Transitions - Why they are difficult and how to support those who struggle with change.

Dealing with change is often difficult for children, whether the change is coming into school or going out into the playground or moving from maths to PE in school. These transitions can cause a range of feelings, which are shown through a range of behaviours. When children experience the larger transitions of changing class, key stages or schools then we often see more intense feelings that link to anxiety and stress. 

Transitions are often especially hard for children and young people (CYP) who are neurodiverse, have experienced trauma, or who struggle with a range of mental health challenges such as anxiety, OCD or ADHD. 

Children with ADHD find moving their attention from one thing to another a challenge at the best of times. It therefore makes perfect sense that the day-to-day transitions they have to manage in school each day are often tricky to manage and that preparing for big transitions may be a challenge. For our neurodiverse CYP, predictability and routine are the key ingredients to being able to manage, anything that changes these is likely to feel overwhelming, and often cause anxiety and stress. 

For our children who experience high levels of anxiety, the fear of the unknown will often trigger a range of ‘What ifs’ and huge feelings of not feeling safe. These fears may be linked with the fear of being with new people, making new friends, a change in staff or the environment or separating from parents.

For our CYP who have experienced trauma, changes may trigger a range of memories and experiences that are painful and traumatic or a sense of unknown fear linked with their past. When this happens, children are not able to put these strong feelings into words but may show us through extreme behaviour responses. 

It is important to remember that children’s brains are influenced by their limbic system, which controls emotion, motivation, memory, and behaviour regulation. The limbic system doesn’t have access to words or language. For some children, change will be experienced as stressful and so their bodies will respond with a stress/survival response. 

As a practitioner working within school, it is easy to observe those CYP who struggle with the day to day transitions, and be aware that they will need support when it is time to manage the larger ones. These observations give us information and help us develop strategies that begin to manage them in a more positive way. The behaviours we witness may be around resistance, avoidance, distraction, negotiation or even full-blown meltdowns. Some of these responses are the result of CYP being overwhelmed by their emotions, whereas others are strategies they have learnt that have enabled them to successfully delay or avoid the transition in the past. Both of which highlight their difficulties. One thing is for sure, all the behaviour we see is a sign that transitions or changes are difficult and are causing emotional distress. 

So what helps?

Well that depends on the transition itself. If we focus on the day-to-day transitions and support those then when we get to having to deal with the larger ones we have a range of personal strategies and a positive relationship between us and the children which enables a co-creational way of working.

If we think of the larger transitions as crossing a bridge then we can think of the transition itself as divided into 3 parts: