Navigating the transition from primary to intermediate

Issue: Volume 100, Number 12

Posted: 23 September 2021
Reference #: 1HAPpn

An important transition in a student’s life is that between primary and intermediate school. At Willow Park School in Northcote, teachers have been fine-tuning the process to ensure ākonga are confident for the move to Year 7.

Children brainstorm their expectations around intermediate school.

Children brainstorm their expectations around intermediate school.

At the end of every year, Willow Park School farewells more than 100 Year 6 students. Despite being a large primary school with over 700 students, it has a cosy feel and children think of each other as whānau, says senior teacher Theresa Kinloch.

The flip side is that saying goodbye can be a wrench.
To address this, teachers, whānau and ākonga from Willow Park and Northcote Intermediate developed a pilot study to uncover ways to ease the transition.

The study is part of the Northcote Kāhui Ako’s work to explore what success looks like for tamariki. Identifying barriers to learning is a first step and transition between schools was quickly acknowledged as a barrier. Theresa, who is also an across-school teacher for the Kāhui Ako,
led the work with Year 6 teacher Bethany Donnell.

“Children need to feel calm and safe in order to learn.

“We have a strong, successful transition programme from ECE to primary and we wanted to strengthen the programme for primary to intermediate,” says Theresa.

Gathering insights

All children were interviewed before and after the transition at Years 6 and 7. Parent voices were gathered before and after as well, along with teachers’ voices from Northcote Intermediate.

Children were interviewed in small, relaxed group settings – “with biscuits” – while teachers and parents completed Google surveys on what had been difficult for the children.

 Some of the feedback was surprising. Getting the bus had been a big worry for many students, as was fear of bullying and nervousness about making new friends.

“Some were afraid there might be lots of homework but on the whole, academics were not a worry for the kids,” says Theresa.

“Most concerns were around making friends and grasping how intermediate works. There were misconceptions about what it was like and some of them were anxious.”

Extra support

Year 6 teachers were asked to identify which children might feel most anxious about intermediate or change more generally, and a group of 12 tamariki were identified for extra support.

“With our understanding of how the brain works we know that anxious children are not able to learn, they are in fight/flight/freeze mode and cannot access the learning part of the brain. This means that the transition and how they feel about it can not only affect their social and emotional development but also their academic learning,” says Theresa.

“We wanted to equip children with strategies, resources, and knowledge that they could use when they felt anxious. We also wanted to give them more time to process the change with support from skilled people.”

Teacher Cherie Parker is an accredited educator for Pause, Breathe, Smile, a mind health programme designed to equip children aged five to 12 with tools to mange the ups and downs of life and set them up for a healthy future.Theresa Kinloch

Cherie ran mindfulness sessions as part of the eight-week transition programme. Tamariki learned to identify when they felt anxious and how to deal with it, they planned for their first day and visualised what to do if the bus didn’t show up. They also learned to use their senses to ground themselves; for example, labelling four things they could see and touch when they were feeling anxious.

An added benefit was the children in the group bonding with each other, increasing their support network for the transition.

“It was important to recognise that feeling anxious is just another emotion and something that is a part of life but that children need tools and support to deal with it,” says Theresa.

“Our hope was that these children had a positive start to Intermediate and were able to access the learning available to them straight away.”

Language and messaging

A rocky transition can set any child back a year, says Bethany. “And given that they’ll be transitioning to high school in two years, they need to get in, get connected and get learning right away.”

Another focus was working with Year 5 and 6 teachers around the language used about the transition to ensure that messaging was positive rather than instilling fear, for example, “There’s going to be lots of homework”.

“The language we use with our children is important,” says Theresa.

“We need to remind them that they have been preparing for years as they moved through primary school and that they are capable, confident learners,” says Theresa.

Messaging from parents is important too. “Children pick up on parents’ worries. This year we may offer some parent education around anxiety and transitions.”

Familiar faces in new settings

As part of the existing transition process, Northcote Intermediate sends a busload of students to perform for local primary schools, with each group chosen from ex-students from each primary school.

In this way, prospective students see familiar faces on the stage and are thus inspired to look forward to their new school, says Northcote Intermediate principal Phil Muir.

“Children feel proud of Willow Park but there is a sense of loss about not being part of the school anymore, about not seeing the teachers. But when they see the roadshow, they see that they can return to Willow Park and perform,” he says.

