This is the time of year when supporting students, schools and parents to plan for an education transition is the issue that fills my diary. The aim of this work is to raise awareness of the importance of a good goodbye, preparing for a new hello in a new space and to help young people understand how to thrive in a transition. 

Over the last few months Coronavirus has brought new challenges and disrupted best laid plans. There has been a pause in the normal way we have gone about our work, daily routines and how we connect with people. Many of us are now using technology to continue our relationships. 

In my current work with young people in transition there was initially a sense of anger and anxiety. This has largely been replaced by despair and sadness as the trajectory of study, exams and joint celebrations are no longer going to happen in the way they expected.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 some countries schools and universities will return in September and others have planned a gradual return this term. In the UK, the situation is less clear. Whenever schools begin again, it is vital that intentional planning for these transitions meet the needs of each student. 

In this article the importance of transition work is presented and two models introduced to form the basis of school transition work. Finally, strategies are offered to support individuals, schools and parents using these frameworks. 

Why supporting transition is important

There is a wealth of knowledge about the stresses of transition. 

In one of the largest meta-analysis in education, Hattie (2008) found that mobility has a significant negative impact on learning. 

In the UK there is clear evidence of social and emotional dips in young people in the primary to secondary transfer (DoE, 2012).

Statistics reveal that the move from secondary school to University has its challenges with about 8% of undergraduates dropping out in their first year (HESA, March 2019). 

As educators acknowledge the need for a culture of connectedness and belonging in school to support academic and emotional learning, students also need positive strategies to negotiate change. (Ota 2014) 

Prior to a move overseas, people benefit from learning about the country and culture of their destination alongside specific training adapted to individual needs (Caligiuri, 2006). 

Managing change in a challenging time

From my own experience with my family who 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. Creating new rituals in a new place gives rhythm and builds a sense of belonging. In this world of lockdown using knowledge and skills from previous transitions has helped our family find some comfort in these uncertain times. On a Monday we have Mexican food, a family favourite. Board games are played on a Friday night. 

The research and writing around Third Culture Kids (TCK) experiences has a great deal to offer in any transition, not just for those moving abroad. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken is ground breaking work which investigates transitions and offers models of thinking and structures to negotiate change. 

The Transition Cycle and RAFT 

During transition work, two frameworks from Pollock and Van Reken and are particularly useful in the school context. The Transition Cycle details the expected processes in a transition and the RAFT provides an active structure to say goodbye and hello. Both models are easy to share with students, teachers and families and can be adapted for students of different ages. 

The next section will focus on these two frameworks, followed by how these could be used at the individual level, by schools and then by parents. 

The Transition Cycle illustrates a staged process of transition. 

Leaving: The change process begins long before the move, acknowledging being settled and comfortable where you are now. Loss of this settled life explains why we feel out of sorts when transition is approaching. Strong thoughts and feelings of the past and worries of the future are common at this time. It is not just this move that makes an impact on how transition is managed. Knowing this can help someone monitor where they are now and explain why they feel the way they do. It can provide a way to work through difficult times and be able to tolerate uncertainty. Learning about the range of emotions people usually can feel is important. While individuals become aware of their feelings, they can also be aware that friends and family members could be feeling differently. This knowledge builds perspective taking. 

These emotions include: 

  • Conflicting emotions which are often confusing and difficult to process e.g. excited and nervous/ happy and sad/ certain and wary. 
  • Denial – “I’m not leaving.” 
  • Itchy feet – “I can’t wait to leave.” 
  • Loosening emotional ties by pushing people away, creating distance or arguing. 
  • Feeling the loss of status and identity e.g. no longer having a school role or be part of a team 
  • Grief – sadness that comes with many endings and can trigger past losses. 

Transition: The transition stage is a time of in-between, neither here nor there. It’s a time when support systems are less available and when worries and emotions can run high. 

Entering: The Entering stage brings its own challenges of being new. People can be stressed about the time and energy it takes to build new daily routines and make decisions about how to do basic things. 

