Helping kids handle a change in school

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The new class teacher looked fierce, she rarely smiled and often spoke with an unfriendly tone. The girl sitting in front of Jessie constantly turned back to check Jessie’s progress in the Mathematics exercises – which made Jessie extremely uncomfortable. Jessie knew no one in that classroom. She felt lonely and scared. She wanted to go back to her old class and school.

This is a common scenario our children encounter when going to a new school.

What is transition?

Transition is the process of changing from one state to another. All of us have experienced transitions in life, be it minor or major ones. For example, going to a new school, attending a different level of education, moving house, entering the workforce, changing jobs, forming a new relationship, getting married, having a baby, or going through a divorce.

A transition involves uncertainties, often complicated emotions including excitement, fear, worry and anxiety. Hence, it can be quite stressful. We all respond to transition differently – some adapt fast and smoothly while others struggle to cope. And it doesn’t affect only a certain age group; it affects all of us. Being prepared physically and mentally for expected transitions will help reduce unnecessary stress.

Preparing kids for primary school

Moving on to primary school from kindergarten is a big step for children. They are expected to demonstrate a higher level of independence and learning skills. This transition does not involve only changes in learning, but also routines, and social and emotional aspects.

It is important to prepare children for what is to come, to ease the anxiety and worries of parents and children. Adapting poorly to a transition may result in behavioural and emotional challenges, for example unstable emotions, refusing to go to school, difficulty sleeping, and challenging behaviours.

What can parents do to help children cope with the transition from kindergarten to primary school?

* Understand kids’ feelings about the changes

Talk to them about their feelings about leaving the old school. You will be surprised that some kids will open up and express how much they don’t want to leave their teachers and friends, but at the same time they are excited about the new adventure. Guide them to manage these feelings and help them move on. For example, discuss what they can do if they miss their teachers and friends. Perhaps you can save their contacts or connect on social media so that the children can stay in touch with them.

* Mentally prepare for the new school

Primary school is a completely different environment from kindergarten – there are more children in one classroom; each student has a dedicated seat; the teaching and learning methodology is different, children have to buy food from the canteen; there will be homework to complete; and longer school hours. These are the aspects that should be addressed so that children are mentally prepared and do not become overwhelmed with what is to come.

* Offer support

Tell children they can come to you when they need help or if they want to talk. Although primary school children are expected to have a higher level of independence, they may show dependency during the period of transition, especially when they are unsure about certain things and need guidance or assurance from adults. It takes a while for children to fully adapt to a new environment; patience and consistency are utmost important.

Jessie, the girl at the start of this article, started showing challenging behaviours – constantly complaining about physical pain (stomachache, headache), having difficulty waking up in the morning, and refusing to get out of the car. Where are these challenging behaviours coming from? Find out in the next article.

Sping Lim is a practising health psychologist based in Malaysia. Throughout her years of practice, she has come to the realisation that most social and emotional problems can be prevented if individuals are provided with the appropriate guidelines from young. Check out her work at Lilo and Friends (www.liloandfriends.com).