It’s the sound of hundreds of thousands of tweens who have only just come down from the heady days of being the big kids on campus in primary school. They’ve now realised that in a few short weeks they will be leaving the safe harbour, and navigating the unfamiliar waters of secondary school.
There will be sleepless nights. Possibly some tears. And this is just from parents who will be angsting over everything from whether they have chosen the right school, to how they might be able to afford the school fees.
Forget fretting over whether you’ve bought the right lunch box, or the latest on trend Typo pencil case. Here’s what our kids really need us to be equipping them with so that they can manage this journey successfully.
1. Resilience. There will be days that are stressful, and leave them feeling flat. Don’t rush into solve their upsets for them too early; that science teacher who they say is too strict may end up becoming their favourite. Give them some time to adjust to new teaching (and learning) approaches, and encourage them to develop their own problem solving skills. Focus on praising progress, “I’m really proud of how you’re handling this”, “You’re stronger than you realised, aren’t you?”
2. A map. Speaking of charting new courses, a surprising number of students tell me one of their biggest fears when they start high school is that they will get lost and be unable to get to their classes on time. Unlike the one-stop shop of primary, high school is a movable feast. Schools will provide students with a map, but for the directionally challenged who find these hard to read (I count myself among this wandering-aimlessly tribe), arranging a visit after hours to walk your child through a few times when the playground is less busy can be really comforting.
3. Invites. “Play dates” are now rebranded as “hanging out”. Providing an activity, like swimming or watching a movie, can be a valuable way of encouraging fragile new friendships to flourish. If your child is no longer with their old group of mates, they may feel some anxiety about finding a new, instant best friend. Encourage them to get involved in school activities where they are likely to meet kids with similar interests. Let them keep in touch with their old friends too; it is important they have a few different social networks they can draw on. This way, if one network collapses, they will still feel like they belong as they will have a community elsewhere.
4. A routine. As far as study habits are concerned, it’s harder to break a bad habit than start off on a good footing. At the beginning of the year young people are full of good intentions, so harness that positive energy and get them into a homework routine. Set out a specific framework that they agree on, for example: “ From 4-5pm you can unwind, but from 5 until dinner at 6pm, you need to do your homework.” If they don’t have homework, get them to block out that period of time by writing up their notes, or reading a book.
5. Reassurance. At the end of my daughter’s first week at high school, I had a huge cuddly toy chimpanzee waiting as a surprise for her on her bed. I wanted her to know that yes, she was growing up, but some things — like her mother’s love, and the thrill of finding a particularly snuggly primate — would remain a constant. He was quickly christened her “Comfort Monkey” as she’d lay all over him after school when she was overwhelmed or exhausted. He’s still there now, and only recently saw her through her first day at university.
The reality is though that the heavy sigh we hear may actually be from a tweenager impatiently counting down the days to simply get started; there are plenty of kids who will be chomping at the bit to sail into secondary school.
Whether reticent or relaxed, however, our new high-schoolers still need us to help steer the ship.
This week the HSC exams finished for another year and, as an educator and the parent of a teenage girl who sat her last test on Monday, I can’t help but reflect on this time.
Not so much on the historical dates and quotes from literature she may have memorised, but on what I hope she and her peers have really learnt from surviving this academic rite of passage.
At some stage during these gruelling last years of high school (years one girl described to me as being like The Hunger Games “where kids battle it out against other kids and feel like they could die at any moment”) many teens will want to give up. Some on a weekly basis.They may fantasise about opting out and running away, of getting a rare illness that will leave them unable to do school work (yet strangely still able to watch re-runs of Gilmore Girls and hang out with their mates), of doing anything other than write yet another essay.
But they back up again the next morning, pack their schoolbags, and get on the school bus. Many will think no one understands what they’re going through.
If they read any of the more negative media reports that eagerly brand them whingers and wimps, they may even think others are relishing their struggles.
But then they’ll have a debrief with their mates at lunchtime, or find virtual kindred spirits via social media, and realise everyone else is just as anxious, stressed and unsure as they are.
They’ll learn that there is a deep comfort in this connection and find relief through using humour (even at times dark humour) to vent.
They’ll learn, too, that those who can see the funny side are highly valued. How else to explain why a student named Kelvin who loves “photography, chess, memes and math” developed a cult-like following among the 60,000 students who were members of the Facebook page for 2016 HSC students he helped moderate?
