Helping your children deal with change – and emerge better for it
We’ve all been there, standing rather self-consciously in a slightly over-sized new school blazer as our parents snap away with their camera for posterity. And as a new school year gets underway, it’s a scene that will have been played out up and down the country. But change, and moving up to a new school, can be a testing and worrying time and many children will have been hiding a feeling of trepidation behind that fixed grin.
Nowadays the transition from nursery to primary school, or the first steps in high school, are often a carefully managed process. School visits, meet the teacher days and dedicated members of staff all help to smooth the way. Some schools even encourage children to read a ‘set text’, often a story about change or why it’s OK to be different. But children are creatures of habit - they enjoy routines and can be very resistant to change. So back at home parents also have a crucial role to play in helping their children to accept and adjust to their new environment.
According to psychologists, while every child is different, there is a classic pattern of adjustment that begins with a feeling of shock and denial, and a refusal to accept that a big change is on the horizon. This may shift to resistance, when parents often move into the firing line and are blamed for the change, before children begin to try and make sense of things in what’s dubbed the exploration phase. This ultimately leads to new feelings of acceptance, and finally adjustment.
Of course, it’s not as clear cut as this, and to ease the transition there’s plenty parents can do, too. As so often in parenting, patience is key – so when they come home from school, give them a bit of space and let them talk to you about their day in their own time. Accept that they may be reticent, grumpy and bad tempered; listen to what they have to say but also ask them if they’ve got any worries, as well as about things they’ve enjoyed or are looking forward to. And it’s important that even if you do have (perfectly natural) worries yourself, you stay positive, so that your children can pick up on this confidence.
Changing secondary schools can be a lot harder than changing primaries. Hormones are starting to course round the body, for one thing, and there’s a lot more pressure to ‘fit in’. Friendship groups will change too, and you can help this transition by letting your children invite new friends round after school. But at a same time ask them about old pals and, without trying to pick their friends for them, explain how it’s perfectly normal that some friendships will last while others come to a natural end.
If finding new friends is an issue, encourage your children to join sports clubs and after-school groups. As well as opening up a whole new world of activities they won’t have come across at primary school, they’re a great way of meeting other children with similar interests.
A fun way to explore what your children are feeling is to draw a plan of their new school with them, showing the key areas where they go such as their classroom, the playground and dining hall. Let them talk you through what goes on where and what has happened that day. Making them more familiar with the layout will help things feel less daunting, too. This can also be good for children moving to secondary school, where the sheer upscaling of things – from their small primary school to a building that might be home to over 1,000 pupils – can be unnerving. Timetables are also often new, so spend some time going over how their week pans out, perhaps picking up on particular new subjects they won’t have studied before.
Then, in a few months, hopefully any feelings of angst will have gone and you’ll be able to look back at those family photos with a wry smile.