The importance of asking the right questions

Many parents feel anxious about their children starting secondary school.

Many parents feel anxious about their children starting secondary school. At primary school, you may have been involved in school life. You will probably have attended school concerts, plays and assemblies; you may helped with fundraising, or watched your child play team sports, and been there on sports day.

If you accompanied your child to and from primary school, there will have been effortless chatter about the school day. You will have known the names of school friends and met their parents at the school gates. Your child’s class teacher will be a familiar face and you will probably have known most of the rest of the staff.

All this, however, is likely to change when your child starts secondary school. Your previously-garrulous child may become reluctant to confide in mum and dad. The teachers’ names are no longer familiar to you - and, if your child does talk about school, it is about friends you have never met and classrooms and buildings that you have never been inside.

Starting secondary school often coincides with the start of adolescence and the natural beginning of separation from parents. It can be difficult to achieve the same close relationship that you had previously. And it is easy to get annoyed when your attempts at conversation feel one-sided.

It is easy to opt out and convince yourself that "It’s all changed since my day", or "I can’t help: I don’t understand what they are doing".

But children who do well at school are often those whose parents stay involved in their children's progress and make an effort to listen and talk with them.

Communicating with teenagers can be difficult, but it is not impossible, if you take an interest in your child’s school life and make a habit of setting aside time to talk each day. Teenagers are still children and they still depend on their parents and carers for help, advice, and self-esteem. You have to respect their growing need for privacy, but - with encouragement - most children will share some things with you.

Instead of asking "How was school today?", try asking open questions: "Tell me something funny that happened today. I need cheering up." Show an interest in a specific lesson or piece of work: "I didn’t know that. Can you explain it to me?"

Some children enjoy it if you tell them about a time when you were in trouble at school and will often disclose things if you learn not to react with horror. It is tempting to give up when faced with a truculent teenager, but if you persevere most children enjoy the opportunity to make you laugh or to show off about what they know.

Talking to teachers

If you visit the school whenever the opportunity arises, it is easier for you to understand your child’s school day and environment.

Children want to feel proud of their school (whatever they say), so be careful that you do not share any misgivings that you might have. Your child will be at the school for at least five years and it will play an important part in your family’s life. Support the school and help your child to make the most of the time spent there.

When you do have the opportunity to talk to the teachers, make the most of it. Go prepared by talking to your child beforehand. Familiarise yourself with the work they are doing in different subjects and ask if there any concerns or anything you should say to the teacher. Take a notebook with the teachers’ names next to the specific questions you might want to ask.

Possible questions

What is my child good at?

What does my child find difficult?

How can I help?

Does my child join in class or group discussions?

Does my child try hard enough? Do you have any suggestions?

Is there any work outstanding?

What level or grade are they working at - or expected to achieve?

Are there any books or websites that you can recommend?

Is there anything else that I can do at home to help?

Will you let me know if there are problems?

Remember that you will not have very long with each teacher. Just choose a few of the questions that are relevant. Do not forget to feed back to your child the positive things that have been said.

Good luck!

Sue Hadfield is a teacher and the author of Brilliant Positive Thinking (Pearson) and Change One Thing (Capstone); she is also co-author of Bounce and of How to be Assertive (both Pearson)