At times they may despair that each failed assessment will have ruined their future life plans.
And yet in the next task they complete they will have performed better than they had hoped for, or their plans will suddenly take on a different shape and they will realise there are still possibilities; that there are always possibilities.
Make no mistake, I don’t think for one minute the current system does our kids any favours by teaching them more about perseverance, camaraderie and resilience than it does about learning.
But I have taken enormous pride and solace in seeing my daughter and her peers realise they are stronger and more determined than they had ever realised they could be.
Class of 2016, I’d love to tell you that you will never again be put under such huge pressure, or have your worth sized up by a rank, or be asked to do tasks that seem to have little real world relevance.
The reality is, you may have to face all these demons again.
But if you do meet them again, you will know them. And, more importantly, you will know that you’ve got it.
Feel free to celebrate by burning your books, and gleefully forgetting your math equations. But don’t ever forget what you have learnt about you this year.
This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph, 5/11/16.
This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.
Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?
School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.
I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:
“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”
“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”
“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”
“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”
And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.
There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.
“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”
These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.
Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.
Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.
“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”
For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.
Yes! Governments are now at least trying to catch up with parents and educators who have been concerned for years that girls and boys are hurting because of the unrelenting pressure to fit narrow, impossible-to-achieve physical ideals.
I am heartened by the fact that British MPs from across the political spectrum declared that body image and self-esteem lessons should be compulsory for all children. The Australian government didn’t go quite that far when it established policies based on the work of its National Advisory Group on Body Image. The Australian policies are a start, but as I’ve discussed here before, I think they need strengthening before they will bring about the impact that is needed.
Just as they do in Britain, kids in Australia and New Zealand need more body image and self-esteem programs in schools – and just as crucially, they need the right type of programs. So, when it comes to body image and self-esteem programs, what really works?
The British inquiry confirmed that media images of unrealistic bodies are largely to blame for young people’s body image angst and self-esteem battles. This is why we think it is so important to equip girls with media literacy skills. Policing and patronising simply won’t work, as anyone who’s ever tried banning TV, taking away internet privileges or chucking out magazines will tell you. The end result is usually a resentful girl and an atmosphere of distrust at home. Besides, no matter how hard you try to stem the tide of harmful images, they are everywhere – on billboards, the sides of buses, you name it. The best gift we can give girls is to help them develop lifelong skills to look at advertising and media critically, deconstruct them and make up their own minds. Only then will those photoshopped images representing the ideal woman lose their seductive and damaging power.
At Enlighten, what we want to see are girls with healthy all-round self-esteem based not on appearance alone but on all that a girl has to offer the world. Her brains, compassion, humour, business smarts, sporting ability, musical talents – whatever her own unique attributes happen to be. A big part of creating healthy self-esteem is building up resilience, the ability to bounce back after facing adversity. It is important for kids to have a solid sense of their own self worth so that they don’t crumble when things don’t work out as they hoped – when their marks aren’t as good as they expected on a test, their boyfriend drops them, they don’t get a role in the school musical. The stakes only get higher as kids grow up and face adversity as adults, which makes it vital to develop coping skills from a young age.
So we love what Geelong Grammar is doing. Teachers there are following the principles of “positive education”, which was developed by US psychologist and educator Martin Seligman, who is probably best known for his book Authentic Happiness. In positive education, students are taught not only traditional school subjects but also the skills to be happy and resilient.
This is not about kids walking around with a smile on their face, ignoring critical human emotion. It’s about a flourishing person who is in control of their emotion, who can deal with adversity, knows that adversity is going to hit them and there will be sad times and bad times, but they can bounce back from that. – Geelong Grammar Vice-Principal Charlie Scudamore
Some public schools in Victoria have adopted a similar approach and are seeing great results, and South Australia is doing a pilot study with Seligman to see whether they should introduce positive education in all schools in the state system.
