I have found myself thinking more about transitions and the inevitability of change. It’s an area where I provide support, guiding parents through this often turbulent time. As we approach the upcoming term, a wave of anxiety and stress can loom over. This sentiment is particularly valid for children and young people with developmental and sensory differences and those who have endured profoundly challenging experiences.
The act of moving home, different school, progressing from nursery to primary, or from primary to secondary, coupled with adapting to shifts in changes and family dynamics, revisiting familiar places, new places, moving from room to room, all these experiences and more can stir up a storm of emotions. This disruption to their sense of security can significantly heighten feelings of anxiety. Just as we might experience a sense of instability, the same is true for them. So, it becomes important to consider strategies, helpful ideas to alleviate some of these stressors. While my focus is on the school environment, many of these ideas seamlessly translate into various aspects of everyday life.
Regulate, regulate, regulate…you’ve heard this till the cows come home but it’s important because as adults we need to be as calm, so that we can be as present as children need a regulated adult. If you feel yourself unable to be present, play tag with your partner (if you can) and take five minutes out, make yourself a drink, take deep breaths until you feel you are in a place to be able to return and be present.
Didn’t you know you were sherlock Holmes? Yes, absolutely, sometimes triggers are there unapologetically but sometimes they aren’t. So, it’s a parents job to figure out what’s going on. Being present, curious, empathic, patient and understanding will give you opportunities to explore. I always say… say what you see! Has there been a time when you have felt overwhelmed when you went somewhere new, tried something new. I know when I go somewhere new, I have two satnavs on…that’s a whole different story, but you get my meaning?
Preparation and planning…yes it can feel like a military exercise but it will help enormously. If you are able, create a transition book for school or maybe a social story, share your experience of starting a new class or school. Try and arrange playdates with existing friends who are also transitioning. Planning a holiday/break away, print pictures off/ map/ let them know/ create a collage together/print a visual schedule. Do the same for nursery/school. Take existing bedding/fabric conditioner/favourite toys. Download films, music for the car journey, ear defenders, fidget toys and have their snuggle blanket available. Plenty of crunchy snacks such as carrots, celery, peppers, breadsticks and a smoothie with a thick straw. I like the swirly, curly straws as they can see the liquid as they suck. Plot plenty of rest breaks, some movement input will help.
Transitions through education… can you recall leaving primary school and feeling upset because some of your friends may not have been going to the same school as you. Imagine then for children who have experienced a lack of ‘consistency’, ‘predictability’ and ‘same’, how hard it may feel, not only the loss that they will encounter but moving away from sometimes the safety of the ‘same’ teacher, friends, environment and having to start it all over again. Try and encourage connections between old friends. Remember how scary it will be for a child who has moved foster homes, moved into their new adoptive home, everything will be strange and scary, they need time to adapt to build connections.
Help the unpredictable become the predictable…speak with school to integrate more transition days if you can. Sometimes schools have videos of the classrooms etc, but you can ask staff if they would do a walk around and send that to you, with pictures of the environment that can be printed off. Visits with the new teacher and sharing a pen picture of your child. Have a day of buying the new lunch box and stationery as this can give them some control back. Equally, if this is too overwhelming order online. If you have lapsed with bedtime because of summer holidays which is normal, gradually reinstate the routine and structure back into homelife the week before going back, so it’s not such a shock.
Morning routine…prepare as much as you can the night before, so you don’t feel like you are running round like a headless chicken. Be prepared for moments of anxiety which may manifest in tricky behaviours. Play…yes play, who can get their coat on quicker, how many big steps or little steps, jumps to the car, you are working hard to distract them from ruminating but in a playful engaging way. Integrate nurture, for example get them dressed, brush their hair, put their shoes on, even if they are older sometimes, they still need it, especially if they have missed out on all that good stuff.
