Transition, well-being and the return to school
By Jo FittzGerald
Any transition is a time of change and can be extremely challenging for anyone. For those children moving from primary to secondary school, or indeed experiencing any educational transition, the changes are multi-layered – and there is a real need for effective support and preparation to be put in place, to best promote their well-being throughout the process.
For many of us involved in providing that support, and aware of the complexities around the transition of primary to secondary, we have seen how 2020 has added yet more layers of change for Year 6 (final year of primary school in England) and Year 7 (first year of secondary school in England) children. With traditional end-of-school processes and celebrations being cut short and schools being closed, children have experienced social isolation from peers. Along with this, introductions to their new school environment have been mainly virtual, and life, in general, has become new, uncertain, unknown and potentially worrying. Research suggests that, in best practice, delivery of educational transition activities is sequential – spread over a period of time. Change that is known, expected, prepared and planned for in a structured order – with home and school working together. Instead, due to COVID-19 our young people have been put in a position where change has been simultaneous, uncertain, unplanned for and complex, and also often quite isolating.
For most children in Year 6, lockdown occurred before they had been notified about which secondary school they had been assigned to. Before they knew which classmates were coming along with them, before Year 6 teachers had a chance to get them ready for all the changes coming their way. For some schools, priority was placed on sending school work home, getting work done, trying to slow down any ‘learning slippage’. For other schools, the emphasis was placed on promoting well-being, but managing that remotely and virtually can be extremely difficult. Especially given that this has been a time when many parents have been struggling with their own mental health, facing financial difficulties, job uncertainty, illness, bereavement, trying to juggle working from home and home-schooling. It’s been tough for so many of us.
Anecdotal evidence shows a very mixed reaction to the start of a new school by the new Year 7. One mum that we spoke to at the beginning of Year 6 had been extremely confident that her daughter was more than ready for Year 7. However, after school closures and lockdown, she reported to us this week that the start of school had been, “A total disaster! She has gone from being that sunny, confident, expressive child, to being extremely emotional and withdrawn. It’s difficult to know what’s happened – her new school and teachers aren’t being particularly helpful. From talking to her, it seems as though it’s been a series of things all at once, she felt that the teachers were really strict – with lots of commands about distance and handwashing, which is understandable. But also that she was asked to do an awful lot of work in her first few weeks and she has really struggled to keep up. I had hoped that the school would ease them in gently with the work, but that doesn’t seem to have happened at her school.”
I sit on the board of governors of a local Trauma-Informed School. The students here have all struggled with mainstream education, and most had been excluded. Some are on the autistic spectrum, and the majority have had very troubled childhoods due to various traumas. The school only opened it’s doors in January this year, and started with 14 new pupils, aged between 8 -16, so it was a new transition for each of them. With the school having to close in March, it’s been interesting to see how those 14 children have fared over lockdown and the return to school. The Director of Education, told me, “Most of our pupils enjoyed being at home, getting lots of attention from family, and not having to socialise – something they often find difficult. As none of our students is an independent learner, we didn’t set work for them. Instead, we had a real focus of just keeping relationships going between staff, pupils and parents/carers, and organising lots of fun stuff for them to do. We made it as positive as possible.” Transitioning back to school hasn’t been quite as positive for many, though”, she continued. “Coming back to school has been a real struggle for them all in one way or another. We’ve had new staff joining us, as well as a few new pupils – it was all planned before COVID, but some of the children are finding all those new faces incredibly difficult. A few have found getting back into the school routine quite difficult. They’re just out of step, and we’re seeing some anxiety manifest. Many are masking their feelings at school – then acting out when they get home with family. In the space of a week, one of our pupils has just spiralled into total overwhelm – and we are much more frequently calling on our crisis team of therapists for appropriate support.”
In truth, these pupils are not a true reflection of the majority of transitioning students. It’s clear that the most vulnerable of young people may have been adversely affected from the events of this year, and those undergoing the transition to secondary school have had another layer of vulnerability added to their particular situation.
During the lockdown, it’s been wonderful to watch as schools and staff stepped up to the plate, and created an engaging online community to help support the well-being for the new intake of students and their families. Just before the start of school in September, I asked one school’s Assistant Principal/SENCO and head of Year 7 and transition if she was anticipating any difficulties with her new students. She told me, “So, pre-COVID the transitions we have found difficult were for our SEN children, those with attachment disorder, sometimes those with a social worker – who’ve already had a disrupted life. Also, those that are young carers, or are working with outside agencies, such as CAMHS. However, this year it could be anybody that’s going to find the transition difficult, because their time at primary school was cut very short for the vast majority of them. I know our Year 11s, when they left, experienced feelings of grief. So it’s new beginnings, and our new Year 7 pupils haven’t finished and grown as their Year 6 would normally – that year was quite stunted for them. So I think we’re in for interesting times.”
In my view, during the lockdown, this Assistant Principal and her staff put in sterling measures to bridge the gap for her Year 7 intake. Preparing for transition became virtual, with the Year 7 team having Zoom meetings with the various primary SENCOs, Year 6 teachers and welfare officers, and getting a “rich pen portrait” of each of her new pupils. Other initiatives were ‘meet the teacher/year head/principal’ online sessions for parents and children, and online virtual tours of the school – hosted by students of her school – who also answered any questions from the new students. Once directives allowed, small ‘bubbles’ of the more vulnerable Year 6 students and their parents/carers came to visit the school, so they knew where they would be going and had the opportunity to meet staff face-to-face.
This week I asked her how her Year 7 were doing, her reply was, “I’m so proud of the way our little ones have settled into secondary school. They have the best behaviour and achievement tally.”
The examples shown suggest that active support can make a real difference to transition. But support needs to be comprehensive. In the case of the trauma-informed school, the focus was firmly on preserving and supporting the children’s mental health and well-being. In the case of the school mentioned above, the focus was on preparing for the practical aspects of transition – removing the fear of the unknown. Perhaps COVID has uncovered the somewhat hidden issue of transition and created opportunities to positively address it?
Research undertaken in China at the start of the pandemic showed that anxiety and depression levels had risen and that adolescent children were particularly vulnerable. It’s very early days to get a full picture of how the new Year 7 intake has settled in, and how this extremely different transition process might have affected their well-being and mental health, going forward over the coming months and years. Signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties can often take some considerable time to manifest. It is down to parents, teachers and those working with our transitioning young people, to make ourselves informed, aware, and skilled-up to best support these students over the next few terms.
Jo FitzGerald is an ex deputy-head teacher and now an instructor for MHFA England. She is also director of primary2secondary, along with the Disney UK Parenting expert Sue Atkins. Together they have produced a ‘Transition Success Programme’ for children and families, to prepare them for the move from primary to secondary school.
Image copyright: Jo FitzGerald