Transitions

Transitions are the movements, passages or changes from one position, state, stage, subject or concept to another. These changes can be gradual or sudden, and last for differing periods of time.

This section explores how the transitions experienced by your pupils can be supported and enhanced. 

Overview

For some children times of transition and change can be particularly difficult. Reducing difficulties during change by even a small amount can make a big difference to many children.

Understanding the underlying reasons for these difficulties, and having a collection of strategies for staff and schools to use, helps to:

  • Reduce the risks of failure to manage the change
  • Demonstrate the staff/school commitment to support
  • Improve learning by reducing stress of change
  • Prevent disruptive or acting-out behaviour
  • Provide a settled learning environment for all children
  • Reduce stress for staff
  • Reduce exclusions
  • Build positive and productive relationships which impact on learning
  • Develop resilience
  • Improve outcomes.

Coping with change

Our capacity to cope with change is one component of our mental health. It is shaped by our own unique combination of nature, nurture and events. Many children will have experienced warm, consistent, predictable care and will see adults as reliable, supportive and caring when dealing with difficult thoughts, feelings and events. Sadly, others will have experienced adults whose responses have been unsupportive and not in tune with their needs. Their experience has been that adults do not care and cannot cope or be depended on.

need for trust

For these children, trusting adults and managing the very strong emotions transitions and change will bring can be very difficult. Some children and young people will find it almost impossible to ask for help when faced with difficulties while others may cope with underlying anxieties by demanding to be the centre of attention. Even children who appear to be coping well can be thrown off-course by transitions and changes. This is why developing strategies, both as individual staff and as whole schools, increases the capacity of all children to cope with transitions, giving them both the positive experience of managing change and belief in their skills to overcome adverse circumstances.

transitions young people face

Children and young people can face many types of transition, including:

  • Starting nursery
  • Illness of a member of the family
  • Changing friends
  • Starting primary school
  • Death of a family member
  • Coming out as lesbian or gay
  • Starting secondary school
  • Separation from parents
  • Diagnosis of Illness
  • Changing school
  • New siblings
  • Diagnosis of disability
  • Moving house
  • Moving through year groups
  • Puberty
  • New step-parents
  • Entering care
  • Foster parents
  • First exams
  • First sexual experience
  • Living in a new country
  • Change of class teacher
  • Change of head teacher
  • Movement around school
  • Transitions within classes
  • Supply teacher
  • Living with the illness of a family member.

The transitions that children and young people face can be:

  • Emotional: affected by personal experiences, for example bereavement or the divorce or separation of parents
  • Physical: moving to a new home, class or school
  • Intellectual: moving from one type of organisation to another, for example from nursery to school, primary school to secondary school, secondary school to college or college to university
  • Physiological: going through puberty or a long-term medical condition.

What researchers say

Research has confirmed what practitioners and parents have long since known: transitions are stressful for children and young people, just as they are for adults, and the resulting stress can have far-reaching effects on children’s emotional wellbeing and academic achievements.

Research literature has generally focused on four key education-related transitions or transition hot-spots:

  • Move from pre-school to foundation stage
  • Move from foundation stage to KS1
  • Transferring from primary to secondary schools
  • Moving up year groups.

We are all familiar with the feelings experienced when we contemplate change. Anticipation, excitement and curiosity can all be tainted by feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and a sense of bewilderment and not knowing as we face unfamiliar experiences, places, people or events. These feelings may have their roots in our childhood and infancy. Psychoanalytic studies have shown that our experiences, right from the beginning of life, can remain with us in the depths of our minds throughout our lives and are re-evoked in situations that resemble our past.

New beginnings

Any new situation involves the loss of the old, known one. The beginning of something new means the end of something old and vice versa. The more unstructured, strange or unexpected the new situation is the more disorientated and unable to cope we are likely to feel. How well any one person deals with new situations depends in part upon their experiences and resilience levels. Good internalised experiences can help us to explore and tackle the unknown. They also lay the foundations for experiences yet to come, just as bad experiences leave their memory traces within us, both of which are rekindled repeatedly throughout our lives.

importance of attachment

Our first relationship as an infant helps to create the template by which we understand the world. The quality of this relationship helps to form the framework for our future beliefs and values.

