Chartered psychologist Dr Melody Terras, who has been conducting research into how to make school transitions easier for children with special needs, presented her findings at the recent British Psychological Society annual conference.
She said: “In general, our findings highlight the importance of listening to children’s concerns about moving to high school and also whether these concerns still persist after the move and for how long.
“It is important to engage in frequent discussions with children at all stages of the process – before, during and after. Change is often challenging and a certain degree of anxiety may be expected.”
According to Dr Terras, research indicates that concerns generally fall into three main areas:
Social concerns relating to the formation of new friendships, maintaining existing friendships, the potential for bullying, and getting to know new teachers.
Educational concerns over changes in teaching style and increased complexity or amounts of work and homework.
Practical issues concerning change in building size and increased complexity and organisation of school buildings.
On a more positive note, Dr Terras added: “Although they may have concerns, children often recognise the benefits that the move to a new school affords, such as increased opportunities to make new friends and engage with a wider range of academic and after-school activities. The move may also remove them from teachers or pupils that they don’t like.”
It is important to focus on these benefits when talking with children who are anxious about the transition. Other strategies to support students during this difficult phase are outlined below.
Cultivate a sense of belonging
Dr Jill Willows, a clinical psychologist working primarily with children and adolescents, told the seminar: “Belonging is a huge issue for teens. Special needs children will have particular anxieties around peer acceptance and fitting in, so orientation programmes that focus on relationship-building can assist.”
She also highlights that other anxieties are likely to exist around practicalities of the new environment: “Children fear humiliation around such things as rule-breaking, getting lost, not knowing or fully understanding the demands and expectations of the new setting.
“Anxieties are raised by lack of certainty and predictability. Staff need to know the specific special needs of children entering their school, predict challenges that will face them, and plan ahead to accommodate their best interests.”
“Mentor programmes can help in the settling-in phase,” advises Dr Willows. “Children need to be given explicit permission to seek clarification and must be told who they can go to for this. Children moving between schools should be assigned a peer-mentor who can help in the early phase.”
Key staff members can also be identified as available to help. Resilience studies show that children benefit enormously from knowing that there is at least one adult in the environment (coach, therapist, teacher) who “gets” them, believes in their potential, and will advocate for them if necessary.
Jeanie Beales, a secondary school educator from Northlands Girls’ High School in South Africa, told the conference: “Our high school has a number of ‘feeder schools’ so our management team makes sure that grade 9 pupils from their particular feeder school were on hand to welcome them for orientation – it made a world of difference to see a familiar face and (also) be in a group with other (pupils) from their school for team activities and fun interactions.
“Their teachers would be on hand to reassure, and inform them of expectations. They were also invited to school events, such as a concert or a vintage fair day, prior to making the move – to become familiar with the school layout, meet present pupils and see what sort of activities they could look forward to participating in.”
Ms Beales’ school also provides “trial runs” for new in-takes, where they can arrive in their new uniforms and have lessons for the day. This provides an opportunity to get to know their teacher and find their way around the school.
“They would be put into small groups and we found that often those people were the ones they ended up making friends with,” she explained.
This approach usually meant no trauma on the actual first day of school when the passages are thronged with hundreds of other pupils who all know exactly where they are going.
Good self-esteem aids transition
The transition fears of children can be exacerbated if they have learning difficulties, as explained by Dr Terras and associates in their paper, Dyslexia and Psycho-social Functioning: An exploratory study of the role of self-esteem and understanding, where it is reported that rates of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties were significantly higher than in the general population and were correlated with self-esteem.
Children with special needs often have idiosyncracies that need to be taken into account. Ms Beales explained: “I was at a small private school where we had a child with Asperger’s syndrome. His pet hate was to be touched – so this is precisely what the teenage boys did – just put a finger on his shoulder and watch the explosive rage that followed. By explaining the situation and answering their questions we managed to get their co-operation.”
Management of feelings
Dr Willows is an advocate of the Circle of Courage model, which features four universal growth needs for children: Independence, Mastery, Belonging, and Generosity.
Dr Martin Brokenleg, a professor in Native American studies, and Larry Brendtro, a professor in children’s behaviour disorders, collaborated to establish this philosophy which, says Dr Willows, “provides ideas of where resilience can be fostered by helping youth to get involved in helping others, setting attainable goals and in carrying responsibility”.
Lisa Schab, a licensed clinical social worker, gave the conference some advice on managing feelings. As many youngsters are confused and not quite sure what they are feeling, other than a general unhappiness which they find difficult to express in words to an adult, she suggests strategies such as composing a song about the feelings, writing about them, drawing or pictures representing them. For teachers, Dr Terras says “the advice is much like that given to parents”.
She explained: “Take time to listen to what children are saying in response to the information that is given about transition and provide practical and emotional support to help children cope.
“Stress positive aspects, in addition to addressing the difficulties,” she concluded.
Dr Willows added: “Extra (curricular) activities, cultural and sporting programmes represent opportunities for belonging and mastery. Schools need to have opportunities that are not competitive, such as beginners’ tennis. Teens don’t want to risk humiliation and many won’t participate in activities that make them feel ‘not good enough’.”
Research indicates many negative consequences of poor transition and therefore follow-up is essential. Taking time to engage with and listen to children is key. Attention should be directed to identify and develop positive aspects, in addition to addressing on-going negative issues.
Dr Terras concluded: “There is much good work being done in individual schools, and I would encourage teachers and schools to share, discuss and evaluate their practices with each other in order to promote successful transitions.”
Dr Nicola Davies is a consultant psychologist and freelance writer.