Starting and changing schools are big transitions. Former headteacher Lynn Cousins shares advice on handling these and less common times of change that children experience

There are transitions that occur in a child’s personal life and there are transitions that form part and parcel of the child’s life as a pupil in your school. What do we mean by transition? How do transitions affect children and how can you support the children in your school through these potentially difficult times?

What do we mean by transition?

At its simplest, transition is a time of change. As we pass through the various stages of life we experience many times of transition. For the baby this can mean being weaned from milks to solid foods, to progress from nappies to being toilet trained. For the child it means starting nursery and then school, moving up to the secondary school, and then maybe going to university and leaving home. As adults we experience marriage or divorce, children being born and changing the family dynamic and then children leaving home. We may change our job or take on new responsibilities and a new role. A family member may die and the family structure changes. Transition is a natural part of growing up and of maturing. Handled well it makes us stronger people. But when it is surrounded by uncertainty or negative reactions, then it can make us most unhappy.

How can transitions affect an individual child?

The transitions that occur during early childhood can be viewed as some of the most important ones that will occur in our lives. Children develop so many new skills from the moment they are born, that they could be seen as being in an almost permanent state of transition. Parents respond to these transitions in a variety of ways. Good parents will have supported their child at these times, giving encouragement and appropriate praise. They will have anticipated the transition and prepared themselves and their child. During early childhood the child’s brain is in a particular state of development during which it is actively strengthening existing pathways and creating new ones. The child who faces transition with love and support will view change in a more positive light than the child who has been harshly criticised, punished or ridiculed at these times. One has learned to deal confidently with transition, and the other tends to be afraid of moving on or facing new challenges.

Awareness of a child’s personal or family-based transitions

Within a generalised process of transitions through life, you can expect the children in your school to be undergoing some transitions in their personal life. Thinking of the ages of the children you teach, you will be able to anticipate some of these transitions:

  • Some of the youngest children in school may still be in the process of becoming ‘dry at night’. They may not feel able to go to their friend’s house for a sleepover and may be distressed when ‘everyone else’ goes and it is the main topic of conversation in the playground.
  • Some of the older children in a primary school may be approaching, or experiencing the onset of puberty and the many transitions that will accompany this time. They will need added support, in emotional and practical ways.

Parents will sometimes inform you of other events that may be classed as transitions. There may be a serious, life-threatening illness in the family, or even a death. There may be a breakdown in the parents’ relationship culminating in one parent leaving the family home. The child will need help and support to come through these traumatic experiences. The family may be able to provide this, but in some homes the child may be left unsupported. Parents may think the child doesn’t know what is going on, or think that he is too young to be burdened with the knowledge.

What can you do?

As a school you should plan, prepare and support to ensure that any transition goes as smoothly as possible. Plan and prepare: Transitions you can anticipate, such as starting school, can be effectively planned and prepared for. You can’t, however, anticipate every specific situation for each individual child, but you can make broad plans. What training have staff had? Have you ever invited anyone from the local bereavement counselling service, for example, along to a staff meeting? These professionals can share ideas with you on how you can support children and families in general ways and can let you know of services available in your area and how they can be accessed. Support: Your staff can build up and share their skills in supporting children through the transitions that occur as part of normal school life. When the less common transitions occur, understand that the child’s school work may suffer. Parents may not be able to give the kind of support for homework or reading practice as they like to do. Children’s thoughts may be elsewhere. Children’s behaviour may also suffer when school may be the only safe place to let emotions out. Children need to know that life is going on, that there are still normal things around them. They need to know that the familiar boundaries are still in place.

Transition in school

Transition in school is about managing the social and emotional aspects of transition, but it is also concerned with managing the continuity of learning, so that there is little, if any, impact on learning. Most schools make conscious decisions to support children at times of transition in school. There are induction processes to help the children move from home or nursery into the Foundation Stage classes. There are inductions into Key Stage 2 for those children who move school at this point, but there may not be any agreed procedures if the two key stages occur in one primary school. There should also be transfer arrangements made for those children moving into secondary education. But there are other transitions in school which receive less attention. Some children will find moving to a new class a challenge. Children who are insecure will find any move difficult to cope with. They will worry about the new room, the new teacher, the new rules, the level of the work – just about anything will cause them anxious moments. So, what are the general practices that you can adopt to make sure that transition to a new class is an exciting step for all of the children in your school?

Make transition a positive step

In general children like to mark the passing of time – just think of the excitement that another birthday brings! As one little girl put it when asked her age; ‘I’m four and a quarter and I will be six but I’ll have to be five first.’ Researchers from the NFER, looking at transition from seven to 14 years of age, recommended that it is worth thinking about new opportunities to reflect the children’s growth in social and personal maturity. You could have something special about each year group. It could be as simple as a different coloured book bag  –  ‘After the summer holiday I’m going to have a red bag.’ – a simple, but noticeable, indication of reaching a new level of maturity. You could have different routines which signify each year group: Year 6 sit on chairs in assembly, Year 3 collect Reception children to go into lunch, Year 5 children train as playground buddies and so on. Take time to think about this as a staff, considering the variety of options available in your own school. This will encourage children to anticipate change in a positive light. It will mark the steps along the way, and give children something to look forward to.

Involve parents in transition

Parents can become just as anxious as their children about the move to a new class. We regularly have meetings for ‘new parents’ before their children start school with us. But what about having an end-of-year meeting for each year group, when the parents can meet their child’s new teachers; where staff can talk to parents formally about the routines that will be part of the next year for their child, and informally to get to know each other. It is also an opportunity to show the parents the route from the playground to the new classroom, where coats go, where the toilets are – all those practical things which we automatically explain to new parents. Even in a small school this will be appreciated by the parents. It is of particular value when you have appointed new staff – teachers and support staff – giving the parents a chance to meet them. If parents are kept fully informed they can share this role with you. Over the summer holiday they can remind their children of what will be expected of them in Miss Read’s class; they will know where to go if yours is a large or complicated building. They will be able to support their child in terms of knowing which day library books are changed or when outdoor shoes are needed for PE.

Changes of staff

This can also be quite disconcerting for some children. Make a point of introducing new members of staff to children – perhaps a welcome during assembly. Think about how you introduce supply staff to the children. If possible have a member of your support team, familiar to the children, in the classroom with a supply teacher who is new to a particular class of children. Introducing this person to the children with a welcome during assembly will ensure that all the children know who is in school. Introduce new staff to the parents. Include a note in the newsletter giving a name and a few details. Keep your staff identity board up to date so that new faces replace old ones and parents can put a face to a name.

Avoid the learning dip

As children move from one class to the next, one key stage to the next or move school, there is always a risk of a dip in their learning. As children learn to adjust to a new style of teaching, a different approach, or a new group of children, their learning may suffer. It is therefore important for staff to take this into account as they think about the need to handle transitions in the school. What can be done to minimise the effects of these changes?

  • Time should be made for teachers to share assessment records so that new learning can be based securely on prior knowledge and skills.
  • Subject coordinators could be involved in making staff aware of the overlap between the work at different stages. This is particularly valuable when children are moving to a new school.

To sum up

Transition is part of life and we all deal with it in our own ways. How we deal with it largely depends on our early experiences of transitions and how these were dealt with. Transition includes changes in environment, circumstances and relationships. To make transition easier for children schools need to make conditions as similar as possible, so that changes occur in a gradual way over a period of time. Good communication is essential to making this work well.

Lynn Cousins is a former headteacher