By June Solnit Sale, Kit Kollenberg, and Ellen Melinkoff
Childhood and growing up involve many changes. Some of the most challenging come when a child starts child care or Primary School, or moves to a new school or a new classroom.
With all transitions, there is an adjustment period. Some children adjust quickly. Others appear to adjust quickly. Some show signs of stress. All children who are going through a transitional period, who are separating from familiar people or places, need extra attention. Even if that attention is simply standing back and carefully observing to see if there are problems.
Going into an unknown place or situation is a change that is hard for most children. Help your child get to know the new environment beforehand. Talk about it. Tell her what you know about the new place. Maybe a friend is there already. Visit the school together. It will help her immensely to see the place. The more you can explore, the better, but even a drive-by or photo is better than leaving it all to the imagination.
Try to get your child to talk about her fears about the change. But don't put words in her mouth (and new fears in her head). Rather than, "Are you worried that no one will talk to you?" ask, "What are you thinking about the new school?"
Your own experiences from childhood, can be helpful if you choose them carefully. Share how you felt on your first day of Primary School or when your family moved to a new town. Then go on to relate the good things that happened post-transition. (Nothing about eating lunch alone for a month!) Talk about how you made a new best friend or how much everyone liked the new teacher or play garden.
Children's Reaction to Change
Talk about change as the beginning of a new experience. It's not simply the end of something—the end of child care or Year 1. It's about all the fun and challenges of the new class. Remind your child how she has seemed a little bored lately and that the new class will give her all sorts of new opportunities.
When there is a change a child may regress to an earlier stage of development where life feels safe. You may notice clinginess, a need for more reassurance for tasks she's already mastered (toilet training, sleeping through the night, a sense of independence). Throughout this time she will be comforted by the thought that you love her no matter what, and you understand what she's going through.
Transitioning In and Out
Not only is your child transitioning into something new, she is also transitioning out of something. She will be leaving behind familiar faces and familiar rooms. Help her to talk about what she will miss and talk about how people look forward to the new at the same time. Offer ways to keep in contact with friends and teachers. Suggest visiting her former class in a few weeks, just to say hello. By that time she may be nicely settled and not need the visit. But at the time of transition, it may help a great deal. She may like taking photos to remember the people and place by.
And it always helps to have something to look forward to after a day in a new situation. Plan your child's favourite dinner and let her know beforehand that she has macaroni and cheese to look forward to that night after the first big day of her new experience.
Preparing ahead of time helps children accept change as a challenge.