School Improvement Episode 45: Student agency in school transition – research and resources

Before this week’s episode of School Improvement, a reminder that nominations for the Teacher Awards are now open. The Awards recognise outstanding approaches to teaching and school leadership in K-12 education across Australia. There are 8 categories you can nominate yourself, a team of staff, or a colleague in – head to for more information and to submit your nomination today!

Hello, and thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine – I’m Jo Earp. Any kind of change can be exciting and sometimes daunting, and moving from primary to secondary school is no different. So, what are the worries and challenges for students, and what would help to make the process easier? Guide to Thrive is a new evidence-based transition program from Life Ed that brings together teacher professional development mapped to the AITSL standards, practical classroom activities and supporting resources for parents and carers.

In this episode of School Improvement, I’m joined by Murray Baker, a teacher of 20 years who’s now a Program Development Co-ordinator at Life Ed, and Dr Shani Sniedze, a Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research who’s been involved in the program. We’ll be discussing some of the findings from the research literature and student feedback forums, and how this student voice has informed the program and activities.

A quick note on terminology – Murray mentions ‘distress’ and ‘eustress’ (that’s essentially bad stress and good stress) and the spelling for eustress is e-u-stress’, just in case you want to look that one up. Okay, let’s get started.

JE: Shani Sniedze and Murray Baker, welcome to Teacher. Now we're going to start off having a think about some of the research responses, so Shani I'm going to come to you for that section. So, in explaining what led to the creation of the Guide to Thrive resources Life Ed says (I'll just read a quote), ‘A research study led by Life Ed found that a significant proportion of Australian students feel underprepared and scared about the transition to secondary school, with many wanting more guidance to demystify the transition, including better preparation in year 6 and longer support in year 7’. So, there were 3 elements then to the research side of things. The first was a review of the research literature, wasn't it? What were the key takeaways from that?

Shani Sniedze: The key takeaways – well, there's lots of interesting research out there and it's from all sorts of different perspectives. So, we've got the academic and social emotional outcomes across transition; so, for example, what does maths achievement look like? Or what does motivation and engagement look like across the change from primary school to high school? We also have the perspectives from the personal and environmental factors across transitions; so, for example, you know, what does transition, what effect does it have on neurodiverse students? Or are there any transition challenges that are correlated with socioeconomic status? That kind of thing.

So, there's all these different and complex perspectives coming into that transition age group. But what we found, and the big key takeaways, were exactly that, that it's a really complex space. It's generally positive for most students, but there's certainly opportunity for improvement. There's lots of different perspectives when it comes to assessing quality. So, what do we mean by ‘a quality transition’ from school to school? Is it on the personal level, is it the academic level?

And one of the key things we found also was that we need more student voice. This is a transition that affects students, particularly (moving from primary to high school), and we wanted to know: what do they think? Which is, of course, what prompted Life Ed’s research.

JE: And that was an interesting point you made there that, you know, it is positive on the whole for most students, but obviously for those students that do find it difficult, we need to support those. Alongside that review of the literature, then, you also reviewed the resources that were already out there. What did you find there and how did that kind of inform the future direction of the project, in terms of the resources that perhaps that you wanted to make coming out of this?

SS: Yeah. So, we found that there's a lot of resources out there already and there's a lot of really good quality resources out there. We found that there were all sorts of different types – so, there are practical resources, there are theoretical resources, for example, there's also school-specific stuff. All of them come with their own pros and cons; things that make life easier and things that are sometimes a barrier that we can't get through. And, you know, some of those challenges are that sometimes it's difficult to transfer existing resources into your own classroom. So, for example, if it's highly theoretical research, sometimes you can see what's happening there, but it's too much of a leap and too much work to transfer it to the classroom environment. Sometimes it's simply there's a paywall – that you've found a wonderful resource, but it's just too expensive for teachers to access.

So, what we found by looking at all of these wonderful resources out there, and thinking about where we wanted to go forward was – firstly, we very much wanted to build on the benefits that are already there, but also mitigate any of the barriers. So, that meant that for any new resources, firstly we wanted to make them free; we wanted to make them available to everyone (that's regardless of what state or what sector you're teaching in); we wanted to make sure that most of the transfer work is already done for teachers – so, of course, every classroom and every teacher is different, so there's always a level of modification that you'll need to do with any resource, but we wanted to make sure that most of the hard work was already done. And, of course, we also wanted to make sure that student voice came through, that we were actually addressing what students had told us were their challenges.

JE: That's interesting as well because sometimes what happens is we ask students what they think, they tell us, and then we go ahead and do what we wanted to do anyway. So that's encouraging to know that that's fed into these resources. We are going to speak about the resources with Murray in a moment in a bit more detail, but the final element of the research I just wanted to touch on was a series of student forums. You had 82 forums in 15 schools, there were 444 students there. What were they saying about the transition experience – I think you've called these the ‘challenges’ – then?

