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The Move to High School – An Opportunity to Improve Health and Wellbeing

In Australia, most children make the transition from primary to high school at around 12 years of age. This move involves changes in relationships with peers and teachers, schoolwork, and the school environment. Children often have mixed feelings about the transition and a period of apprehension is normal. These worries are often short lived and usually dissipate within the first term of high school.

However, many children struggle with the social, emotional, organisational and academic demands of the transition to high school. The consequences are marked falls in school engagement, attendance, and the academic achievement of children. These, in turn, can lead to adverse outcomes such as higher rates of unemployment and lower income in adult life.

The move to high school occurs in the middle of the pubertal change. Pubertal development commences at around grade 3 (eight to nine years of age), with major physiological and hormonal changes, marked physical changes and rapid brain development. We know that the pubertal process profoundly affects social and emotional development, engagement with families and schools, and is associated with a rise in emotional and behavioural problems that often significantly affect educational engagement.

How a child adapts during these middle years has great effects on health, emotional development, family relationships and educational achievement. During this time, children, particularly those with vulnerabilities, need strong social and educational support systems. Thus, these middle years are the foundation years for social and emotional adjustment.

Yet, the middle years have been a neglected phase of life in comparison to the focus on the early years and the transition into primary school. There have been great investments in preschool education, preparation of children for school entry, and in the identification and support of younger children with particular developmental vulnerabilities.

In contrast, the middle years have not seen system-wide approaches within education that prepare children for the high school transition. Similarly, approaches have not been implemented that respond adequately to the educational, social and emotional needs of children following the transition to high school. This is despite evidence that a successful transition to high school may have long-term positive outcomes for an individual.

In health, the middle years have also been neglected. There have been major investments in service delivery systems for the early years and older adolescents. In contrast, little attention has been given to the middle years. However, this phase of life is the peak time of onset for the emotional and behavioural problems that are the forerunners of later mental disorders. About one half of all adult mental disorders have their onset by the age of 14 years. Thus, the middle years may represent a sensitive phase in development.

There is a close connection between health and education during the middle years and particularly in the transition to high school. Emotional and behavioural problems have profound effects on school engagement and performance. So too school disengagement is one of the clearest risk factors for the onset of mental health and behavioural problems. Yet no previous study, anywhere in the world, has tracked a large cohort of children through puberty, from its onset in primary school.

CATS (The Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study) is a unique longitudinal study following a cohort of over 1,200 children, across Melbourne, through these middle years of school. The study began in 2012 when children were in grade 3 and approximately eight years of age. The first phase of the study (grades 3 to 6) has collected a comprehensive annual assessment of health, school engagement, emotional wellbeing and academic achievement. The cohort will make the transition to high school in 2016 and we plan to follow the children as they settle into their new schools. CATS presents an exceptional opportunity to examine the factors, at both an individual and school level, that help children make a successful transition to high school. We hope the information collected in CATS will lay a foundation for educational and health policy and practice across the middle years.

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