 In his book, Attachment and Loss, Dr John Bowlby explains that children who have experienced a secure attachment:

Are more likely to possess a representational model of attachment figure(s) as being available, responsive and helpful and a complimentary model of himself as…a potentially lovable person.”

This child is likely to:

Approach the world with confidence and, when faced with potentially alarming situations, is likely to tackle them effectively or to seek help.”  

The significant attachment figure initially meets the survival needs of the young infant by providing the physical aspects of food, warmth and protection. As the infant grows these needs are also expanded to include a need for contact and proximity. Absence of the significant attachment person can trigger alarm and increased stress responses which are soon soothed on their return.

As the infant continues to develop and mobility evolves they start to feel safe enough to explore, confident that the attachment figure will be available to them in times of stress such as tiredness, hunger discomfort or fear. The attachment figure represents the secure base enabling the feeling of safety which in turn frees up curiosity to explore and the ability to be open to learning with the belief that help and support will be on hand if things get too much.

Insecure attachment

Those children who have experienced an insecure attachment where sensitivity to their needs has not been met or understood respond to challenge with less confidence and face adversity with greater uncertainty. The ability to tolerate and manage change is essential to healthy living and development; however, those children who have experienced an insecure attachment arrive into the education system less equipped to manage changes than others.

The ability of the mother or other primary carer to read the signals of the child and understand and process the anxieties they are experiencing triggered by fear and uncertainty is a significant aspect of the early attachment relationship. In his 1967 book, A Theory of Thinking in Second Thoughts: Selected Papers in Psychoanalysis, Wilfred Bion linked this experience of being understood to learning and thinking. The ‘sensitive enough’ mother understands the child’s feelings and responds in a way that shows this understanding. This is containment. The child’s overwhelming feelings diminish and become bearable through this experience of being understood, they learn that the feelings they experienced are bearable and can be managed.

These early templates are the foundations for our internal map of the world or internal representation systems, which move with us into adulthood and influence our beliefs and values. 

Role of teachers              

Teachers who are sensitive to the needs of the children they teach are fulfilling the role of the specific attachment person, containing the anxieties that transitions create. By responding sensitively and reading and interpreting the signals the child is sending out they are attuned to the child’s needs in an appropriate way and represent the secure base. Through experience an attuned adult is able to respond appropriately to a child’s behaviour and acknowledge how they are feeling. Through words they are able to experience the thinking with another that is the preliminary stage to managing emotions on their own. 

Actions

There are many strategies that schools can adopt and develop in order to support their pupils through transitions.

The following suggestions have been designed to inspire action on transitions in your school:   

Understand the impact

Understand the impact of transitions on all members of the school community.

  • Devote some staff meeting time or professional learning time to exploring what transitions mean to staff members. Aim to identify what types of transition adults in the school may have to manage. How are these similar to, or different from, the transitions that children have to manage?
  • Run CPD sessions on ways of understanding the implications of, and support for, transitions, including the early identification of vulnerable children and young people
  • The more unstructured, strange or unexpected the new situation we find ourselves in, the more disorientated and unable to cope we are likely to feel. How does your school currently lead children and young people through transitions? How are they supported through preparations for transitions?
  • Focus on the long-term process of building, strengthening and maintaining the capacity to deal with change. Actively develop resilience in children and young people
  • Get specific. What sort of behaviour do you observe in your school in children who do not manage a transition or a change? Can you identify the transitions during the school day that pose most challenges for your pupils? For example, break times and lunchtimes, having supply teachers, transitions within and between lessons, changing class or year group. Use this information to target transitions support more effectively
  • Appreciate the role that teachers and other school staff have in influencing the positive developmental opportunities they are giving each child. This can be a very difficult role to undertake, however, as children will often try to recreate the type of relationship they had with their primary attachment figure. This is known and safe, and staff may find themselves being pulled into this interaction. However, for many children, the relationships they have with school staff give them a vital other opportunity to develop and update their internal working models of attachment.
  • Knowledge and understanding of the roles and support outside agencies can offer to support transition and change.

Contain the loss

Contain the loss implicit in transitions.

When transitions must happen, staff can be active in helping pupils to tolerate any sense of loss they may be experiencing.

