Thriving vs. Surviving in Secondary School



Everyone has heard the saying “surviving secondary school,” but simply surviving school can come with negative attitudes toward learning, increased absences and disengagement. At a time when popular culture is filled with “school survival guides” to help students simply make it through, there are positive strategies parents and educators can use to help their students thrive in secondary school.

Many studies show that student involvement in secondary school can lead to overall satisfaction, in addition to developing social skills, teaching time management and increasing academic achievement. So what can parents and educators do to encourage student engagement and participation in school? Harris County Department of Education Assistant Superintendent for Academic Support Services Jonathan Parker shares several strategies learned during his 22 years of experience working in secondary education.

“The concept of helping students thrive in secondary school instead of simply ‘survive’ really interested me when I became a middle school principal,” said Parker. “I heard a lot of concern from a group of parents whose children were entering sixth grade.”

Like many parents, they expressed concern that their children were transitioning from a smaller, elementary environment where they generally enjoyed school, to a larger, more challenging environment.

Parker recalls a student named Longji who was struggling to find his place in middle school. He knew if something didn’t change, Longji wouldn’t enjoy his middle school experience, so Parker contacted his parents and invited them to be part of the Site-Based Decision Making Committee to assist in making campus-level decisions.

After getting his parents involved, Parker reached out to Longji and realized his interest in the Leadership Cadet Corps (LCC) program. Longji’s parents, his counselor and Parker agreed that he would join the program and they saw a boost in his grades and engagement. Throughout his middle school experience, Longji served as an officer in the LCC, volunteered at school events and attended many school functions.

“I attribute his well-being to the decision he and his parents made to partner with the school and be part of the learning community,” said Parker.

Whether a child is just entering secondary school or will soon be graduating, Parker suggests some tried and true strategies to help every student thrive:

  • Develop a team mindset: This is the first step to beginning a relationship with your child’s school. It’s important for parents to recognize that the school exists to educate children. Establishing that team mentality leads to open communication between the family and the school and shows you’re on the same side.
  • Learn about the school: What is the history of the school? What traditions do students and staff participate in? What extracurricular activities are available? Learning more about the school establishes a connection between the school and student and helps create a feeling of belonging before even stepping foot on campus.
  • Get to know the school staff: Parents and children should get to know the teacher and principal, but there are many other adults on campus who are invested in helping children learn. Reach out to the support staff, counselors, librarians and custodians as well.
  • Get involved as a parent: Parental involvement has a huge impact on the way children perceive school participation. From volunteering at career day to joining the PTA, every campus has opportunities to get involved. Parents should find the opportunities that appeal to them and work with their schedules.
  • Encourage students to get involved: When adults model school participation, it increases student engagement. Research the clubs and organizations available to students and find what they’re most interested in.
  • Take advantage of academic support: If a parent thinks their child is experiencing challenges in a certain subject, take advantage of the academic support offered on campus. The school and district want to help students succeed.
  • Communicate: Finally, families and school staff should keep an open line of communication and discuss the student’s goals and the progress toward those goals. If parents and school staff are involved with setting the goals, they can work together to overcome any challenges the student may face.

“Creating the team mindset between families and the school drives everything else,” said Parker. “It opens the door for two-way communication, creates a larger support system for students and helps create an enjoyable school experience in which students want to be involved. I think when we are invested in each other and communicate, it brings out the best in people, specifically students.”

No parent wants their child to go through secondary school in survival mode. By developing a team mindset and encouraging and modeling school participation, all students can have the opportunity to thrive.

About Harris County Department of Education (HCDE): Serving students, teachers, schools and communities throughout Harris County, HCDE is a local governmental organization providing value for school districts while supporting educational opportunity. Partnering with Harris County school districts, HCDE maximizes local resources and respond to the needs of locally elected school boards and education leaders.  HCDE services include school-based therapy for students, afterschool programs, Head Start, educator training, adult education and programs to promote safe schools. To learn more about how your county department of education can help you: www.hcde-texas.org


Aldine ISD students rehearse a puppet presentation as part of Kids’ Day at the Hobby Center, an event coordinated by Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids.

Pasadena ISD students perform for parents and community at Kids’ Day at the Hobby Center, coordinated by Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids.


First published in 2016