Dr Chris Moore
Nurture Principle 6: The importance of Transitions
The final blog in this series on the six Principles of Nurture will consider the importance of transitions in young people’s lives. The school day is characterised by a wide variety of changes, with students moving between environments, tasks, and people. We must also keep in mind how young people can be affected by transitions, both in and out of school, when they are not effectively planned or supported sensitively and consistently.
The impact of transitions
In “A Therapeutic Treasure Box”, Dr Karen Treisman explains how beginnings, changes and endings can stimulate a range of feelings. They can remind young people of happy and successful times. But they can also elicit memories of occasions when they felt anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, forgotten, rejected, and shamed. Schools often report a change in a young person’s wellbeing before, during and/or after transitions, particularly when they have previously experienced upheaval or uncertainty in their lives. They may appear excited, curious, nervous, withdrawn, upset or angry. We need to recognise and accept what is a potentially significant or stressful transition for the young people we work with.
- Leaving home and travelling to school.
- Saying goodbye to parents/carers.
- Settling to and starting an unfamiliar activity.
- Organising and planning how to engage in a routine.
- Following or taking the lead and making choices.
- Delaying or finishing an enjoyable activity.
- Navigating birthdays, anniversaries, and themed days.
- Coping with changes to the normal routine and new places.
- Feeling safe with a different member of staff when a key adult is absent.
- Saying goodbye before extended breaks and holidays from school.
- Moving to a new school and building relationships with new staff and students.
- Moving house or unexpected changes to living arrangements and family relationships.
- Family illness and bereavement.
Supportive objects and routines
In nurturing and trauma-informed practices, transitional objects are items which bring comfort, security, and control as they represent the enduring relationship with an adult. Whether it’s a physical object, an environmental cue or a consistent routine, the following list contains ideas for reducing the impact of separations, changes, and endings.
- A small photograph of the young person and a parent/carer or key adult can be exchanged before a separation.
- Matching bracelets or ribbons can be worn by the young person and an adult when they are not together. Drawing hearts on each other’s wrists is another twist on this concept.
- A meaningful and special object can be kept close to hand, such as a button, stone, keyring, or small toy.
- Sensory reminders of the enduring connection can be helpful, such as a tissue with an adult’s perfume or aftershave.
- Sometimes a physical object is not always practical or desired by the young person. “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst is a lovely story which explains that relationships persist across time and space. There are lots of readings of the story on YouTube, one of which is found at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MR0JUpQKhdw
- Visual checklists and countdowns can help to break down tasks into discrete steps and provide advanced warning of a change or ending. The use of songs and clapping or drumming routines can add predictable rhythm and repetition to daily routines.
- A personal schedule or story should be considered for trips or visits to unfamiliar places. The aim should be to show the place where the young person will be going and outline in clear language what will be happening, when, with whom, and for how long.
- Memory cards are recommended by Louise Bomber for young people who find it hard to wait for something they enjoy or finish something which they are engrossed in. These can be a nice way of reassuring them that you haven’t forgotten about the task or event and that there will be an opportunity to return to it at a later point.
Adding structure and reducing uncertainty
In “The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment”, Nicola Marshall describes how transitions can take some young people back to a place of fear. They need a secure base to believe that change is manageable. While we should try to reduce the level of change during the school day, we can also take action to increase the sense of safety and support emotional regulation.
- Routines should be clearly outlined, both verbally and visually depending on the young person’s needs and preferences, and the timing of various tasks or actions should be easily understood. Allow more time to prepare for the next activity or arrange to finish the current activity slightly earlier if necessary.
- Our language should be explicit and concise, as a means of helping the young person to process what they are being asked to do. “When…then…” and “First…next…last…” can give a specific sequence to follow. But as discussed in previous blogs, say less and show more during when stress is heightened.
- Take the lead from the young person. Some may prefer advanced warning of a transition so that they have a clear sense of what is happening. Others may find it too anxiety-provoking to know the details and this may affect their wellbeing in the lead-up. For these situations, short notice with high levels of reassurance may be preferable.
- As mentioned in my previous blog, a meet-and-greet with a key adult can be a great way of checking in with the young person when they arrive at school. It can be used to engage in casual and playful conversation, talk about feelings related to recent or current events, remind them that they are safe and kept in mind and help them to understand and ask questions about the day’s schedule.
- Empower the young person to construct a personalised set of strategies which they find useful for returning to a calmer emotional state. These might include objects which provide pleasing sensory input, specific breathing or grounding techniques or creative activities which allow them to indulge in their special interests.
