Transition: Resilience, self-esteem and confidence

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Secondary-ready: Primary school pupils taking part in some of the exercises and projects aimed at boosting their confidence and resilience ahead of their transition to secondary school (both images)

A research project to develop pupils’ resilience, self-esteem and confidence in the run-up to their transition to secondary school has yielded some positive results. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

There was a time when pupils leaving Northland Primary School would feel afraid of moving to secondary school. The prospect of a new, bigger environment with constant changes of teachers and classrooms, and the possibility of a new set of classmates was daunting and, for some, terrifying.

But last year’s year 6 left feeling confident and positive. Furthermore, their teachers noticed their academic achievement in the build-up to year 6 SATs had improved in English and mathematics.

The change in attitude came about after pupils participated in a study looking at how improving children’s resilience, self-esteem and personal skills during the four terms prior to leaving primary school might help them adapt to secondary education.

The project, called Building for Progression: A foot on the ladder, was carried out by ASDAN, a skills-based awarding body, and the Progression Trust, and supported financially by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Three primary schools and a secondary, all based in Rugby, Warwickshire, participated in the study.

It involved teachers helping pupils to develop and explore their personal skills either in discrete lessons involving the whole year group or in a cross-curricular approach, for example during English or PSHE lessons. Teachers used their own professional expertise and judgement to create activities and tasks that suited their pupils’ needs. The focus was on building confidence, self-awareness and self-control by focusing on pupils’ strengths and encouraging positive thinking.

Tash Bonehill, assistant head at Northlands, said the improvements in pupils’ attitude and approach were evident: “Pupils were more likely to try new things and they were putting themselves forward more to take part in activities. For example, more learners involved in the programme started attending after-school clubs and going to school competitions. When we held a fundraising event, many of the learners put themselves forward to participate.

“The year that we delivered the Building for Progression programme for our year 6s, our SATs results improved, with particular advancements in English and maths. We have a structure in place to gauge progress in these subjects weekly: novice, which involves the basics and a lot of support from the teacher; apprentice, where learners receive some support; practitioner, where the learner is able to work independently; and expert, where the learner has mastered the subject.

“We found that pupils were able to move through the various checkpoints of this structure more quickly. The project helped them to become more determined and to recognise the skills they needed in order to reach the expert stage. The learners also began to show more initiative and confidence by choosing to skip the novice stage in many cases in order to work more independently at the apprentice stage.”

In each of the participating schools, teachers noticed that youngsters who took part in the project used more positive and confident language around the prospect of moving school, as opposed to a comparison group of pupils who were in the year above and had not participated in the scheme.

In one of the exercises, pupils were paired up and asked to write down what they thought about their classmate. One pupil said: “I told my partner she was smart and caring – no-one had said that to her before in that way.”

In another exercise, pupils had to write down their hopes and dreams for the future. Commenting on their responses, their teacher said: “I felt shocked at how low their ambitions were at the start. This is the result of them not believing in themselves and not valuing what they are good at.”

The most effective strategies to come out of the project have been refined and will be published in a students’ booklet called Lift Off.

While the sample of pupils involved in the research was statistically small – the other two primaries involved were Riverside Academy and Boughton Leigh Junior – it provided some interesting insights into how children felt about the prospect of changing schools.

The proportion of pupils who felt excited about the move to secondary school was 56 per cent for the intervention group, compared with 45 per cent in the comparison group, and for those who felt “confident and/or happy” about the prospect the figures were 33 and 21 per cent respectively.

Children who were in the intervention group were also more likely to look forward to learning new things – 16 per cent compared with six per cent – while the numbers who were now looking forward to making new friends was 18 per cent compared to zero in the control group.

Peter Rose, director at Tiller Research, who evaluated the findings in conjunction with academics at the University of Wolverhampton, said: “We saw a consistently positive impact on participants, even though schools approached the exercise differently and often in quite creative ways, and spent varying amounts of time on it. Developing children’s self-efficacy and self-esteem clearly had an enabling effect on their ability to cope with potentially difficult situations.”

Ms Bonehill said that when those pupils came back to see her after moving to year 7 they “spoke about secondary school in such positive terms, saying they were really enjoying it”. She added: “My pupils from the previous year had also come back to see me but were less positive, instead often referring to their secondary school experience as ‘okay’.

“In previous years, we’ve had children crying because they were scared and did not want to leave. This cohort was still upset at having to leave their friends and the comfort of their class but they were excited about the next stage in their education.”

Jenny Drake, a year 6 teacher at Boughton Leigh, said: “Our learners flourished through the programme and they developed their confidence, self-esteem and communication skills. Their resilience and determination also improved – we noticed pupils did not give up easily with challenges and activities.

“One of the key benefits of the programme was increased aspiration. We discussed career paths and the learners developed a greater understanding of how their education could help them achieve their ambitions.”

Alison Davies, headteacher of Avon Valley School, the secondary participant in the project, said: “Many students who come to us in year 7 are just not ready for secondary school. We are a non-selective school in a selective area and a significant proportion of our children just don’t get the experiences in life that will enable them to transfer from primary to secondary school feeling confident.

“Student experience at this time can have a huge impact on their success, achievement and engagement as they move through school: we don’t want them to have any problems further down the line.

“We found that the pupils who took part in the project were better able to verbalise their feelings and to talk about their own characteristics. They also have a better understanding of how to develop these characteristics, and they have control over their learning and development. This is very important in a school where many children arrive feeling they have already failed.”

Jenny Williams, ASDAN’s managing director, said she hoped the findings would be of interest to other primary and secondary school partnerships. She added: “Building on this project, we intend to explore how building confidence and resilience can support students at other points of transition – including to post-16 further and higher education options, and into adult and working life.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

Anyone wanting more information on the project or the Lift Off programme can contact Zoe Reid on

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