Positivity is crucial when working with girls, because only by embracing the positive and connecting with girls’ hearts can we truly effect change. Often girls shuffle into our presentations expecting the usual lecture – do this, don’t do that – but leave on a high because we create a positive, loving vibe and an atmosphere of fun in order to get very serious messages across. We see the results in the faces of the girls as they light up, and we know that the impact lasts long after the girls have left school for the day. We hear it from parents:
I had two daughters come home this afternoon absolutely passionate about their experience with Enlighten Ed today, it seems to have been able 2reignite all the girl power I’ve been sending their way since they were toddlers, except in a fun, fascinating, non-dorky-mother atmosphere. Thanks for trying so hard to equip our little girls for the harsh and hideously sexualised world that lies ahead 🙂 – Olivia Brasington
And we hear it from educators and the girls themselves. One of the schools we work with in Tasmania drafted a reflective survey for their girls one year after we presented there. When asked if the presentation made a long-lasting change to the way they behave towards other people, responses included:
Yes, I believe it did. I have a better perspective of my life, and how I see myself and other people.
Yes, I have come to respect who people are and what they believe in.
Yes! I have stopped basing everything on looks and started looking at the inside of people. I’ve realised I can have amazing friends that don’t need to be popular or pretty. I’ve started being more happy with myself.
We are always trying to find new ways to get serious messages across in playful ways that engage girls. Recently we produced these stickers designed to go on mirrors and provoke thought and discussion. The stickers are on sale at our site, where we also offer free resources to engage girls, such as our beautiful-looking iPhone app and wallpapers with inspiring and empowering messages.
A school where we regularly present has ordered a sticker for every school bathroom mirror . . . including those in the boys’ toilets. The school told us:
It’s exactly the type of message we want our students to understand and it is delivered in a way which will engage them and get them thinking and talking.
And this is the most important part of all, the key to any program or intervention with young people: get them thinking, get them talking. Create a supportive environment for ideas to take root and flourish. Win their hearts, so that their minds will follow. And always, always keep the lines of communication open.
I embrace every opportunity to listen to teen girls — to connect with them and also to learn their hopes, dreams and concerns, not to mention their insights into Girl World.
So at the end of every Enlighten workshop, we ask girls for their feedback. We want to know what really gets through to them. What is the best way to connect? What brings about lasting, positive change? What are the best ways to help girls shine?
This week I want to give a voice to one of those girls: Sienna Fracchia, a Year 9 girl who recently took part in a workshop with our Queensland program director, Storm Greenhill-Brown, and team member Louise Beddoes. I hope that Sienna’s thoughtful — and impressively articulate! — feedback will be of valuable to anyone who works with girls, wants to better understand girls, and wishes to make a strong, authentic connection with them.
Not your average Friday!
I arrived at school on Friday 2 March thinking, ‘Oh, this Year 9 Development Day is just going to be another one of those “growing up” sessions about puberty and development!’ I predicted a whole day in a room full of Grade 9 girls, discussing various body parts and how our emotions will develop. An organisation called Enlighten Education was doing a presentation called ‘The Butterfly Effect’; I thought it was some type of nickname for girls going through puberty or something cheesy like that. It sounded like the worst way to spend a Friday. I spent a good hour before school reflecting on the many uncomfortable student-teacher moments of the past when we talked about puberty or another awkward topics involving adolescent development, and the many that were to come.
For educators, it can be a bit confronting to hear this straight from the horse’s mouth. But it’s a great reminder that sometimes even when it seems that girls have been given the required personal development courses, the messages still may not have got through. Whilst girls might be present in the room, they might not be engaged and another way may need to be found to connect with them.
When the bell rang, my friends and I trudged up the stairs to our doom; but when we slowly edged our way into the room, we were swept away from the world of smelly, hairy boys ruling our lives, into GIRL WORLD — a sea of pink and purple fabric, butterflies and glitter, where school shoes were just an accessory and girls ruled. My judgement was so wrong! A goodie bag and pamphlet were thrust into our arms, as our minds were registering the awesome day that awaited us.
Girls want (and of course deserve!) to feel special and important. Simple, attractive visual props and handouts set the scene. They signify to girls that this is a time and space set aside just for them, and that something transformative is about to happen.
We started our adventure learning the heartbreaking but also amazingly romantic story of our leader, Storm, from Enlighten Education. Then a little physical exercise (dancing!) and we knew that this was going to be one of the best days of our school lives. Through five different workshops, we discovered just how amazing GIRL WORLD and all the girls in it really are.
