiving their O-Level results. 

Parents will do well to pay attention to their teenagers’ internet access, usage and social media habits, and discuss what makes for healthy and safe internet use. Parents can also see how best to set limits while giving space for them to exercise freedom and independence.

READ: A commentary on the dangers of youths idolising YouTube stars.

Family support and guidance is especially crucial during this time in helping them navigate their adolescent years.


The transition to post-secondary education pathways – whether ITE, junior college, centralised institute or polytechnic - is a complex transition because of the number of education pathways available. Choosing a route for their academic journey necessitates dealing with family expectations or peer pressure.

A constructive way for parents to deal with this stressful situation is to focus discussions on the teen’s strengths and interests in assisting the suitability of study options.

Where post-secondary education expects students to be self-directed in their learning and independent in managing their schedules, some students may also struggle to adapt.

Outside of the classroom, the growing importance of platonic and romantic relationships, part-time work and other interests poses new challenges. This also a period where youths may begin experimenting with smoking, alcohol or have their first sexual encounter.

For those with work placements, grappling with new realities of the working world can be an added eye-opening experience.

NTU Engineering
Nanyang Technological University engineering students engaged in team-based learning. (Photo: NTU)

It is important for parents to address all these issues openly and provide youths with information to allow them to make informed life choices and understand the effects of their actions. Life lessons are usually gained through experiences.

While some may be more independent or have better crystalised their sense of identity and life direction, others may still be on the journey to figure out their purpose.

In providing a guiding hand, parents will have to continue maintaining the balance between discipline and love, boundaries and freedom, expecting responsibility and knowing when to let go.


Perhaps the biggest lesson to take away is periods of transitions tend to be nerve-wrecking for parents too. In the hope of ensuring their children are prepared, many become over-involved.

A rising trend, this style of helicopter parenting is counter-intuitive to fostering a child’s independence.

For instance, some parents constantly contact teachers to check on minute details about their child, pack the school bag of their 12-year-old, make decisions for their teenager, or are quick to jump in to resolve every problem their child experiences.

READ: A commentary on helicopter parenting.

It is perfectly acceptable for a child to experience disappointment and failure. Rather than solve problems for them, parents should provide guidance they can use to navigate setbacks.

Parents should be aware of their own anxiety and expectations, their experiences of being parented, and pressure from other parents that may influence their parenting styles or bring up feelings of inadequacy.

Every child is unique and experiences the world differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting.

While school transitions can be anxiety provoking, being mindful of the issues our youths face at different junctures of life may help ease them through these transition periods.

Moderating parental expectations and focusing on a child’s strengths, both academic and non-academic related, are also essential.

Vidhya Renjan is a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.

READ: Channel NewsAsia’s commentary series with IMH on mental health which includes:

A commentary on the stress, loneliness and sorrow some seniors feel during the festive Chinese New Year season.

A commentary on the prevalence of depression in Korean pop stars.

A commentary on the dark underbelly of youth binge-drinking.

Source: CNA/sl