Zagazoo goes to High School (Part 1)

A few years ago some friends bought our son a book called Zagazoo. It’s a charming allegorical tale of a young couple who receive delivery of a parcel containing a Zagazoo. Over the years the Zagazoo goes through various stages involving constant crying, mess-creating, temper tantrums and mood swings but suddenly one day turns into a young man with perfect manners.

For those of you with teen and pre-teen boys you may recognise the hairy yeti stage, as your overly-emotional Zagazoo eats you out of house and home in between his grunts. (Or hers, for that matter.)

This is hardly surprising as our adolescents are experiencing a period of huge psychological and physical changes. Erik Erikson identified 8 stages of development and named the adolescent stage as “identity versus role confusion”. Our children are trying to work out who they are, are increasing their independence (yet may be anxious about doing so), are coping with the hormonal surges associated with puberty and are trying to do all this with an adolescent brain. The adolescent brain is pretty damn awesome in many ways, but this is a period where the amygdala (the emotional epicentre of the brain) is growing but the prefrontal cortex (which controls rational executive functioning) isn’t fully developed. Bearing that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that our kids are highly moody and sometimes make poor decisions. (For further reading on this, see below.)


In the midst of all this turmoil, we have the transition to High School to contend with. This is a time of anxiety for most kids; they are anxious about their known fears (for example, the stories that have been urban legends since I was at High School about heads being flushed down the toilet) and, perhaps worse, the unknown unknowns. My own darling Zagazoo is starting High School in February and I am expecting increased volatility in the weeks ahead.

High School brings with it increased challenges in the area of organisational skills, which may be particularly problematic for children with anxiety or special needs. Included in my son’s booklist for the year was a little book called “Study Hacks” (details below). This is a lovely little book, written at a very accessible level, with lots of handy tips broken into bite sized chunks.

This post is the first of a series about education. This week I will discuss things you can start to do now to get ready for High School and next week will be ideas for after term starts. In later weeks there’ll be posts about starting primary school and preparing for and attending university. Please feel free to share with anyone that you think may find them useful.

Preparing for High School – a few ideas

These tips are based on or adapted from my favourite ideas from the Study Hacks book, my own tips plus input from the parents in our school Facebook group – thank you to any of you who are reading this.

  • Go through the Study Hacks book with your child, one page per day, discussing it as you go. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. See which ideas they like and dislike and how they can be used/adapted as necessary.
  • Teach them techniques to deal with the inevitable self-doubting thoughts that arise. Study Hacks suggests imagining the negative thought as words spoken by a monkey and telling the monkey to get off your back and go grab a banana. Another technique, which I read in a book about Acceptance Commitment Therapy, suggests turning the negative thought into a silly ditty, perhaps “I’m stupid and I’ll never be able to do this” to the tune of “Happy Birthday”. The idea of this is to reduce the power of the thought so that it has less impact on you.
  • Build a victory card deck. Get your child to complete an index card each evening with something they’ve accomplished that day. The idea is that, when they’re doubting themselves, they can refer back to these cards and gain positive feedback. Start now so that by the time school starts they have a few built up. (It also may lead to them actively finding accomplishments to do each day, which can only be a good thing.)
  • Think holistically. Emotional and physical wellbeing, and ability to cope with stress, is improved when we have enough sleep, exercise and eat healthy food. As the holidays start to wind down, it may be time to gradually go back to term-time rather than holiday bedtime. Anxiety and stress are really tiring, so they’ll need more sleep than usual rather than less.
  • Teach them a breathing technique. In times of stress, slow breathing through the diaphragm can reduce the fight-or-flight response (as opposed to shallow, rapid chest-breathing). It’s a good idea to practise this technique when there’s no stress, so that it can be more easily performed when necessary. Visualise a square and slowly breathe in to the lower abdomen while imagining moving along side 1, hold while moving along side 2, slowly exhale while moving along side 3, hold while moving along side 4. Try to get into the habit of doing this for a few minutes each day, maybe at bedtime to help relax.
  • In High School, students are suddenly responsible for getting themselves to the right place at the right time. Print out a copy of their timetable and explain to them how to read it. Put copies in lots of places (their desk, on the fridge, inside their locker (with a magnetic clip) ) and take a photo with their phone/iPad for reference and your own phone too.
  • Colour code their timetable and their folders. At our school you can colour code the timetable online and print it out. Match the colours as far as possible to the folders that they’ll use for each subject so that they can easily grab the correct things each day.
  • Set up folders, physical and electronic for each subject. Received wisdom in our school cohort seems to be to have a zip binder (something like this Each zip binder contains a notebook/punched paper and any texts. For subjects that won’t generate a lot of notes, for example art or drama, you can combine multiple subjects into one binder. (I wish I’d thought to buy shares in Officeworks a few months ago!) Set up folders on iPad or laptop and think about organising or deleting all the apps that are taking up memory but not being used.
  • As well as a diary in which to scribble notes or reminders, consider setting up a longer term planner where they can visualise the whole term in one go and see deadlines and over-lapping commitments. For many years now I’ve used a spreadsheet mapping out the whole year, blocked out for each family member with different colours for travel, holidays, school holidays, work projects etc. The first half of my planner for 2018 is shown below. I’ve replaced our names with A, B and C and deleted details of the projects etc. but you should get the drift. If that looks too scary, you can also download and print a monthly planner from here Although they may not need anything too detailed at the start of Year 7, getting comfortable with planning their time can only be a good thing.
  • Help them set up a study area at home with space for all the folders and resources which they’ll be needing at home. Try to keep it simple and tidy but bright and attractive. Whether the folders etc. should be kept at home or school will vary by child. Initially I’m planning to leave most of it at home and just take in what’s needed each day as I have a feeling that my son will forget to bring stuff home for homework if he doesn’t.


That seems plenty to be thinking about for now. So give your kids a big hug, tell them they’re awesome and they’re going to be just fine, and warn them about the whispering monkey.


Zagazoo by Quentin Blake: This is in my collection of books that I’m keeping for my grandchildren but, looking at that price, perhaps I should reconsider.

For advice on parenting you can’t go wrong with the “Queen of common sense” Maggie Dent. As well as a variety of books covering various ages she also hosts educational yet entertaining seminars. For this age group, try Saving our Adolescents by Maggie Dent:

Study Hacks by Dr Jane Genovese  There are lots of other resources on the site.

Thank you to my lovely talented Zagazoo for the artwork for this post. I didn’t want to get into any copyright issues with using any of Quentin Blake’s illustrations so he drew this picture for me.

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