Transitional objects…schools are generally good if they understand why your child needs the safety and security of their transitional toy or whatever it maybe. Think about other ways too, such as a spray of perfume/aftershave; handkerchief; something that belongs to parent; string bracelet (can make them together); one that I am fond of sharing is to apply a heart using a non-toxic marker to your hand and their hand and say, ‘when I am looking at or touching my heart, I will be thinking about you’. Holding children in mind is super important, it leads to a better capacity for regulating emotions.
Getting to school…For children who find it hard to attend school and worry so much about it, they may be experiencing Emotionally based school anxiety. You may notice how dysregulated they become at the sheer thought and moreover it may not be a quick fix to support them to feel safe enough to enter the school in a regulated and calm state. Try to keep space between school drop off and your next schedule, especially if these periods are tricky as you begin to feel flustered at the thought of missing out on what you have planned. Acknowledge any anxiety and wobbles, we are all entitled to have wobbles, reflect on how hard it must feel, but you are there for them. Remember they may not be able to let you know why they are feeling worried but that's ok, just allow them to just be and respond with patience, empathy and understanding. If you are walking, then inject some playful ideas, such as funny walks, count how many trees, posts, cars on your way. If in the car, do silly walks, how many steps, anything that you know that alleviates their worries.
School gates…If your child finds big groups over stimulating then ask if you can use a different entrance. Arrange with the school to have a person with whom the child may know such as the TA to meet them and take them through to class. If it’s a new school, and you notice that your child is struggling to separate from you, then arrange a meeting with the teacher and ask if this can be put in place. Ask if your child can have a buddy and attend a nurture/friendship group.
Communication book…start a communication book with the teacher, to share information and alert the teacher to any anxiety or worries. This also stops incidents on the playground that can induce shame for a child, when information is announced pertaining to the child to everyone in the playground about tricky situations. You can always email/phone the teacher too, this can avoid the above from happening.
Celebrate those victories…yes celebrate, praise in abundance for the small victories!
Outlets for feelings…think about ways you can encourage your child to think about how they feel, to explore their sense of self. Integrate arts, crafts, journaling, modelling clay, plasticine, bubbles, drawing pictures, playing games, whatever your child likes.
Time to decompress…not dissimilar to us adults when we need five minutes to just have a cup of coffee before we start again, we know what it feels like after a bad day. So why is it any different for children? Sometimes children hold it in all day, they fizz and fizz until pick up, so the child who has held it together all day may come out of school dysregulated. Same for children who find school too hard. Give them space before going home, a run to the park, a bike ride. If you can’t and need to get home, guide them to what you know works, is this just time on the sofa with you to have a crunchy snack, warm or cold drink, a snuggle, until their body feels ready, or do they need to shift the energy through time on a trampoline, dancing, bouncing on a yoga ball. Try and test what works for your child.
Expectations…There is no doubt that parenting is a complex journey, often filled with unexpected challenges and joys. As parents, our expectations play a significant role in shaping our interactions with our children. However, it’s important to recognise that sometimes, we need to adjust our expectations and meet children where they are, emotionally, physically and psychologically. Children who have experienced significant changes in their lives can find even the tiniest of minor adjustments challenging. Integrating the principles of P.A.C.E can be beneficial. Remember you’re not a superhero, parenting is a learning process and it’s okay to make mistakes. Lowering your own expectations of yourself can alleviate unnecessary pressure and guilt. Perhaps take a moment to think about where your expectations stem from.
Finally…self-care… I know you’re probably sick to the back teeth of hearing it. Give yourself a break, always try and stay calm and regulate yourself. Make time for yourself when needed, you need to recharge, and parenting is not easy at times. Finally, yes finally, do what works for you as parent, you know your child, how they manage their feelings and emotions, what they find challenging, it can take persistence and time.
I hope I have included some helpful ideas for you to take away. Please download a copy of my ‘Back to school- transitions and change’ booklet on my website.
I would definitely read ‘the Invisible string’ book, a great story to help with transitions and change. Bessel van der Kolk’s book ‘The body keeps the score’ is also a worthy and helpful read and may help put some of your child’s behaviours into perspective. Remember if you're worried seek support.