All change at school – a signpost to a good transition

Educational Psychologist Elizabeth Gillies considers models to help children deal with unexpected forks in the road.

Coronavirus has brought new challenges and disrupted the pattern of life. In education we are used to changes every year, but this abrupt transition took the classroom into home, with students learning remotely and parents adopting teaching roles. We are currently in limbo, knowing that school will restart in some way at some time. As teachers are thinking about how to manage the return to school, it makes me think about the importance of embedding transition skills as a social, emotional and psychological process into the curriculum. 

We know that transitions are stressful at the best of times. In the UK there is clear evidence of social and emotional dips in young people in the primary to secondary transfer(1). Statistics reveal that the move from secondary school to University has its challenges with approximately 8 per cent of undergraduates dropping out in their first year(2). In one of the largest meta-analysis in education, mobility was found to have a significant negative impact on learning(3)

School activities around transition times are often focused on the physical changes e.g. visiting the new school, meeting teachers, information for parents. However, as educators acknowledge the need for a community of connectedness and belonging to support all learning, students also need positive strategies to negotiate change when these bonds are fractured.  At this time of sudden change and uncertainty we are becoming even more aware of the emotional needs in our young people.

Initially a sense of anxiety was observed. Now this has largely been replaced by despair and sadness as the trajectory of anticipated events are no longer going to happen in the way they expected. A friend celebrated their son’s graduation via Zoom hundreds of miles away and was keenly aware of the losses of the usual rites and routines: there were no hugs, no photographs and no celebratory dinner. She quoted Viktor Frankl: ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’ 

In order to make good transitions, our students need to learn about the wider psychological processes of change. What better place to learn than in school?

Growing up, my family moved overseas to the USA, Japan and Australia and lived in the expat world of people arriving and leaving. Intentionally managing change in a changing world was vital. We were lucky to have support that was tailored to our needs, whether about earthquake preparedness in Tokyo or how to perform a hook turn in when driving in Melbourne to avoid trams. We learnt about how our emotional world would change with the different phases of our transition as we adapted to our new environment. We were aware that there would be ups and downs, challenges to our ways of doing things and celebrations of small triumphs. From a cross-cultural perspective, learning about future place as well as support to address individual needs are both important in transitions(4).

I continued to learn about transition from daily experience and from my work in international schools with Third Culture Kids. Every time we made a move, we held a transition blueprint that worked for us. Even years later in this world of lockdown, using knowledge and skills from previous transitions has helped our family find some comfort in these uncertain times. 

So, what do we need to teach and talk about to create good transitions?

Change is a process 

It is important to know that expected and unexpected transitions are part of our typical lifespan, e.g. the birth of a sibling, the death of a grandparent or moving to secondary school. Change is a constant and we continue to develop strategies to manage or even thrive.

Whether we call upon the Transition Cycle of Van Reken and Pollock(5) or the U-shape curve from the 1950’s(6) we learn that there are phases of any transition. We start from certainty about yourself and place, moving through being new in a strange and different environment and finally returning to a sense of mastery and involvement. This knowledge can help monitor your place in the process of transition and make plans for anticipated times of stress. The ‘dip’ of the U-shape curve is useful to indicate fluctuating feelings after the initial high of a new beginning, often observed in the transition to university. 

Even when people adapt well, change frameworks can serve as a way to name and make sense of the processes they are experiencing and continue to learn the skills of adaptation.

After a time of great uncertainty and change, our family reviewed how we all managed to cope through an earthquake and its aftermath. The reflection led to discussion of feelings, actions taken and new learning about managing ourselves and as a family.

What transitions have I been through before?

What will be the hardest phase of this transition?

What did I learn?

Change involves learning about yourself

Exploring past transitions alongside the strategies that helped can build a toolkit for current and future use. Learning about character strengths (7) and mindset (8) can widen understanding of internal resources to use in challenging times. 

Changing schools has been compared to moving to a new country which requires wide ‘cultural agility’ skills including tolerating ambiguity, making sense of the world around us, being adaptable in new situations and relationship building(9). These skills are a process and practice rather than an achievement. Transition points can be used as a focus for developing a sense of self beyond academic success and can start in the early years continuing throughout school.

What do I like about change? What is difficult?

How can I use my strengths in this transition?

What skills to I need to develop further? 

Change involves big emotions that need sensitive support

Labelling the range of emotions observed in transition normalises common responses. People experiencing the same transition can feel very differently. Emotions can be contagious and increase the intensity of feelings for other people.

