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How do children experience the transition to secondary school?

Tuesday, 14 March, 2023 - 10:56

Which fears are reported by children in connection with the transition from primary to secondary school and how do they deal with them? These questions were investigated by the scientific working group D.O.T. (The Open Door). Researchers led by Dr Beate Schrank, a medical doctor at the University Hospital Tulln, conducted more than 50 workshops in Lower Austrian school classes to better understand the psychological challenges during school transition.

The challenge of changing schools
The change from primary to secondary school is often associated with anxiety for children. The changes in the school setting and the possible simultaneous onset of puberty pose significant challenges for young adolescents. Behavioural patterns learned during school transition often persist into adulthood and may influence health and well-being in later life.

The study of the scientific working group D.O.T. (The Open Door) of Karl Landsteiner University examined fears and coping strategies during school transition. The aim was to understand fears better and fear coping to identify starting points for developing effective interventions to promote mental health.

Safe survey setting creates first-hand results
How do you discuss anxiety and coping in a classroom without putting children in uncomfortable situations? The researchers chose a method from the therapeutic field. The picture of a drawn character was presented as a fictional person. The researchers then started the story by telling them that this child was going to join their class and what s_he could be scared of. In the next step, the children would provide ideas and recommendations on how the fictional child could cope with the earlier-mentioned fears. By projecting the situation onto a fictitious person, each child can contribute his or her views without disclosing personal information. For the study, 54 workshops were organised in Lower Austria at 29 schools with 896 children and evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively.

Fears and strategies
Four categories of fears were identified: the fear of being victimised by the peer group, the fear of being alone, not finding any friends, the fear of being victimised by an authority figure (i.e. a mean teacher, head mistress) and the fear of failing at school. To cope with the fear, the children mentioned different strategies, among others they described, that it could be helpful to create supportive networks, and try to regulate own emotions. Communication plays a vital role in addressing fears. Having contact with others, as well as the avoidance of negative contact, serves to prevent exclusion.

Interventions for better coping with anxiety
In summary, social anxieties were mentioned more often than the fear of not meeting the academic demands of the new school environment. The children were able to name strategies but appeared to lack competence in applying them practically in everyday life. From the study results, starting points can be derived for developing interventions that can help children to better cope with fears associated with the school transition.

The scientific working group D.O.T. is replaced by the innovative Research Centre Transitional Psychiatry of the Karl Landsteiner University for Health Sciences. Under the direction of senior physician Dr Beate Schrank, the mental health of young people between the ages of 15 and 25 is also the focus of interest here.

Open Access Publication
Thanks to funding from Karl Landsteiner University, the work has been published freely available in the journal "Social Psychology of Education".

Stiehl KAM, Krammer I, Schrank B, Pollak I, Silani G, Woodcock KA. Children’s perspective on fears connected to school transition and intended coping strategies. Social Psychology of Education. 2023. doi: 10.1007/s11218-023-09759-1


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