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Supporting the smoothest transitions back to school.

Beginning a new school year and moving into new school routines after a holiday break can be unsettling; especially if a child is starting school for the very first time. 

Starting school is a major transition in early childhood. How secure a child will feel about being in a new environment such as kinder or school will depend on how secure they feel within themselves.

If a child has a resistance toward,  or has a fear of,  transitioning into school this  does not imply there is something wrong with the child.  After all, we can all feel insecure at times when we are facing an unknown new environment.  It is important when our children are experiencing  transitions such as the start of school that we attend to theirneed to be safe and secure and offer affirmative responses so the child can transition with ease. 

Successful transitions into school in a social sense as well as emotionally and intellectually correlate with further progression of achievement throughout the child’s life.[i]

How the home-to-school transition is undertaken can make a vital difference to children.

Research indicates that for some children starting school can cause stressors, such as anxiety, that affect some children’s emotional wellbeing. This, in turn, can affect the child’s long-term social adjustment, which translates to problematic future learning.[ii]   

When a child has secure transitions into school they experience enhanced emotional wellbeing and feelings of capability, which in turn will result in fewer difficulties in later schooling.[iii]  

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So in effect,  when there is  emotional support available for the child they have a more positive transitional experience from home-to-school.  

Supporting children to process the often bigfeelings they encounter as they step into a 'new world' means that we as adults have to be able to handle big emotions ourselves.  We have to be able to hold the space for our children to understand and process their feelings.

Often parents themselves also find the separation from their child difficult and adults can unwittingly get caught up in their own needs at such times - rather than attuning to what the child might need. 

If you reflect for a moment on your own childhood - you might recall how those early transitions from home to school were for you. Taking time to recollect attunes you more closely to what your child could possibly be experiencing in this change.  

Maybe you felt abandoned, or alone? 

Perhaps you were not supported to know what to expect from the new situation?

Maybe you found it hard to integrate the many different routines that school life brings?

Or perhaps the energy of home and school were vastly different and you had no way of communicating this?

If so -  these same feelings may be present for your child too.

For example if you have a child that gets anxious and troubled by transitions - or upset from being separated from you,  it is important to remind yourself that  these are very appropriate response to feeling unsafe and insecure. And you can use these experiences to grow as a parent.

Consider this:  If our child’s separation anxiety upsets us as parents we can begin to look, to see, and to feel, if we are imbalanced or anxious within ourselves. If so, we can become more aware that we may be projecting our own concerns or our unhealed past onto our child.

One cannot hold the space and process feelings with a child if they are rushed to get to work or emotionally imbalanced due to another issue that is taking the focus away from the present moment needs of the child. 

Of course,  we are all under a vast amount of pressure at certain times during our day. Often school drop off is a very stressful time. However if we continue to project our own stress onto a child then the loop of anxiety will remain active. Our children's responses are giving us an opportunity to reflect on our own emotional life and heal any imbalance within ourselves as a first point.

When we can consider our own emotional state we can begin to ask ourselves questions such as:

"Am I calm and focused toward my child's needs, or am I concerned about their ability to cope without me when I am not there to meet their needs?' 

“Am I truly present and connected with my child as I drop them off, or am I feeling overwhelmed and in need of a break?”

Children pick up on subtle energies of their environment without any words being expressed. 

If the above questions resonate, then we can see how  if there is any unhealed energy under the outward reassurance we give to our children - then this will be felt by the child.  In essence, the child will not feel the words and energy of security and connection as we try and reassure them, but the underlying energyof disconnection and separation.  Children can then become confused because they are hearing one thing (being told one thing) - but feeling another.   Even the most upset, anxious or disconnected child will be soothed at times of separation when they are comforted and reassured in a way that addresses their need for safety and security. 

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In life, we all have to separate from those we love as we grow and transition into the world...

Studies show that children who feel that their parent (caregiver) has a genuine desire to be with them will have smoother transitions.  Adults who discuss a plan to reunite after necessary separation make children feel relaxed and prepared for the time away, knowing it is only temporary. 

Smooth transitions occur when a special plan is put in place for how long the separation will be, as well as assured reunion, which settles the child’s stress response.[iv]

The proactive management of such transitions by communicating the reuniting plan well before the drop off time, allows the child to enter the period of separation when it happens in an open, receptive way, rather than being closed, combative, or resistant when the event happens.

In this way the uncertain energy has been addressed and in a very  tangible way the child's nervous system can relax knowing it doesn't have to activate the  'fight and flight' response and in effect the child knows that all is well. 

This approach of talking about the 'big' feelings before they even arise is counter to much of the advice given that suggests it is better to just leave the “anxious” child without talking about it too much or saying goodbye, as they will settle in time.  

My professional and personal experience in such situations shows that the child becomes very good at hiding their anxious feelings and a child may not initially manifest separation anxiety,  but will manifest  some other form of anxiety at some other stage if they are not allowed the emotional expression needed. When the child nervous system is in a heightened response the child remains stuck and on guard until it finds relief. When we can assure the child emotionally they are more relaxed, open and ready for new situations. 

How to soothe children during transitions

Some points that will help you to begin to meet your child's need for safety and security.

Ensure that your actions toward your children are reassuring rather than rejecting. When your child is scared or uncertain about life or themselves you can assist them to understand their feelings by holding the space to help them ground and feel supported and often this is as simple as taking a few deep breathes together.

Offer to the child ways to voice their worries or concerns as part of a ritual in quieter times (not when you have to rush out the door). Writing the worries down helps release the energy in the child’s body.  You might put them in a worry jar or on a worry tree. Talking about feelings and concerns allows for process to happen in stages not all at once when facing 'danger'. 

Be present to your children and be mindful that you are not rushing them or “shushing” them when they are uncertain about leaving you or being in a new environment. Directives like, “Hurry up!” or “Get a move on!” all make the child feel anxious and rushed. Allow space in the morning schedule that considers their emotional needs.

Don’t push a child away and expect them to deal with their uncertainty or fears on their own.  This leads to them feeling more insecure, which results in many other common childhood issues.  Cuddles and hugs work wonders for confusion and fear that presents in times of transition. 

The Childosophy Children's Wellbeing Rangeoffers resources for parents to nurture their children's emotional expression.

Maxine's book  The Push for a Child Philosophy: What Children (really) Need you to Know is due for release in March 2017. The information in this blog post is derived from one of the many themes found in Chapter Five of the book,  which contains the Foundational Needs Model, the first Need: The Need to be Safe and Secure. 

[i] Burrell & Bubb, 2000, cited in Dunlop and Fabian (2007) “Outcomes of good practice in transition processes for children entering primary school, working papers early childhood development”, 42 (report)

[ii] Cleave, S. and Brown, S., Early to School, (1992) Routledge

[iii] Carol Dweck (2007) found in her research on “mindset to growth and learning” that “fixed mindset” is not as supportive of wellbeing as a “growth mindset,” that is, we tend to either see failure as a fixed problem and one due to inadequacies or as a springboard for growth. Dweck, C. S., Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (2006) New York, Random House.

[iv] Marvin RS, Britner, PA, Normative Development: The Ontogeny of Attachment, in Cassidy J, Shaver PR., Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications, New York and London, Guilford Press,pp. 269–94.

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