Sienna points out something that is crucial to getting through to girls: telling our own stories. If we want girls to be vulnerable and reveal their true selves to us, we must first do so ourselves. Only by being open and letting ourselves be seen can we expect to win girls’ trust and deeply connect with them.
After the first workshop, Forever Friends, I really wanted to become friends with all the girls and stand up for them. I really wanted us to become a family; we are sisters, no matter if we are presently in the same friendship group or not. After every workshop, we were presented with a small pink and black card that had an affirmation relating to the workshop. The first one read: ‘I attract good, positive friends into my life. I encourage and support others.’
The academic demands are so intense on girls now that I think we sometimes forget that friendship skills — making friends, choosing the right friends, resolving conflict — are also something girls need our help with.
Get It Together, our second workshop, taught us how to manage our time and develop techniques to calm ourselves and de-stress. A bit of yoga and calming music and we were in heaven. Free to move the way we wanted, and to be comfortable in our own skin, we learned to relax. My earlier fears were certainly proved wrong beyond any imagination. Our second affirmation read: ‘I enjoy learning. I have potential to achieve, and I have faith in my abilities.’
Girls are undeniably under a lot of pressure, so helping them learn healthy ways to relieve stress (rather than binge drinking, smoking or dieting, for instance) is more important than ever before. Incorporating short bursts of relaxation meditation or exercise (such as the dancing that Sienna loved) into the day can be relatively simple — and cost free.
The third workshop was after morning tea, and taught us about the dangers girls can face in the world. It was called Stop, I don’t like it but unlike the title, we loved it and the session really made all of the girls feel safer and more in control. Enlighten Education also provided us with contact numbers of help lines and emergency numbers, and for the information of all you women and girls out there, we actually practised the eye gouge and groin kick! Storm assured us that we were all strong, brave, beautiful Amazon women. The third affirmation card told us I listen to my butterflies and set boundaries. I am an Amazon.
We would all love to protect our girls from every danger they may face in the world — but we cannot be there all the time, so the best thing we can do is make sure they can look after their personal safety. Sienna’s feedback shows that girls can be empowered to look after themselves and feel in control.
Before going for lunch we had our fourth workshop: Princess Diaries. Firstly, we made stunning diaries in which to write our fears, dreams, achievements, failures and worries. Beautiful ribbons, glitter, paper, stickers and butterflies were presented to us with an exercise book for us to decorate to our heart’s desire (or until lunch, whichever came first!). Instinctively, the groups we were in stopped being selfish, and we all cared for and helped our sisters.
Teenage girls are just bursting with feelings and thoughts. Getting them down on paper helps girls get a handle on who they are, and who they want to be.
We finished the day in a workshop called Love the Skin You’re In. Just as the title suggests, that’s exactly what we did. Storm taught us how to accept that we are all beautiful, amazing and talented. She spoke about self-confidence and self-praise. I tried the self-praise part and it actually really does make you feel better about yourself. It was affirmed on the cards that: ‘I am precious. I choose to send loving thoughts to myself and others. I surround myself with positive words and attract good things into my life.’
Girls are exposed every day to so many voices (the media, advertisers, their peers) telling them they aren’t pretty enough, or popular or thin or smart or rich enough. We can’t silence those voices, but we can help girls like Sienna develop strong self-esteem that enables them to grow into resilient women.
Finally, we were set a challenge to wear a bracelet on our left arm and for 21 days, recite the words on the affirmation cards and only speak positively about ourselves and others. Then, when we complete the challenge, we move the bracelet to our right arm so that everyone knows that we believe in ourselves.
Friday 2 March was one of the best days, not only of school, but of my life. It came at the perfect time for me and helped me so much. I don’t know what I would’ve done without it. I read my affirmation cards every day and I hope to keep them for a very long time. My journal and bracelet will always stay very close to my heart and I will never forget Storm and Lou, our great, girl gang leaders!
Sienna, you and your friends are close to our hearts, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, hopes, wishes and dreams with us. We hear you!
I feel passionately about the need to engage with girls and listen to what really matters to them. The launch of my book for girls, “The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo”, has been a wonderful chance to get on the media and encourage parents to do just that, and I was more than happy to talk in depth about this on Channel 9’s “Mornings” show this week:
Writer Anna Warwick interviewed me recently for Northside Magazine on how to help your children settle in at school. I thought I would reproduce this article here, with their permission, as I have had some very positive feedback from readers saying they found my advice helpful.