SS: Yes. First, it was just a wonderful opportunity to be able to go out to schools and speak with students about either their impending school transition – that was the year 6s and some of the year 7s we spoke to – and also speaking to students who had just made that transition to secondary school, so some of those were year 7s and year 8s as well.

Now, what they told us was, largely, that again, it's a complex space. So, students’ feelings were very mixed about moving schools. They were largely positive, which was really reassuring, but that positivity was also underpinned by a clear level of uncertainty and nervousness about what the school change might bring. So, we spoke to students about their feelings particularly, about moving schools and also, importantly, we explored the reasons behind those feelings, particularly the challenging feelings. And students identified some clear challenges in common.

Now, understanding that these were students from 4 different states around Australia, it was interesting to see that they were all highlighting fairly similar challenges. So, the challenges were around the academics – they were nervous about how difficult will schoolwork be at high school, and also the amount that they would be given, homework expectations, those sorts of things. Another challenge was managing the new school environment – so, just getting around, orientation; but, also, the cultural and practical expectations of secondary school – you know, ‘how things are done here’ those types of things, and whether they'd be able to learn the new systems quickly enough.

There was the social element as well – of course, moving to a new school, how do I make new friends? And also, really importantly, what about my old friends from primary school, how do I make sure that I don't lose touch if we're not going to the same school? And the last theme that came out, in terms of challenges, was all around self-management – so, students were particularly keen to make sure that they were organised and that they could do and meet all of these new challenges themselves. So, those were aspects like time management – how do I make sure that I'm on time, that I'm following the timetable? How do I get to and from school by myself? How do I make sure I'm prepared for all of my classes? And even little things like having to get changed for PE lessons – how do I make sure I'm organised for those sorts of things?

So those were the main challenges that came out. And we also talked students through ‘well…how do we address those challenges?’ And students came up with some amazing ideas on how they could stand up and, you know, use their own agency to solve those challenges themselves. And that was the key part of student voice that we were trying to bring through to the teacher resources, and ultimately to the Guide to Thrive.

JE: So, again, we're asking students what the challenges are, but rather than just saying, ‘oh, okay’ and then getting together as teachers and saying, ‘how are we going to address this?’, let's ask the students what some of those solutions could be.

SS: Exactly.

JE: So, what were some of their solutions then? What did they come up with?

SS: They had so many solutions, it was amazing. And if you want lots of detail, of course there's a report available via the Guide to Thrive [website] that you can actually read through and see all of their suggestions. But it included things that students can do for themselves, like for example using a map, using a diary to organise themselves, even to the level some of them said, ‘look, just, when you're feeling worried, take some deep breaths and that will really help’.

But they also had lots of suggestions about how schools and school systems can be more accommodating to their needs as well. So, for example, having a buddy system in place to help out, right down to the detail of asking schools to align their rules and regulations so that they know that the rules are the same in every single classroom – even though the classroom is different, the teacher might be different, the rules and the expectations are still the same. The key message I think that we got from there, though, and really importantly, is that students wanted agency in the process; they were saying to us that, ‘we're not little kids anymore, we want to be able to manage these challenges. We might need a little bit of help or guidance, but we really want to do this ourselves’.

JE: So, from there then (thanks Shani), so from there, then, from the research side of things Life Ed has created a ‘toolkit’, if you like. So, Murray, well, I'll let you explain who it's for and what that includes.

Murray Baker: Absolutely, thank you both for having me on this morning. Yeah, look, with the Guide to Thrive it's been developed in consultation with teachers, so it's been designed by teachers for teachers. And it's really a bank of resources that contains professional development resources, classroom activities, but also discussion starters that parents and carers can use at home to really connect with their children in relation to transition. And they’re all really designed to empower students to feel positive about the transition to secondary school.

So, within the Guide to Thrive bank of resources, if a teacher really wanted something, you know they were fumbling around trying to find something that they needed for a particular lesson, they could jump on the website and they would be able to find something straight away that they can use without needing to really think about it, because it's a Life Ed-branded product, so they know that it's backed by research, it's a really trusted organisation, and it's going to be quality. So, there are 45 resources that they can choose from, and they're grouped under particular topics and themes. So they will be able to use them straight away with their class, and like Shani was saying, you know, they'll be able to modify them quite easily and differentiate them for their students if they need to.

Now there is a Classroom Implementation Plan that lays out the Guide to Thrive process that we feel would work best – and that ranges from term 1 of year 6 all the way through to term 4 of year 6 and then into year 7 and throughout the year 7 year. And that's really to support the students on their journey. And we know that all classrooms are different so the activities can be tailored to the particular cohort of students that the teachers have in their classrooms.

