Change is a normal part of life and can provide opportunities for children to develop their resilience. Whether a child is starting primary school, changing schools, or moving from infants to juniors or primary to secondary school, this transition period needs to be carefully managed. If a child struggles with a transition it can have a negative impact on their wellbeing and academic achievement.
During any transition period, it’s important that children are able to talk about their concerns and are supported to cope with any readjustments.
Who is more likely to struggle with transitions?
It’s important to prepare students who are more likely to struggle with moving to a new school, these include children with:
- additional learning needs (also known as SEND or ASN)
- mentally health problems
- behavioural problems
- limited parental support
- experience of transient living, such as being in care
- experience of being bullied.
Children who don’t feel that they belong in their school; who struggle to develop good relationships with school staff and peers; and who struggle with changes to a routine may also find this transition challenging.
How to spot if a child is struggling
If children struggle with moving to a new school, they are at an increased risk of poorer attendance, lower grades, feeling disengaged with school, and having reduced confidence and self-esteem. It may also increase their chances of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Here are a few things to look out for which may suggest a child is struggling with their transition:
- struggles to make friends
- doesn’t feel that they belong
- has ongoing difficulties coping with daily routines
- increased number of unauthorised school absences
- challenging or disruptive behaviour
lower than expected grades or a disinterest in school.
Facts about transitions
- Two in five pupils fail to reach expected academic progress after transitioning to secondary school.
- Feeling like you belong has an impact on achievement and how well a child transitions.
- Children with additional learning needs are more likely to feel isolated and vulnerable if they don't have a smooth transition.
Starting primary school
Starting primary school is an exciting time. It can also be a big change for children and families. For many children it will be the first occasion they spend time away from their family or in a more formal group setting.
For some children, starting primary school may increase anxiety around separation from their main caregiver. These feelings can also be exacerbated by a parent or carer who transfers their own feelings of anxiety onto their child. But this phase is usually temporary and can be successfully managed through staff, parents and carers working together.
What is separation anxiety?
It’s common for children to be anxious about being separated from their parent or caregiver - this is often an indication that a child has developed a healthy attachment to them. Understanding how to manage separation is an important part of normal health development for children, both socially and emotionally.
For most children, feeling anxious about this separation is a temporary phase and can be supported by teachers in some of the following ways:
- introducing themselves to the child and encouraging them to play with toys
- avoiding criticising the child for feeing sad or anxious
- helping parents and carers to manage their own separation anxiety and behaviours through:
- coaching them in how to create a quick goodbye that is calm
- dissuading them from coming back to the classroom after they’ve said goodbye
- helping them to reassure their child that they will be back by using concepts the child understands
- providing parents and carers with recommendations for books they can read with their child about preparing to start school.
Children who change schools often
Children who change primary schools regularly may struggle with the transition process and find it hard to settle in.
Moving between schools can be more common for Travellers, Gypsy and Roma children, or for those whose parents or carers are in the Armed Forces, children with additional learning needs or who are looked after.
Children who are new to the country may also struggle to settle in or feel that they belong in their new school environment.
Multiple moves can be particularly challenging, but even single moves, especially when associated with other risk factors, such as changes within a family like divorce, poor parental mental health etc., can affect a child’s sense of belonging to a school as well as their confidence, self-esteem and attainment.
Leaving a school midway through a term or year can also disrupt friendships as well as relationships with school staff and the wider community.
A few things that schools can do to help include:
- meeting new parents and carers, showing them around the school and discussing any worries
- making sure school records are forwarded from the previous school to pick up on immediate learning or wellbeing needs that a child may have
- developing a support system that may include training children to be buddies or to provide peer support to new arrivals.
Transitioning to secondary school
Starting secondary school - what are children most worried about?
Most children will typically feel nervous, scared and excited about transitioning to secondary school. And it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit anxious or worried about a changing situation. However, anxiety can become a problem if these feelings persist and disrupt a child’s life.
When moving to secondary school, studies have found that children are most worried about the following things:
- getting lost
- losing old friends
- discipline and detentions
- being bullied.
Communicating with parents and carers during this transition period is particularly important as this is a key point where children with additional needs are at a greater risk of being excluded from school.
What schools can do
There are lots of things that schools can do to help pupils prepare for, and cope with, change - and also build resilience, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Engage with parents and carers
Parents and carers are often key to making sure that a child has a good transition to a new school. A few things that parents, carers and teachers can do include:
- checking in with the child to find out how well they are coping academically, but also in terms of their wellbeing
- keeping an eye on how they are socialising, if they are making friends and hanging around in positive peer groups
- helping the child to be cyber-savvy and understand how to be safe online
- providing opportunities for parents and carers and staff to link up.
Connect with early years practitioners and local secondary schools
- Work with early years practitioners and local secondary schools to identify children who may require additional support, and develop strategies (such as mentoring) to support them.
- Create social events between transitional settings, including talks, taster days, Q&A sessions with children, parents and carers who have already been through the transition process.
- Think about developing a peer support or buddy system. This is where older pupils support younger children with their move to a new school (see this toolkit for how to get started).
Use health & wellbeing lessons to prepare pupils
Children who recognise change as stressful, and who seek support and problem-solve, often cope better with change than those who deny or avoid the emotional impact of a transition.
Schools can use health and wellbeing education (RSHE, PD&MU, Health & Wellbeing) to help pupils develop good emotional and social skills from the start of their education. These skills will help pupils prepare and cope with change by focusing on how to recognise and manage thoughts and feelings, build resilience, and also learn how to problem-solve.
Helping pupils with mental health needs and additional needs transition smoothly
Schools need to make sure plans are in place to support pupils with mental health needs and additional needs to negotiate the change from primary to secondary school or moving into alternative education and then transitioning back.
Schools need to plan well in advance of the transition to address any potential barriers to learning or thriving. These plans should involve:
- sharing information with the new school about the child’s needs well in advance, with the agreement of parents and carers. This could involve formal liaison, review and handover meetings, and in some instances transitional joint working between primary and secondary additional learning needs staff - or school counsellors organising a formal handover to the new school involving the child and their family
- putting in place a plan to address barriers before the transition starts (e.g. equipment, resources, training exchanges and support)
- identifying a keyworker in the secondary school or new school who will monitor the effectiveness of strategies and work closely with the child and their parents or carers to gauge how well they are settling in.
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