Writer: Anna Warwick Photographs: Jon Attenborough
“This was a year of great transition in our house. I had the three children going off to three different schools. Teyah, 11, began high school; Kye, 9, started year 4 at a new primary school; and Jazmine, who’s just turned 16, started year 10 at a new school.
“Even if we are incredibly busy, as parents it’s pretty important to take the time to check in on this critical stage. Transition points are when things may come unstuck, so the time you invest now will pay dividends down the track once they are settled.
“I shed a couple of tears when Teyah started high school, but your children need to see that you believe it’s going to be fine and they will cope. It’s only natural that they (and you) will experience some anxiety around this new beginning. There will be days of stress; there will be days where they are a bit tired and a bit grumpy. Don’t panic and worry that you’ve picked the wrong school. It’s normal to have a few hiccups along the way. I’ve been saying to my kids ‘I’m really proud of how you’re handling this’ and ‘Gee you’re a lot stronger than you realised, aren’t you?’
“Ultimately, through life they’ll go through a lot of changes – it’s the only thing that’s really inevitable – and so this is great practice. Teyah’s high school is really big – there are about 180 kids in each year group – and she went to a primary school with only 55 students. It may be easier for your child to form connections with school mates outside the traditional playground. I tapped into the traditional, yet often overlooked, networks of Girl Guides for Teyah and Cubs for Kye, and Jazmine joined the local church youth group.
“I’ve been organising a few little play dates. Doesn’t matter if they’re in high school, just call it ‘hanging out’. Providing an activity, like swimming or watching a movie, can be a great icebreaker. Build up your child’s friendship skills. Teach them the importance of introducing themselves and remembering people’s names.
“Teach them what makes a good listener as well as a good talker. It’s also about being sensitive and friendly to others, saying ‘hi’ to people, learning how to take compliments politely and to give them sincerely. If you’re concerned about the types of friends your child is making, then as a parent you have the right to set some boundaries. Be honest and talk to your kids about the fact that sometimes some people are not going to like them.
“There’s pressure to be liked, but the reality is that not everyone is going to like you all the time. Encourage them to keep in touch with old friends. It is important they have a few different social networks they can draw on, because if one network collapses they will still feel like they belong, as they have a community elsewhere.
“As far as study habits are concerned, it’s harder to break a bad habit than start off on a good footing. At the beginning of the year young people are full of good intentions, so harness that positive energy and get them into a homework routine. Set out a specific framework that they agree on, for example: ‘From 4-5pm you can watch your favourite shows, but the trade-off is that from 5-5.30pm you are going to do your spelling. From 5.30-7pm you can go and play.’
“Map out their afternoon and they will be more likely to stick with it. If they don’t have homework, get them to read their notes or read a novel – something that blocks out that period of time. Show them how to use a calendar and noticeboard; set up an in-tray on their desk. Write affirmations and put them in their room: ‘I enjoy learning’ or ‘I have faith in my abilities.’ Seek outside assistance if your child seems to be falling behind. A great tutor can make all the difference between their feeling anxious about school and setting them up for success.
“Be aware of signs that you child is not settling in well or is distressed, such as withdrawal – isolating themselves and an unwillingness to participate in family activities. Keep a look out for overeating or a loss of appetite, changes to sleep patterns, general irritability and quickness to anger. It’s a fine line between normal angst and something real going on; as a general rule parents know the difference.
“Our gut feeling is usually right. If we are observant enough and ask open-ended questions, we can get to the bottom of things. Pick your moment. After they get home from school they’re a bit over it all. If you ask ‘How was your day?’ you might get a couple of grunts in response. I find I can have a really good conversation with them just before they go to bed because they know the longer they keep talking the longer the light stays on. I guess it’s a stalling tactic. If in doubt, liaise with your child’s school. Most schools are open to having discussions and they would rather help you to sort things out early on than wait till they become big issues.
“Finally, don’t forget to make them feel special and acknowledge in a concrete way that you’re proud and supportive of them. Have a special dinner or write them a little note. Taking Kye out for a milkshake makes his day. At the end of Teyah’s first week at school I had a big stuffed toy waiting on her bed, and I gave Jazmine a bunch of flowers. When our children are older we can forget that they still need us as much as ever.”