Everything within Guide to Thrive has been linked to the AITSL standards, so by participating in the professional development throughout, everything in it is curriculum aligned, it's aligned to the AITSL standards and teachers in whatever territory or state they're in can utilise this professional development for their self-identified hours for the accreditation process.

Hi, I’m just dropping into this episode to tell you more about the Teacher Awards categories. A reminder that you can nominate yourself, a team of staff, or a colleague and there are 8 categories. They are: the Leadership Award for Driving School Improvement; Improving Student Learning and Progress; Cultivating an Inclusive and Positive Culture; Excellence in Staff Collaboration; Excellence in Curriculum Design and Implementation; Fostering Strong School-Community Partnerships; Improving Health and Wellbeing; and our Special Contribution Award. Nominations close on 16 July so, head over to for more information and submit your entry today!

JE: So, you're advocating with this, that teachers (you're a former teacher yourself), you’re advocating that teachers take a strengths-based approach, then. Can you explain a little bit to listeners about what you mean by that?

MB: What that means is we want to foster a growth mindset in our students and provide them with knowledge, strategies and skills, and also agency to think creatively and make positive choices in order to thrive in high school. We really want to utilise the 4Cs – so, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and [creativity] yeah, to make those positive choices. And we want kids to feel really prepared and confident and to see the transition to high school as a really positive opportunity and a positive change, rather than something that they need to be worried about.

You know, some of the skills that we want to develop in them, allow them to (like Shani was saying) organise themselves and plan for their academic workload and tackle assessments, but also to analyse their friendships and how they can maintain those friendships as well.

JE: So, is the strength-based celebrating what they can already do and then building on that as well?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. It's looking at things through a positive lens, I guess, and seeing what I do well and how I can use those positive skills that I already have. And that glass half-full attitude, I guess, thinking that there are good things to come. And one of the activities that we do have within our resource deals with distress and eustress – and eustress was something that was quite new to me; and the theme of eustress is, you know, at the time I find things quite stressful but, in the end, I know the outcome is going to be really positive. It's a bit like a rollercoaster I guess – you hop on, you feel a bit worried, a bit scared, and then at the end you hop off, feeling really invigorated and excited and really happy that you've gone through that process and overcome something.

So, yeah, it's acknowledging that things can be a little bit tricky at times, but, you know, persevering through and showing resilience and coming out the other side quite renewed and showing growth and progress.

JE: You mentioned there about there are different activities for different times in the year and I was going to ask you about when you envisage that teachers use the resources, but is there any feedback there from students in the forums about maybe the timing? I mean we all think about, you know, that preparation for transition, but then there's that period afterwards as well, isn't there? When do you think teachers will be looking at using these?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. The research stated that the students wanted to be prepared earlier; they wanted to start having the discussions earlier in the year. So, with our Implementation Plan what we've suggested is that schools start in term 1 of year 6. And we know that each context and student cohort are unique, and that some schools may start doing them at different times, and that's completely okay because we want students and teachers to work together and do what works best for them. I know that some schools actually start their transition discussions, or the transition phase, in year 4. One of the local high schools where I live starts a connection in year 4 and they've developed like a buddy system where they take the year 4s fishing for the day and, you know, they just start getting to, like you said earlier, ‘demystify’, and they will start seeing the older students as hopefully role models rather than something to be, you know, worried about or fearful of. And then year 5, they have their orientation days towards the end of the year, and then in year 6 they start the process.

JE: And then afterwards as well, like I say, once you've got into the school environment, it's easy to kind of (for teachers and for students) to just ‘Okay, we're in the rhythm of the new school year and…we keep going’ without actually realising that there are those difficulties that still remain. There are lots of little things that always pop up, aren’t there? Lots of firsts that happen throughout the year.

MB: Absolutely.

JE: So, have you got resources for that period after as well?

MB: Yeah, we do. We really want the year 7 teachers and coordinators to really continue the check-in process. We want them to keep checking in with the students, keep asking those questions, asking how they're feeling. Because, like you said, a lot of firsts come up in year 7. You know, you might receive your first assessment rubric or your first assessment schedule, and that's extremely new, and especially because each student might have up to 8 different teachers. You know, they need to know expectations of each of those teachers.

So, we want all teachers to be on board having those conversations and checking in on the students and making sure that each one of them is actually thriving. And if they're not, then they can go back to the Guide to Thrive website and they can look at some of the resources and checklists that we have on there, and utilise those resources in their classrooms to really advocate for the students and give them the skills and strategies that they need to continue to do well.

