Transition isn’t just for post lockdown
In this blogpost CollectivED Fellow and primary headteacher Dr Victoria Carr reflects on transition. This is a sequel to her blogpost on love, legacy, leadership and parenting.
Not all school leaders will have the philosophy that I have, not all schools will be managed in a holistic and emotionally intelligent way, so when I describe my concept of ‘transition’ it sits within a much wider personal and professional philosophy, and is underpinned by love and developmental appreciation.
What I know, from a quarter of a century in education, and 2 decades in leadership, is that there are many aspects of teaching that are generic, thus, the same challenges present themselves no matter the school, country, or phase. In addition to my day job, I am also a mum of two teenagers, aunt to 9 nieces and nephews, and I have supported them all throughout each of their developmental and transition phases from birth to adulthood and into the workforce, in one way or another.
It is my conjecture, then, that transition sits within something much wider, much less concrete and yet vital, and that is the culture and ethos of the school, the understanding of the home adults and how well those two worlds connect.
Much has been written about the way that leaders create a school culture; each leader wishes to learn and hone this skill though training, reading and additional study throughout their leadership journey. I have usually done things intuitively, and learned that there were theories and philosophies studied and underpinning my way or working afterwards as part of continued dedication to post graduate professional study, but I do know the impact of creating a healthy culture and that this is almost tangible when done well. Working in an ethical way, with integrity, understanding and compassion mean that even when I get it wrong, it comes from a ‘good’ place.
We all have an inner child, and as each of us, as adults, go through transitions, getting a new job moving house etc. how do we feel when we know change is coming? What about our inner child hijacks our amygdala and causes us anxiety? What do we do to mitigate for those feelings? Do our tactics always work? When we manage our anxieties well, it is because we employ strategies that we have learned over time, from experience, and often with support.
Children are no different to adults when it comes to change, they just differ in the extremes of their reactions to it because social norms have yet to settle within them, so they are not afraid to show the potential physical manifestations of those feelings.
For children, preparing for transition is about the physical: the room/building/routines/familiar faces/expectations/timings/equipment. These are all things that school staff can help with, whether the transition is from home to the first days in nursery or EYFS, or a Y2 to a Y3 class, or Y6-secondary school, coming back to school after the lock down, moving from first to middle school etc.
It is also about the emotional: have they developed resilience? Have they learned to deal with new situations with a growth mindset? Have they been exposed to appropriate problem solving in a safe environment? Have they been shown how to self-regulate and, do they work with adults who co-regulate with them? What affects their behaviour usually? Are they known by the school as individuals and their triggers understood in collaboration with home adults? Will they be with familiar adults to support them? What are the anxiety levels of their home adults, and is there something that school can do to support this? What are the anxiety levels of school adults and how are the leadership of the school managing this? What are the noises and familiar smells in school and so on.
If children already feel securely attached, and the systems and adult behaviours are such that they have had opportunity to develop resilience, then schools can build effectively onto those secure feelings by doing ‘normal’ transition, involving the physical and the emotional. If not, then schools may need to work twice as hard for twice the length of time in order to make any transition as successful as it can be. How might this look in reality? Well it doesn’t look like testing them academically as they arrive in school after a prolonged period, whether that is a summer holiday, a period of illness, a lockdown or anything else!
Managing change, or transition, is influenced by the core values of a school. My own core values are not about Ofsted, or punitive instruments of accountability, or standardised tests - they are about humans. They are about creating an environment where all stakeholders are supported, heard, valued, and feel confident to succeed. So transition isn’t about testing, or catching up, lost learning, or a failed generation, it is about preparing for and managing a period of change, and fundamental to this is faith in the system and the person managing the change, an understanding of the reasons and urgency of the change being enacted, and appropriate scaffolding as the change takes place.
My values directly influence any and all relationships in school; those interrelationships between staff, staff and children, staff and home adults, children and their home adults, school staff and external agencies. Without effective, healthy and productive relationships it is virtually impossible to communicate with anyone, and prepare pupils and parents for anything, least of all transition of any kind. This is especially important when a child has attachment issues, or has suffered trauma, and this has implications then on staff knowing and understanding the basics of what these are and how they can manifest, and also knowing the children in their care. In order for relationships to be as effective as possible, there must be authentic collaboration between, and investment of, all stakeholders based on consistency and high expectations. Communication and feedback cannot just be one directional and there must be an openness of mind in order to accept modifications to plans if they can be improved. This involves removing ego and allowing teams of people to work on the problem in advance, of having expectations of the end result, not of the process.
