New year, new teacher, new school: How to help your child cope with these inevitable changes

Cluey educators Rick Molineux and Lucy Macken share their insights and advice

how to help your child cope with new school year
Cluey Learning Monday, 1 February 2021

2020 has made us all acutely aware that change can pose incredible challenges in our lives. None of us could have predicted how the year turned out or the profound impact change at this level would affect our lives. For students though, and in more ordinary times, there are some changes we can predict. Moving from infants to primary school, beginning a new year, with new teachers, beginning high school or moving schools.

Lucy Macken: And the way we approach these predictable changes can help build the confidence and skills that young people need to manage a whole range of other challenges they may face as they grow and progress through school, and beyond.

Rick Molineux: There’s not one right answer to this question of “how you can help your child cope with the inevitable changes they will face as they progress through their schooling”. So our aim here is to open up a conversation that might offer insight parents can apply in their own unique situations to help children cope with the changes they face. Lucy, I’d love to find out more about what you know about this topic, given your unique set of skills and experience. The first thing I’m curious about is, what do you think is the best way parents can approach these changes students face?

LM: That’s a great question. And while there is no one right answer, I do think that there are overall approaches that parents can take to help their children navigate change.

Perhaps the most valuable, but also challenging approach for parents, is modelling the behaviour we want to see in our children. When a child is starting a new school, or moving classes, it is naturally often anxiety inducing not only for the child, but for their parents too. The way parents deal with how they’re feeling themselves, has an important flow-on effect to their children. Kids really pick up on their parent’s mindset, so being a good role model is one of the key ways we can help children manage change. If a child sees their parents saying, “this is really challenging, but I’m confident I can get through it”, then they are more likely to think this way themselves. The more accepting we are of change, the more accepting children are too.

RM: What other things might parents model?

LM: Something else that comes to mind that can have a really positive impact on the way that children deal with change is saying it how it is, and normalising whatever we or our child may be feeling. Encouraging your child to talk about how they’re feeling and then reflecting back what you’ve heard, something like, “I hear that you’re feeling nervous, that’s understandable”, is one way to do this. There’s a saying that goes “what you resist, persists”, rather than seeing negative emotions as something that need to be avoided or stopped, treating them with openness, kindness, and acceptance is more likely to help make them manageable (and even pass more quickly).

It can sometimes be tempting to avoid topics that we know are worrying our children out of concern that talking about it might amplify their feelings. But, if those feelings are there, avoiding the topic means that we lose the opportunity to discuss management strategies or correct any misunderstandings that might be adding to the worry. A better approach is to talk about it honestly, early, and often. If the change is inevitable, then they’re going to have to go through it anyway, so the more preparation and opportunity they have had to discuss how the change can be managed, the better.

And it’s worth noting, even changes children view as positive, can cause feelings of stress for them. Reminding them that this is normal and discussing situations where you might have felt the same way they are, can really help them maintain their positive expectations about the change.

You can say to your child “I remember a time when I felt like this… ‘give some detail’ something that worked for me was… ‘add some more detail; and then ask them’ what do you think might work for you?”

Another important thing we can model to our children, is resisting the temptation to compare. Social media has really amped up the extent to which we are constantly bombarded with curated information about other people’s children. In such an environment it’s hardly surprising that we are tempted to anxiously examine whether our own children (and indeed ourselves) “measure up”. But deep down, we really know that this isn’t productive. Every child is different. What one child needs to navigate change is going be different to another. By resisting the temptation to compare, we open up the space to truly respond to the specific needs of our child. Responding to the individual needs of the student, rather than expecting them to fit into a predetermined idea of what is “normal”, is one of the key philosophies that drives what we do at Cluey Learning.

RM: How else might parents help their child cope with the inevitable changes they are likely to face as they progress through their schooling?

It sounds simple but making sure your child is prepared in practical ways will also help them cope better with change. This might include buying and labelling school uniforms if your child is moving schools or restocking stationary items for the beginning of a new school year. Getting your child involved in this this sort of practical preparation can also help promote conversation in children that might be hesitant to discuss how they feel about the changes they are facing.

Another simple way to help children cope with change is by keeping the rest of their routine as predictable as possible. Keeping other things in their life stable (and this can be as simple as knowing when you’ll be home, or what time dinner is), gives them a greater sense of control from which to manage the change they are going through.

Finally, reframing the challenge of change as an opportunity can really help your child orient to the positive possibilities in a situation. It is human nature to focus more intently on what could wrong in a situation, rather than what could go right; so, a really active effort is needed to focus on the positive opportunities.

RM: Picking up on your last idea “reframing the challenge as an opportunity” – what sorts of opportunities do these changes offer? And how can we make the most of them?