JE: So, I'm interested in having a look at a couple of the resources, then. There's lots of practical classroom activities in there, which is good. You know that whole idea of transforming that research into practice – like you were saying, Shani, it's difficult sometimes, isn't it for that transformation to take place? Murray, can you take us through a couple of those activities maybe?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the activities in here are identifying feelings or connecting with their friends. So, we've got activities for students to connect with their peers in positive ways by identifying attributes that actually make a good friend – and that's really useful when students are mingling with new students from other schools and identifying what could potentially be a new friend for them, but also identifying behaviours that they don't like. And that would be really useful when they're identifying behaviours that they need to be an upstander for, rather than a bystander. So, we've got some activities around bullying, and we really want that to marry up with the upstander/bystander activity, so they know that they can feel empowered to stand up for what's right and what's wrong. Because we really want to curb that behaviour in students and promote the positive.

We have activities that allow students to represent their feelings using emojis and how their transition is feeling for them. And we've also got (like Shani was saying before), mapping activities where students and parents can utilise Google Maps to plan journeys to and from their new secondary school – and that's just to really increase their confidence and reduce the stress associated to getting to school. Yeah, and like I was saying, there's activities there about distress and eustress as well, to help them have a really positive transition to secondary education.

JE: And so, it will be mainly teachers and leaders that listen to this podcast. But we know (you've mentioned, you've both mentioned before) what an important that role parents and carers play in student learning and helping them thrive at school. You've created a set of resources for the parents and the carers too. Again, we mentioned there one of the examples is maybe sitting down and sort of planning a route – you're just making it easier for them, aren’t you, to have all those resources there. I mean, we can all say ‘yes, we'll sit down and plan a Google route’ but, you know, having it there for you as a prompt is what makes it easier for the parents and carers, isn't it?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. Look, partnerships between parents and teachers they're absolutely crucial towards, you know, students feeling that they have a sense of belonging or achievement at school. And the student needs to know that they've got supporters in their corner, both at home and at school. We have to remember that the move to high school can be stressful, you know, and a little bit sad, or a little bit nostalgic for parents at times too, because it means that their children are growing up and, you know, gaining a sense of independence and a parent losing a little bit of control.

So, essentially, a lot of the resources are either discussion starters or there are some videos that parents can watch on the bus or on the train. And we really want parents to be checking in with their [children] and feel empowered to really know what questions to ask in order to engage with their [children]. There's a particular video that received really great feedback in our piloting, which was around bullying. And parents said that the bullying video really assisted them to plan appropriately to have those valuable conversations with their young people. And we want these resources to be a catalyst for conversation, we want them to engage, we want them to check in regularly, we want them to assist, we want students to feel empowered enough to reach out to their parents and ask for help if they need it.

JE: But presumably though, this is also a great thing for teachers, isn't it? Because they can speak to parents and carers about the resources and then how they can best support their children through this process?

MB: Look, at Life Ed we're really committed to helping young people embrace the move to secondary school with a with a real sense of optimism so that they can all thrive. And we want these resources to be really, really helpful for teachers, parents and students alike.

JE: Well, as we mentioned, Shani, as you said, there's a lot of information there, a lot of background information. If teachers or parents listening, leaders, want to have a look at some of the responses, there's all the research literature in there. And, then of course, there's this huge suite of resources on the website too. Murray, if we want to access that where do we have to go to?

MB: So, the Guide to Thrive website is, you can also get some of these resources from the

JE: And as we say, it's for, it doesn't matter which sector you’re in, doesn't matter which state or territory you’re in, and it's all free to access as well. So, there's plenty on there if you want to dig a bit deeper, and I'll pop those links into the transcript of this podcast as usual. But for now, it's been fantastic speaking to you both this morning. Shani and Murray, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with Teacher.

SS: Thanks so much for having us.

MB: Thank you so much, Jo.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you want to listen to more on the topic of school transitions you can also check out Research Files Episode 78, which focuses on supporting disadvantaged students in post-school pathways and transitions. Before you go, I have a quick favour to ask – please take a few moments to review our podcast; it helps other people like you to find it and it’s a big support to the Teacher team. Thanks.

This podcast was brought to you by the Teacher Awards – recognising outstanding approaches to teaching and school leadership in K-12 education across Australia. Visit for more information and to submit your nomination today!


Sniedze-Gregory, S., Felgate, R., O’Grady, E., Buckley, S., & Lietz, P. (2021). What Australian students say about transition to secondary school. Final report. Australian Council for Educational Research.

Students taking part in this research said they wanted the transition support process and discussions to start earlier in the year. Is this true for your own transition program?

Student voice has been key to informing the activities and resources in this program. What do your own students think about the transition process? What are they looking forward to? What do they think the challenges might be? Have you asked for their own ideas about how they could best overcome these challenges and the support they would value?