Inclusion, which is much wider agenda than simply ‘SEND’, and in essence means that everyone feels their contribution is valued and included into decision making, is key to good planning for implementation of transition. It is closely aligned with many other aspects of the school culture, but for everyone to be as productive as possible they need to be as happy as possible – given both the parameters of the situation, and their role.
In a post lockdown landscape, but in transition in general, precise communication is essential. How do children know what is happening today, next week, next month, in the ‘future’, what is being done to prepare them? How are parents prepared similarly? Do staff always know the rationale behind decision making and for whose benefit decisions are being made? Are the lines of communication one way? Are the lines of communication limited to one medium? Does the school ever ask how this could be improved? What happens for EAL/SEND parents, staff and children?
Establishing robust systems prevents the school operating in a chaotic manner, and allow new staff to be trained quickly and thoroughly in order to maintain organisational integrity and operational viability. This can happen at any point, for any reason. Improvements to the school and its systems are focussed on effective and context based research, not on buzz words, political rhetoric, fear of agencies such as Ofsted, what the school ‘has always done’, or bias. Those systems are what helps everyone work with a scaffold
Support, when it is needed, is it available? If so, who for? Is it stigmatised? Is it only offered formally? What does it look like? How much is mental health and holistic wellbeing factored into the staff training and development year? Who has the strategic foresight to organise this? A constantly evolving organic establishment like a school cannot have only named individuals who can offer support, but if the entrenched culture is that everyone helps everyone else, and that anyone struggling will be coached, nurtured and guided, then everyone becomes a possible source of help – whether you are a child or an adult.
How does any of this affect transition?
All of this feeds the main effort of a school: the learning, teaching, and by extension, the curriculum (both the explicit curriculum, and all of the implied curriculum that takes place through pastoral and SMSC work). The curriculum builds upon and develops the core values of the school, and reflects the context in which it is situated.
School leaders seek the most appropriate curriculum that ensures their children are well catered for in terms of healthy and progressive challenge that builds courage, enables collaboration, provides opportunity for team work and stigma free discussions about worries and concerns, plans ahead for potential points when those anxieties could become extreme and focuses energy on preparing children in innovative ways through being outward facing and unafraid of calculated risk-taking. Without leaders having the ability to build trust and relationships, network and be outward facing, this would be difficult.
Leaders are not simply focused on what the curriculum seeks to achieve so that they can stave off an inspection team with narrative about their ‘intent’. They concern themselves with supporting both children and adults every day, throughout all aspects of the work of the school, systems and policies and working practice, so that whatever the challenges presented by life, the world, the yearly change of room and class, or rites of passage such as moving from school to school, they are mentally and physically prepared and informed.
Our curriculum builds on the concepts of resilience, managing mental health, problem solving, overcoming adversity in a safe environment and we build in collaboration through the Commando Joe programme, our RSE/SMSC curriculum and safeguarding work.
We tackle transition in line with the way we do everything else, hence it is planned, with all stakeholders, children are prepared by trusted staff, in collaboration with parents, they are shown the physical differences and changes, they are visited in known environments by new staff, they are sent cards, videos and messages to prepare them – not just in EYFS, in all years, not just as a result of a lockdown, but just because that is how our systems work for preparing children for any change.
Any transition is about managing the perception in an individual of their security (physical and emotional).
The implications (for anyone wondering about transition) are around a holistic approach to working with children and their families, how to stay mentally healthy as adults when running an organisation where learning is taking place and this is a messy business at the best of times, and always collaborating to ensure joined up thinking with representation in decision making across phases and stakeholder groups.
The implications don’t just stop with planning for transition back to school for children (who may well have thrived at home and do not want to come in, equally, who may be very anxious about tests, viruses, masks etc.), but for newly qualified teachers, students, staff who have been bereaved, shielding or unwell, staff who have worked nonstop for months and are fatigued, families who have been potentially taken to the brink of their patience; all will need support to transition into school –most school leaders are aware of this and are making provision for it, whether implicit or explicit, because they know their staff, children, families and contexts, and if they are new to the role then they too will need support from the teams they work with, and other heads in their networks.
A dog, as they say, is not just for Christmas. ‘Transition’ isn’t just about how to bring children back to school post lockdown. Transition, being prepared now for the next phase, being enabled and ready to tackle the ages and stages of life is exactly what we are here to help pupils do.