Building specific strategies addresses individual stresses to return to a settled space of involvement and achievement. For some students the time between the stages can vary enormously. Some are keenly aware of the time they have in school while others feel the ending on their last day. In the current situation, there is increased uncertainty about when schools might return and when people might be able to plan different endings and beginnings. 

Some people adapt to change well and this framework can serve as a way to name and make sense of the processes they are experiencing. The framework can be returned to at other times to acknowledge difficulties and make plans when there are unexpected transitions. 

The RAFT model places focus on the past, present and the future in order to make a good goodbye and help anticipate future needs. It helps build skills to transition from an old settled to a new settled. 

Reconciliation is the first stage in RAFT and is about repairing relationships to leave in the best way possible. At this time, it is good to face any difficulties and learn to resolve and repair. Learning to forgive is associated with improved well-being and physical health with the opposite results for failing to forgive (Norman 2017). Repairing can take place individually and between people. 

Affirmation is about acknowledging and showing people you have valued their friendship and support; they have mattered to you. Layous and Lyubomirsky (2014) report on how teaching gratitude to children has a positive impact on well-being, relationships and physical health. In a school where RAFT is part of their learning, the leavers consistently report they appreciate the warm and welcome smile of the office staff when entering school every morning. 

Farewell might be the hardest part of RAFT as we come face-to-face acknowledging loss and an end. Farewells can be individual, for groups or the year group. I know of schools who all celebrate the departure of students at the top of the school. This rite of passage is for everyone and often involves parents celebrating their own journey through school. 

It’s painful when we don’t get a proper chance to say goodbye. 

At this time when planned events are happening in different ways or not at all, providing some opportunity to make sure the end is celebrated really matters, perhaps saying goodbye to place and possessions as well as people. Is there a favourite spot in school, a tree, a place where something important happened, the school uniform, a trophy won? Different aspects can be included to make a complete ending. 

Think destination is the final task and focuses our attention on the future opportunities and challenges that lay ahead. How can we plan for this different time? What skills will be important? What are the things I need to organise and pack? Who are the new people I will need to get to know? 

Planning for change: some key points for individuals, school and parents 

Supporting yourself in transition

Acknowledge that change can be tricky. 

Be patient with yourself. Resettling takes time. 

Different people experience change in different ways. You will find your way from understanding transition and yourself in it. 

When we are all going through change together, big emotions can be contagious. 

When have you been through a transition before? (think losses and gains – new siblings, death of pet, starting secondary school) 

What do you remember about yourself and others? 

How did you feel and react to that change? 

What did you do to cope? 

Where are you now in the cycle? 

What is going to be the toughest part? 

How will you know when you are settled again? 

Think about how this is linked to feeling connected with others, feeling you have a sense of purpose, feeling you are making good progress, feeling that it is safe to learn, feeling you belong to the new community. 

How else might your settled look like for you? 

Questions posed by RAFT 

Reconciliation/repair – Is there someone I need to resolve any issue with before leaving? What is the best way to do that? Do I need some help with this process? Are there things in myself that I need to think and alter to be successful in my new learning space? 

Affirmation– Who and what am I grateful for? What was the most important thing I learnt? What was my best day? What special memories do I hold dear? Who has been my biggest support? What friends have been there for me? How have my family helped? 

Farewell – Who is it important to say goodbye to? How am I going to do this – letter/card/face to face? What and who am I going to miss? Are there places I want to visit for the last time? How can I join with others in a farewell? 

Think destination –What am I looking forward to? What new opportunities are there going to be? What are my strengths and how can I use them in the transition? How long might it be before I feel settled again? How am I going to look after myself during the transition? What are the things that might challenge me and what plans can I make to help myself? Who are going to be important people to know in my new school? If I need help, who can I ask? 

The role of school in transition 

Schools are often better at welcoming students with buddy supports, visits and meeting teachers. 

