Grade 7 is the end of a child’s primary school career and the the entry level for high school. And with this come a lot of transition and growth.
Nadine Kuyper, an educational psychologist with a background in teaching at government and informal settlement schools, shares her insights. Her exposure to the education system in one of South Africa’s poorest communities, along with research on resilience in poor communities, give her special insight into the issues that schools such as Nokuphila Primary School in Thembisa and its teachers, learners, and parents face.
What pressures and opportunities influence learners’ experience of this transition?
“The transition from primary school to high school is such a big one,” says Kuyper. “It’s moving from what is a smaller environment that is structured, supportive and nurturing, into a completely different climate. Everything, academically and socially, comes with renewed pressures and so many more demands and expectations.” On top of this, learners find themselves in a highly competitive social environment, all while trying to build their own individual identity.
Why is this period so important in the psychological development of a child?
“It’s such an important time in terms of learning independence, which often means less support and greater responsibilities. It’s important and unavoidable – teenagers will and need to make mistakes. By learning from mistakes and their natural consequences, learners build experience.”
It’s how they deal with those consequences that will determine the type of experiences that help shape our identities and self-image, Kuyper says.
“Between the ages of 13 and 18 is a very critical psychosocial stage in a child's development. During this stage, children are focused on identity: ‘Who am I? Where do I fit? Who are my people? What do I stand for?’ And there’s big insecurity about a sense of self which often leads to identity versus role confusion. Role confusion means that if a child doesn't in this critical period develop that sense of who they are and a sense of belonging, they get confused. Later in life, it can often cause quite a big rift in intimate relationships, job relationships and just being a functional member of society.”
How do these pressures and experiences differ for learners from poorer communities?
According to Kuyper, “learners from these communities have an added layer of stress and pressure that they have to deal with”, on top of the pre-existing conditions linked to poverty, such as higher exposure to crime, abuse, malnutrition and adverse weather.
“The discrepancy in South Africa between schooling for the privileged versus the disadvantaged is massive because of what resources they have access to.”
Support, according to Kuyper, is the greatest resource we could provide, but for learners in these poorer communities, access to support systems at home, school and in the community are nearly non-existent. Yet they’re expected to take on greater responsibilities both at home and school, on top of trying to discover their identity and navigating complicated social structures to find their place in society.
What are the implications for learners who aren’t able to cope or deal with these pressures?
In South Africa, children are legally able to leave school and that’s why you’ll discover the dropout rates after Grade 9 rockets from 4.37% (pooled from datasets from 2016-2018) at the end of Grade 8 to 10.51% at the end of Grade 9. This percentage steadily increases in Grade 11 and Grade 12. Kuyper shudders to think what the statistics are after Covid.
Kuyper believes that although transitioning from Grade 7 to 8 is a critical stage, by keeping those support structures in place past this stage, you “pave the way for them to buy into their future”, making the learners more resilient and more likely to stay in school. She believes “early intervention is key. We shouldn’t wait until Grade 9 or 12 for the wheels to fall off”.
What can be done, by parents and teachers, to help prepare children for this transition?
The transition is just one aspect, coping throughout high school is another. By providing support, teachers and parents form part of a learner’s identity – which they start piecing together in high school. Their self-confidence and self-awareness are tied to their support base. That’s why providing consistent support throughout is so crucial, especially when they face what seem to be impossible situations.
“It’s not a ‘Nothing will go wrong’ attitude but more an ‘If I need help this is my circle’. And we must be very careful to not project our experiences. Support doesn't mean normalising their experiences, because their experience is different if you look back at the world after navigating social media, technology and Covid. It’s almost like surfing: there are days when the water is very choppy and there are going to be big waves, but there will also be days where it’s a little calmer. This is life: there will be waves, but as long as you have your surfboard and if you can see land, which is your support structure and all those mentors and people to speak to, that anchors you, you don't feel like you’re drifting out by yourself, which is what we’re trying to avoid.”
In closing, Kuyper said that parents and teachers need to extend their support throughout and truly be present in a learner’s school journey. By knowing that they have a fixed point of support for their academic, psychological and social pressures and problems, students grow more resilient.
“We go through so many transitions daily, and that's what life is. In the end, we can’t prepare for everything,” she said. But by being able to adapt because of a better understanding of their core identities, which they are busy developing at this point, learners have a higher likelihood to survive and even perform well under difficult circumstances.