- Consider preparing for transitions through initial practise and playful role-plays. Creating a story or funny song about the transition not only adds structure and predictability to a new situation, but also allows the young person to take ownership over what they do and recognise what they need from others.
- For sports days or Christmas parties, schedule some structured and regulating activities and provide opportunities for the young person to exercise choice. There should be a familiar back-up key adult for instances when the primary key adult is absent. A concise summary of the young person’s strengths, needs and preferences, and the strategies which are in place to accommodate these, should be available for substitute teachers.
- When going on trips or overnight stays, show pictures of the environment which can be discussed in school and at home. Depending on the young person’s background and specific needs, they may need reassurance about phone calls with parents/carers, the availability of food or the bed-time routine. A pillow from home could be a nice transitional object to bring with them.
- Active communication with parents and carers is vital for maintaining awareness of how a young person’s wellbeing can change over time. If you know in advance, through an email or text, that they had a difficult night or were stressed before leaving the house, you can adjust expectations, plan more time with a key adult and provide more breaks and regulating activities.
- It’s important to be honest about what you know and don’t know. Realistically, there are always going to be issues which we can’t anticipate or plan for. When we are unable to give a clear idea of what is going to happen in a future situation, we can focus on what will be staying the same, who will be there for support and reminders of how the young person has coped with unexpected situations in the past.
Positive endings and beginnings
In her chapter for “Teenagers and Attachment”, Louise Bomber writes that young people need someone and somewhere to help them believe that they are kept in mind during a range of transitions. Whether it’s starting a new school, going on a half-term break, or reaching the conclusion of the school year, we need to manage these carefully; especially if previous experiences of endings and beginnings have not been positive.
- When the young person is moving to a new environment, we can make it more predictable by having lots of information on the school website – names and pictures of the staff, photographs of places which will be encountered during daily transitions and a map or virtual tour of the building.
- Visits to a new setting should be available, as some young people may be very anxious about going to and staying in an unfamiliar place. This can be an opportunity to meet staff and observe different environments, whilst in the company of a trusted adult.
- When transitioning between year groups or moving between schools, a video message or postcard from the previous teacher can help the young person to realise that they are being thought about. Visits to the new school by the previous key adult can also provide opportunities to check in with how the young person is adapting to the change.
- Older students can act as mentors for younger ones who are starting secondary school. They can talk about their thoughts and feelings when they arrived at the school and offer practical tips and reassurance. Buddy systems and designated pastoral care staff can support students who suddenly join the school following a change in living arrangements.
- Ideally, some staff would be retained between terms or year groups to provide a continuous relationship for the young person, offsetting the change in teachers and environments. This doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to support staff within the classroom. A key adult could be a playground supervisor who is always available in a specific location or a caretaker who has a chat with the young person at a certain time.
- Clubs and activities can provide much-needed structure at break and lunch time. Access to quieter spaces can also provide relief from sensory overload. But as mentioned earlier, focus on what the young person wants rather than making assumptions. They may enjoy the autonomy and reduced demands of these times in the day and need more reassurance and support when returning to the classroom.
- A memory book, letter to their future selves or a “now and then” photo comparison can support reflection about the end of term or year. Sentence completion tools can also be considered, such as “My favourite day was…”, “I’ve learned how to…”, “I coped with…” and “I’m most proud of…”
- Dr Treisman recommends creative activities as a means of reflecting on significant endings. For example, feelings could be represented through drawings, patchworks, and sand jars. Similarly, the journey to the next destination could be illustrated through a road, map or story which outlines key moments and relationships to date.
- Records concerning the young person’s background, strengths, needs and support plan should be shared in advance of the young person starting a new class or school. It is essential that we promote understanding and acceptance of the young person’s history and that all staff working with them take a proactive approach.
- The network around the young person should continue to meet to discuss progress and reflect on what is working well and what can be changed. They can also try to maintain more integrated levels of support, rather than the young person working with lots of adults in lots of different contexts.
References and Further Reading
Bomber, L.M. (2009). ‘Survival of the fittest! – teenagers finding their way through the labyrinth of transitions in schools’. In Perry, A. (Ed). Teenagers and Attachment. Helping Adolescents Engage with Life and Learning. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Bomber, L.M. (2011). What about me? Inclusive strategies to support pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Brooks, R. (2020). The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom. A Practical Guide to Supporting Children Who Have Encountered Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Delaney, M. (2017). Attachment for Teachers. The essential guide for trainee teachers and NQTs. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Marshall, N. (2014). The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment. Practical Essentials for Teachers, Carers and School Support Staff. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Treisman, K. (2017). A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma. Creative Techniques and Activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.