Why schools need to focus on the middle years
Once considered a latent period, the transition from primary school to secondary school is now thought to be critical in the health and emotional development of students.
A world-first study shows that it’s at this stage students lay the foundations for their future success and educators can respond to these developmental patterns.
The classroom is a place where young people – from childhood through adolescence – will spend a lot of their time. Traditionally, however, it has been difficult to gather evidence about the growth and development of students in the middle years. The Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS) puts the focus on these formative years, following students from Year 3 into secondary school and capturing their experiences. The study shows the importance of these years for shaping emotional wellbeing, and that an individual’s health and wellbeing during this period can have lifelong implications.
What CATS can tell educators
CATS has found that there’s a strong link between health and wellbeing, student disengagement, and academic performance.
At the helm of the study is George Patton, Professorial Fellow in Adolescent Health Research from the University of Melbourne and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. He has found that students who report ‘being sad, unhappy and anxious’ are ‘not learning as well as their peers’.
“In terms of year 7 NAPLAN scores, we looked at how many years of numeracy kids with those more persisting emotional problems lost between grade 3 and year 7. We were astonished to find that the kids with more persisting emotional problems lost a year in learning across those four years in terms of numeracy, and they lost about six months in terms of reading.” Professor George Patton
Professor Patton says it’s the first time a study has demonstrated in a predictive way that emotional problems have a profound effect on learning. He cites loss of interest in school work, falling academic performance and fatigue as some of the tell-tale signs that a student is having emotional problems.
What’s worrying students?
Since 2012, Professor Patton and his research colleagues have collected data from 1200 students for the study. What CATS has found is that as relationships with parents, teachers and peers change during this transition period, students start to worry about all manner of things. Many emotional problems can begin at this age.
‘They’re worried about managing the work, losing their friends, finding their way around a big school. So, it can be a range of things,’ states Professor Patton.
Social isolation, bullying and victimisation during this developmental period, he says, puts students at high risk of emotional problems.
“It’s the kids who are socially isolated, lonely, don’t have good friends, who are bullied and victimised, who are most likely to develop these emotional problems.” Professor George Patton
Peer relationships at school ‘become really important’ during this time, as they can determine the trajectory of a student’s future progress, both socially and academically.
What’s the risk of emotional problems in the middle years?
With around 20 per cent of students having persistent emotional problems from years 3 to 5, one of the risks according to Professor Patton is that ‘if they get behind in learning, it becomes very hard to catch up’.
‘You develop a self-image, which is, I’m no good at school. For boys at this age, if they’re failing academically, they’ll find another identity.’
Professor Patton says that in some cases this can lead to disruptive and anti-social behaviour.
There are also other long-term risk factors such as obesity, depression and anxiety. Professor Patton says, ‘We’re certainly seeing more emotional problems during these years than we ever have’.
Puberty marks a point of transition and risk, giving rise to mental health problems that students could continue to grapple with later on in life.
“The best data that we have is that around 50 per cent of all adult mental disorders begin by the age of 14 years and mostly between the ages of 7 and 14.” Professor George Patton
How can educators can give students a healthy start to adolescence?
Professor Patton believes there’s a great opportunity for classroom teachers, and educators overall, to promote a better transition from primary to secondary school. ‘Teachers are very good at identifying the kids who are not going to make it or not going to thrive in secondary school.’
Next to parents, Professor Patton declares, teachers ‘are the most important people in the lives of kids’. He explains: ‘They are the first line of response to those little problems. Responding well to those little problems as they emerge, is going to be the best approach to prevention’.
Professor Patton emphasises that ‘it’s at this early point where interventions are going to be most effective’, and he believes there are ‘ways that you can reshape that classroom environment – make it a welcoming, inclusive, safe place for kids to be’.
While individual schools have adopted successful strategies and evaluation methods to identify children at risk, Professor Patton says what’s lacking is a systemic approach and evidence-based strategies. He believes that, for school improvement, ‘there’s an awful lot more that we could be doing’ and that preparation should begin at a young age.
“It probably needs to begin before grade 6. One of the things that one is wanting to do through this transition is maintain a kid’s engagement with school. That’s engagement with the work, but it’s also engagement with the people, with the teachers, and with the peer group.” Professor George Patton
According to Professor Patton, one way to achieve this could be through the creation of an action team that forms ‘an alignment of curriculum, alignment of pedagogy, and alignment of those social and emotional contexts in a better way than we currently do’.