Childhood Changes: A Way of Thinking

We suggest practical ways to help ease children through the transitions in their lives.

Cerebra is among the organisations providing information that helps to ease children through the transitions in their lives – to different kinds of education, lifestyle, levels and types of independence, and services that come and go at different ages.  We describe the processes involved, contacts, legal aspects and so on.

There is another aspect to this, though; what about the things that go through a child’s mind in the run-up to and during a transition, and how long does it take them to settle out of one situation and into another, especially with the element of a neurological disorder to contend with?  Some children with these disorders experience particular difficulties with any kind of change which ideally needs careful handling, as parents and carers soon learn.

What can be done?  Here are a few ideas, not by any means exhaustive.

New environments, expectations, life states and routines are some of the things that involve adjustments of thinking.  So do expected changes that are delayed or do not happen after all.  This might be hidden, because it is not easy to know all of what a child is thinking and feeling.  Parents might also go through progressive thoughts and feelings as they begin to envisage the future themselves.

Preparing for changes

Change is partly about acquiring new habits. Could any of these, or elements of them be acquired in advance, and could the processes of acquiring them, and of dreaming and imagining the next phase, be made enjoyable?  Are there aspects to look forward to, and role models who have succeeded in making such a change? Prior experience, skills and understanding could help when the new situation arrives.

A major London-based research project about the transition from primary to secondary school lists factors that children thought would help other children, also factors that parents thought primary and secondary schools could do (Evangelou M., 2008).  There were a number of factors but the top ones were:  to be confident, not worry/be scared; to make more visits to the new school, go to induction/taster days etc; to be prepared/organized, and have right equipment; and to make and keep friends (children).  Also, that primary schools could prepare better for school work at Y7 and increase homework; and that secondary schools could arrange more induction, open or taster days and other visits (parents).

Another study conducted by the Foundation for Learning Disabilities resulted in three sets of tips to reduce the stresses specifically on children with special needs, with ideas that could help them feel confident and get a good start; one for children, one for parents and one for teachers, which can be downloaded from:

The charity Young Minds publishes advice for schools to give support in situations of change, listing 27 common types of transition that children and young people go through.  Encouraging children to support other children is one of their suggestions as well. (Young Minds, 2014).

The website Mumsnet contains tips gleaned from parents, about preparing infants in general to start school for the first time (Mumsnet, 2014).  These include sharing the process with the child, addressing any concerns; familiarising them with places, activities and people; thinking about things they will be able to carry on with and new things they might enjoy; and reminding them of changes they have successfully made in the past.  Then, over the first few weeks, to be prepared for them to take time to adjust; to keep in with familiar routines and reassurances at home; for parents to get involved with the child’s new environment as well.

Other people can be good sources of ideas about assisting children in these areas, if asked, but if not asked they may only talk about the practical and strategic aspects of a change, such as going to see a new school beforehand, or equipment a child might need.  Nursery staff and teachers, particularly, draw on a lot of professional theory about how to prepare and equip children for changes in the educational context, and many nurseries and schools do prepare for changes /transitions.  Nurses and counsellors are among those who study how to help children through aspects of change that might be difficult for them.  Another advantage of questioning involved professionals on this could be that parents and professionals complement each other in their efforts.

One transition that our helpline is coming across, because some children are finding it difficult, is the move from nursery to primary school.  The referenced article from At Home Magazine (23 August 2011), gives some ideas on this, also on moving “between rooms” in a nursery.  Moving to nursery or a pre-school (and sometimes other changes as well) are also situations where it is valuable to understand the issue of separation from parents from a child’s point of view.  This is another subject that has a considerable literature connected with it, but one place to start would be an article by Dr Peter Cook about attachment and separation (Cook P., 1996-2014).

Building resilience

There are times when it is unavoidable for a child to have to transition quickly.  Of course, a sense of trust, comfort and security, with some continuity of the familiar should help.  For children who can manage it, also building skills and resilience in advance could come into its own.  What new skills, or currently underdeveloped skills, will they need?  What about parts of the new routine could they start to get used to or understand in advance?  Study skills and independence skills are among those that are useful in most situations.  Good interaction is often a key to adapting in new situations, and is something that many children with special needs have to work on.  If the child has a speech and language therapist, or another professional who helps children to interact, they may have suggestions.

There is much more material available now on study skills than there used to be.  They include:  how to take and finish breaks, self-care, eating, exercise and rest as well as ways of learning, memorising etc.

Independence skills and the nurturing of self-motivation are also among the resilience-builders that are taught to professional educators, but they are helpful at home as well.  Learning to set reasonable goals, moving towards them step-by-step, and receiving encouragement are  key factors.  It does not matter if progress is slow.  Children might need help to express and reset goals if there is any residue from negative experiences, for example, having been expelled from a school and preparing to go to another one.

Training materials for educators of young children include techniques for teaching them to be self-reliant in a group setting.  The “3-before-me” rule is one of the techniques, so an internet search for “3-before-me” will help to home in on these materials.  Some specialised methods, such as Montessori, pay particular attention to this subject.

The references below include resources on these subjects.

For situations that need more ideas

It is well-known that children with autistic features and severe learning disabilities have particular difficulties with change. Ideas from that field could help some other children also.   The National Autistic Society makes many suggestions, such as:  having a familiar environment with routine and structure; preparing early for the change; letting others know who are involved about the anxieties and difficulties; use visuals, social stories, comic strip conversations etc. to explain to the child; visit new places several times; make a book of photos and information; let them express themselves and work out what to do if they become anxious; keep helping after the change takes place; and other practical suggestions (National Autistic Society, 2013).

To feel comfortable with a change, a person needs to be able to believe in it.  This requires translation of information into meaning and purpose, easier for some than others.  If, for example, the child believes that the change is really to benefit someone else and not them, they may not feel like cooperating with it.  The “psychological contract” is a concept used to work with processes like this in the business world, where two parties mutually accept and expect responsibilities and promises (more details:  Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 2014).

The fairly recent concept of “nudge theory” comes from the socio-political world.  This is a way of indirectly encouraging an attitude, decision or behaviour by gently persuading, such that the subject possibly part-knows that they are being persuaded but finds that easier to accept.  It might assist parents and others to ease transitions for children, as well as providing an understanding about how we and they are ourselves being “nudged” by various societal forces and advertising.  Many of its concepts are just a codification of things that parents would naturally do, but it could provide tools for those who see that their children need ways of making a transition easier.   An example of a “nudge” might be, instead of giving an instruction to a child to tidy up, playing a tidying game that the child takes part in (Chapman A., 2013-14).  Among the long list of nudging concepts that could be applied to situations of change is that of “loss aversion”, referring to things a child does not want to lose about a current situation, e.g. they may not want to go to another school because some of their friends will be going to a different one.  Possible approaches to “loss aversion” include focusing on what they will gain from the new situation, and clarifying the realities of the change rather than the perhaps exaggerated worries associated with it.  Another concept is “priming”, which would mean helping the child to visualise positive actions and outcomes, including any steps they can themselves take towards the change.  One note of caution about “nudging”, though, is that it could easily trespass across a line into unethical manipulation.  The article referenced (Chapman A., 2013-14) contains a lot more detail.