As change approaches common emotions include

  • Conflicting feelings – excited and nervous/ happy and sad/ certain and wary.
  • Denial – “I’m not leaving.”
  • Itchy feet – “I can’t wait to leave.” 
  • Feeling the loss of status and identity “I am no longer in the netball team.”
  • Grief – sadness that comes with many endings and can trigger past losses.

It is important that these feelings are understood as part of the transition process. This requires adults to be present, to tolerate big emotions, be able to acknowledge and validate this response and not try to fix the situation. Being ‘present’ shows children that they are seen, safe and secure and soothed. (10)

What big emotions do I notice in myself in transition? 

Can I tolerate big emotions in others without trying to jump in and fix the situation by giving advice or telling someone what to do?

Change involves saying goodbye and hello

The RAFT model from Pollock and Van Reken (5) is a comprehensive strategy that encourages skills and processes that ensure a good goodbye and help anticipate future needs to say a good hello. Three of the four components of RAFT are concerned with dealing with loss. Our current endings in school don’t easily address this issue.

Reconciliation, either individually or between people, can help to resolve any difficulties at the time when it is meaningful. Being able to show Affirmation values others who have helped you. Farewells acknowledge the end and act as a rite of passage to bring closure. Consider goodbye to place and possessions as well as people. Think destination focuses our attention on the future opportunities and challenges that lay ahead. 

Do I need to repair any relationship before I move on?

Are there things in myself that I need to think and alter to be successful in my new place? 

Who and what am I grateful for?

What and who am I going to miss?

How am I going to look after myself during the transition?

Change involves many people, not just the person making the transition

When the expected and unexpected transition of people happens in school – with individuals, year groups, or teachers – the feelings of change and instability fill the air. Roles, routines and relationships can all be affected in school and in families.

Change can lead to others feeling unsettled and questioning ‘Should I be moving on too?’ It can lead to thoughts of previous transitions and losses. 

For adults it is important to are separate your own thoughts and feelings of transition to imagine what the transition means for the young person (11).

The role for schools

The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ includes two radicals, one representing danger and the other opportunity. Schools are in a prime place and position to use the time when students return to school to teach and talk of change, of loss and learning about what this transition has meant for them, of saying hello again and working to be resettled. Parents can also benefit from this approach. 

If some students are not returning to school, providing the opportunity to ensure a proper goodbye is vital. Allowing students to make decisions and have a voice in this process will help create their unique ending. 

Moving forward, we must all understand the impact of sudden abrupt changes. Embedding wider transition education into the curriculum can bring the knowledge and skills of cultural agility. Intentional planning by transition teams in international schools take notice and plan for beginnings and endings (12). We know that it’s painful when we are new in strange place and if we don’t get a chance to say goodbye. 

To close, I want to return to the photograph at the start of the article. It was taken on a journey to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, and it clearly signposts transition education. Junctions demand attention and intention. If you can hold in your mind that a transition is approaching, or even find that one has arrived unexpectedly, make physical and emotional plans in preparation for the road ahead. It will be useful in this journey and the ones yet to come.

- Elizabeth Gillies CPsychol AFBPsS is an Educational Psychologist 


  1. Department for Education Research Report. DFE. The impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes. 2012.
  2. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) March 2109.
  3. Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning. Abingdon.  Oxon: Routledge.
  4. Caligiri, P. (2006) Developing global leaders. Human Resource Management Review. 16 (2006) 219-228
  5. Pollock,D & Van Reken, R. (2009 ) Third Culture Kids: the Experience of Growing UP Among Worlds. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. 2nd Edition
  6. Lysgaard S. (1955). Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fullbright grantees visiting the United States. International Social Science Bulletin, 7, 45–51.
  7. Niemiec, RM. (2014) Mindulness and Character Strengths.  A practical Guide to Flourishing. Hogrefe
  8. Dweck, CS. (2012) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. Robinson
  9. Thompson, D & Vailes, F. (2020) How to Grow a Grown UP: Prepare your teen for the real world. Vermillion.
  10. Siegel, D. & Bryson, T (2020) The Power of Showing Up: how parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired. Scribe UK.
  11. Fonagy, P. & Allison E. (2012) What is mentalization? The concept and its foundation in developmental research. In Midgley, N. & Vrouva, I, (eds) Minding the Child: Mentalization-based interventions with children, young people and their families. (11-34 Routledge. Hove UK
  12. Ota, D. Safe Passage. (2014) How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it. Summertime Publishing.

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