Frameworks like those above build skills to manage all transition processes and develop ‘cultural agility’. Changing schools is like moving to a new culture. In investigating the particular move from secondary school to University, Thompson and Vailes (2019) stress the importance of a wide range of skills that are needed to flourish. These include tolerating ambiguity, making sense of the world around us, being adaptable in new situations, relationship building and being creative. These skills are viewed as a process and practice rather than an achievement. They can be also be taught from the early years, continuing throughout school. 

International schools usually have a transition team responsible for supporting students in expected and unexpected times of transition. These teams not only support the leavers, but also the “stayers” who also experience change and loss. Change is experienced by everyone. 

As well as having information about transition it is important for young people have time to think and talk through what this change means for them and how they can manage and thrive in such times. With expected transition these processes make a difference and in unexpected times, they are even more important. 

A staged return for students might beg the question, “Who/ which years groups would benefit from being back in school?” Where are the pressure points in terms of academic, social and emotional needs? Transition planning is more than the physical plans of who will go where and when. It is important to take care of the emotional needs. 

It is understandable with the uncertainty about schools being open again that teachers might want to organise and prepare for farewells. However, students, especially at the upper stages of school, need to be given roles to lead in preparation for this unique ending. It’s likely that there won’t be trips, parties and graduations so they need to have the chance to make this time special and memorable in their way. They can make decisions and have their say in what happens. In an international school in Japan, a year group of students are creating a farewell music piece to mark their unique ending of school. They are being given the opportunity to make their own goodbye. 

Another example of transition planning is from a primary school with two separate buildings for different year groups. The transition is acknowledged by RAFT discussions and individual posters of RAFTs created at the end of the school year. Their RAFT posters are then displayed on the walls of their new class on the first day back to school. 

Questions for schools 

Which staff have responsibility for intentional transition planning in school? 

How are you going to deal with the various beginnings and endings that are new this year? 

How will you enable students to have a voice and positions of leadership to make their good goodbye? 

Who are the vulnerable young people that might find these times especially difficult and what support will be available? 

For the “stayers”, the students left behind, how will their new world be enhanced? 

How are you building skills to support cultural agility throughout the school years to enable moves between different learning cultures? 

The role of parents in transition 

Your child’s transition out of school is often your transition too. Changes can affect the whole family with new routines, new roles and young people leaving. 

Think about where you might be in the transition cycle as endings can be tricky. You may well remember how you were feeling and what you did. However, this will likely not be how your child is experiencing their transition. When talking with Sixth Form students in preparation for the move to university, there was agreement that parents often relate the “best years of your life” statement which tends to negate any worries the students may have. It is important to acknowledge and understand that your child’s feelings and experiences are separate from your own. This “parental mentalisation’ can help parents take a step back and support in an effective way. (Fonagy and Allison 2012) As school staff are encouraged to notice and stay with difficult emotions associated with leaving, parents also need to acknowledge and listen to worries and 

concerns. Being “present” shows your child that they are seen, safe and secure. (Siegel 2020). Not jumping in to fix things is important. Asking, “Have you any worries about..?” sends the message that worries are ok, they can be voiced and solutions worked through. 

When Thinking Destination, have the conversation about what helped in previous transitions and the strategies and strengths that moved them to a new settled place. Think together what wider skills they might need in the new setting and how these can be developed. Imagine them being successful in this new place. 

Questions for parents 

As a parent, are you aware of the differences between your transitions and those of your child? 

How able are you to tolerate your child’s big emotions like anxiety and grief and be able to sit alongside them when things are difficult? 

How do you help them problem solve and arrive at their own solution? 

What worked in past transitions? 

How can you help build skills needed long before the transition itself? – those discussed as elements of cultural agility? E.g. Relationship building, tolerating uncertainty, perspective taking. 

How do you celebrate together? 

Let’s return to the image at the beginning of the article. It was taken on a journey to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and signposts transition work. 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. 

 April 2020 

Elizabeth Gillies is an Educational Psychologist based in London. 

Download a pdf copy of this article here: All change at school


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