These strategies may help: 

  • Prepare pupils by talking about any imminent changes well in advance. Help them to balance the loss of the old with anticipation of the new
  • Help pupils to give words to the feelings and emotions they are experiencing at times of transition. It is essential that the atmosphere in your school is one in which feelings are not only spoken about, but taken seriously too
  • Think of ways of helping to bridge any gaps implicit in transitions; rather than sudden endings and abrupt beginnings, is it possible to provide some overlap between the old and the new?
  • Pay attention to everyday beginnings and endings. Regular routines are incredibly important
  • At times of major transition, provide an opportunity to identify shared memories and reflect on successes and challenges. Celebrate your work together
  • Recognise the importance of objects that children and young people can take away with them to their new situation, for example, books, autographs, photographs, special work and so on
  • Provide consistent responses to critical moments and events in the lives of children and young people, such as when they are bullied, bereaved or experiencing parental divorce or separation
  • Be attuned to changes in behaviour. For children who have suffered any type of loss, transitions are likely to make them more vulnerable. An anxious state of mind can lead to defensive behaviours: aggression, acting out, withdrawal, lack of social interaction, lack of academic progress, lack of interest and depression. Identify and acknowledge the loss, then address the behaviour
  • Make sure that your school has a transition policy in place that encompasses all aspects of transition detailing good practice for each of the transition hot spots as well as the systems and procedures in place for meeting the needs of children and young people experiencing transitions. This document will need to detail systems and interventions available to support children and young people as they cope with the unplanned changes that they meet during their school career, for example loss and bereavement, parental divorce or separation, family illness etc
  • Involve and support parents and carers in any transitions work that the school undertakes.

Embrace the positive

  • Encourage optimism and work with the excitement and opportunities in the lives of children and young people, as well as the fears and anxieties
  • Focus on the development of life skills including emotional resilience and empathy and the ability to ask for help and support when necessary
  • Develop curriculum and project work that focuses on transitions
  • Identify individuals who may need particular support through transitions. Make sure that staff know how to identify the support mechanisms and agencies that are available for the child and their family
  • For some parents the capacity to reflect and process transitions is impeded by their own experiences and therefore support is needed if they are going to be effective partners in supporting children. Consider focusing on transitions when parents are in school, for example for consultation evenings
  • Help pupils to make a difference to others. Involve children and young people in providing support to their peers as part of everyday friendships and relationships
  • Encourage the understanding that experience of adversity and challenge is great personal development; that without challenge in our lives, we may never learn how resourceful and resilient we really are.

Research

The Royal Society
A debate about the neuroscience of emotion chaired by Professor Ray Dolan FRS, professor of neuropsychiatry, and a panel of experts representing the literary world and the visual arts.

University of Bath
Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council: Children’s transition to School: Learning and Health Outcomes

European Educational Research Journal: Vol.2, no.2, 2003
An Inclusive Perspective on Transition to Primary School: Research paper by Christine Cope and Peter Cope, University of Stirling 

National Foundation for Educational Research
A Study of the Transition from Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1: Dawn Sanders, Gabrielle White, Bethan Burge, et al

Ofsted
Transition from the Reception Year to Year 1: an evaluation by HMI

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference
Moving On: Transfer and transition to senior school: A guide to good practice drawing on recent ISI inspection reports of HMC schools (pdf)

DfEE-commissioned research report
The Impact of School Transitions and Transfers on Pupil Progress and Attainment by Maurice Galton, John Gray and Jean Ruddock, Homerton College, Cambridge

DfES-commissioned research report
Transfer and Transitions in the Middle Years of Schooling (7-14): Continuities and Discontinuities in Learning by Maurice Galton et al (pdf)

Resources

SchoolsWorld.tv
A range of short films on many aspects of transitions in schools, (search for transitions).

BBC audio resources for primary schools
PSHE clips for 9-11 year olds on transitions.

TES video resources for teachers
A selection of video resources for teachers (search for transitions).

The Cornerstone
Transition tips

PrimaryResources.co.uk
Range of resources on transitions.

Association for Achievement through Assessment
Selection of materials on transfer and transition. 

East Sussex local authority
Transition support guidance to help schools support children with special educational needs, including the move from pre-school to school, and moving onto secondary school.

DfES guidance
Common core skills and knowledge for the children’s workforce