LM: In many ways, the possibilities are endless. Once you start thinking about change in this way, countless opportunities can be found. But there are a few that I think are particularly worth noting. The first one is the is the opportunity to build the skill of adaptability. It’s cliched to say, ‘change is part of being human’, but children know this better than anyone. Every school day presents them with change, novelty, and uncertainty; from new topics, to interactions with different students and teachers. Helping your child build the skills to respond effectively to change, sets them up to thrive every day, not only emotionally, but academically as well.

To go a bit more deeply into this…Adaptability is the capacity to adjust your thoughts, actions, and emotions to respond appropriately to changing situations. Research suggests that the skill of adaptability is associated with greater wellbeing, engagement and achievement in students.

There are three key ways we can help boost children’s adaptability.

1. The first is by helping them see a new or uncertain situation (like changing schools) in a different way. Just like what we’re doing right now in reframing change from a challenge to an opportunity.

2. The second is by helping them to take a new course of action, such as seeking help or creating a new schedule. This could include things like encouraging your child to ask a teacher for some additional reading on a new topic, engaging a tutor for support in a particular subject or helping them reorganise their after-school routine.

3. The third way is by helping them manage their emotional responses, by normalising any feelings of disappointment or worry while encouraging curiosity and a focus on the enjoyable aspects of a new situation.

The opportunity to build the skill of adaptability turns change into a highly valuable experience for children that will help them attain and sustain their performance and wellbeing.

RM: Having these skills must surely carry through to later life as well… you mentioned other opportunities too…

LM: Yes, we can also make the most of the predictable changes that happen during schooling by using them as an opportunity to strengthen relationships and build confidence. Resilience has become a buzz word in contemporary education, and usually we think of it as something that resides within children – “a child has a lot of resilience, or little resilience”. But this is only part of the story – do you know the single most powerful predictor of human resilience? Social support. Resilience isn’t just something that resides within, it is a combination of our internal and external resources. So, for children that find change particularly challenging, rather than just helping them beat the odds, we can actually change the odds in their favour, by helping them strengthen and build relationships. This might be relationships within the family or with friends. Or it might be discussing how they can build positive relationships with their teachers.

Most children manage change well with the support of these key relationships. But if you feel your child may be experiencing anxiety about change that is out of proportion to the challenges they’re facing, contact your GP as the first port of call and speak to your child’s school to access the professional wellbeing support available within the school.

The pictures in our head about what could go wrong when faced with a new or uncertain situation, tend to be far worse than the reality once we’re doing it. With supportive relationships in place, successfully navigating change can be hugely confidence-building. And this confidence is often contagious. When a student feels confident in one area of their lives, they often start feeling more confident to tackle challenges in other areas too. We often receive the feedback here at Cluey that the one-to-one academic support a child received, not only boosted their understanding, but also built their confidence in that subject, across subjects, and in themselves.

RM: That is certainly something we hear often from parents. Is there anything more you’d like to share before we wrap up?

LM: Yes – there’s one last opportunity that I’d like to mention. The opportunity to celebrate success. It can be hard to watch children tackle the challenge of change, and it’s in our nature to want to protect our children from failure. It’s important that we let our children know that we have their back, no matter what; but at the same time, allow them the space to learn and develop as they navigate change. If we solve problems for our children, we not only reduce the opportunity for them to fail, but we also limit the opportunity for them to experience genuine success.

We might all be advised not to “sweat the small stuff”, but it is important to “celebrate the small successes”. The pace of life means we move rapidly from one thing to the next – it’s easy to forget to stop and take stock of how much has been achieved, and how much growth has occurred, before we move on to the next challenge.

You can encourage this way of thinking by reminding your child how little they knew when they started kindy (or another benchmark, depending on the age of your child), and compare that with how much they know now. This will remind them that change is positive, and also make them feel proud of how far they have come.

It’s worth emphasising here, that as parents we also influence how success is defined. Celebrating effort even when things haven’t quite worked out as expected or celebrating the learning that has resulted from a mistake, is very much a part of helping children develop a positive mindset around change.

Teachers put in a huge effort to get to know each student and celebrate progress, but inevitably our child may at times get a bit lost in the crowd. As parents, we have a greater opportunity to see each little success as our children navigate change and find a special way to reflect on and celebrate it. We believe this is one of the most valuable things about Cluey Learning too – the one-to-one support of a tutor means that each new challenge a student faces and overcomes can be celebrated without comparison to others.

There are countless other unique opportunities to be found in the inevitable changes our children face throughout their schooling. I challenge you to be on the lookout for them as your children progress through school. And you might even like to extend that challenge to your children too.

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