The next step is a tour of the intermediate for Year 6 children and a chance to sit in on a class. Before the year is out, they will know who their teacher is for Year 7. Added to this, all classes at Northcote are composite, meaning it is highly likely that Year 7s will recognise some of the Year 8 students.

Monitoring success

At the end of term 1 this year, Theresa and Bethany met with deputy principals from Northcote Intermediate and the focus children to gauge how they were managing socially and academically. Children were asked how they felt about school, classroom teachers provided feedback and test results were studied. Teachers reported that none of the children were on the radar and in fact, all had settled in beautifully.Theresa Kinloch

“We had one student who would cry even if you mentioned the word ‘intermediate’, but he is thriving,” says Bethany. “He’s connected with students who used to be in his class here and he comes back to visit us.”

Phil is very surprised to hear one of his students had been so anxious about the transition.

“This year has been really settled,” he says. “We are very conscious of building resilience. We view resilience as the smiling, confident child with great attendance.”

“It’s teachers knowing children,” adds Theresa. “It’s about supporting them rather than shielding them, providing them with a big enough network of support options.”

In terms of academic learning, intermediate teachers flagged a knowledge gap in mathematics which the Kāhui Ako is working on.

“We are looking at streamlining our processes around maths. It’s about understanding the different levels and ensuring that teachers of Year 6 and Year 7 are talking to each other, making it a shared process. If we didn’t have the Kāhui Ako, this wouldn’t be happening,” says Theresa.

“Having the time, support and relationships with Northcote Intermediate and the Northcote Kāhui Ako made this successful. Our challenge this year is to continue the programme given that Bethany is on maternity leave and Cherie has moved to Wellington.

“We are creating a road map of what to do and when, to guard against knowledge being lost and to ensure quality transitions for all children as they move through our Kāhui Ako.”

Further reading on transitions 

The Education Hub has a number of great resources on transitions.

Key points:

  • Ill-prepared transitions can impact negatively on both student wellbeing and academic achievement. Some students feel particularly vulnerable when transitioning between schools because of the organisational, social and academic changes they encounter.
  • The likelihood of students staying in school can be heavily dependent on the success of their transition into secondary school.
  • It is important that schools view transitions as a process of adaptation and change that students and teachers work through over time rather than as a stand-alone event.
  • The extent of teachers’ preparedness and ability to support their students during this transition is linked to increased academic commitment, improved social and emotional wellbeing and greater motivation to learn.
  • An important part of the role of Year 9 teachers is to provide guidance and support to students as they adapt previously learned patterns of learning and behaviour to their new school environment.
  • Success at school is associated with students developing a strong sense of belonging. Teachers can foster a sense of belonging in the classroom by showing their students that they are interested in them and want to know their strengths and learning needs.

For more information, visit The Education Hub(external link) 

More resources

Refining transitions between Willow Park and Northcote 


Second half of year. 


Decide area of focus: Transitions identified as area for improvement. 


Agree to undertake pilot study.  

Key staff to lead. 


Gathering data: 


Year 6 teachers identify children who may need extra support to transition successfully. 


Interview Y6 children about their perceptions of intermediate. 


Survey parents and teachers about specific support needs.  


Survey intermediate teachers about transitions –academically, emotionally and socially. 

Next steps planning:  
Strategise according to feedback. 


Analyse information frominterviews and surveys.  

Decide together on actions: for all students additional supports  

Taking action: 

Inform parents about the transition programme and positive messaging.  

Key activities over eight weeks for all: 

* Northcote student performances at Willow Park

* Tour of intermediate

* Teacher introductions

* Classroom visits

* Positive messaging used by Y6 teachers to promote confidence

* Y7 teacher feedback informs focus of Y6 teaching 

Additional targeted support group:

* Pause Breathe Smile mindfulness sessions.   




End of term 1. 

Gather feedback about experiences and transition from:

* children

*7 class teachers

* academic data. 


What tamariki are excited about:

  • Making new friends..
  • No little kids.
  • Doing tech subjects.
  • More sports.
  • Clubs and extras such as Eco Warriors and Chefs for Compassion.
  • Biking to school.
  • Being more independent.
  • Having access to a school counsellor.

What tamariki worry about:

  • What bus do I get?
  • Will I be in a class with my friends?
  • Will I get bullied?
  • Are the teachers nice?
  • Can I order lunch?
  • How hard is the homework?
  • What if I get lost?
  • How long are the holidays?
  • Do we get lots of mufti days?

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:37 AM, 23 September 2021

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