Wednesday Wisdom

April 24, 2024

Challenges around Change

By Dr Kathy Weston

Challenges around Change


We are seeking a new family home; a process that has reminded me of both the anxiety-inducing aspects of upheaval and of all the exciting and life-enhancing opportunities it can ignite.

Shopping for a new family home is proving fun for us adults, but for our children, it barely makes sense. Why on earth would we want to move? They can’t imagine a different setting, a different bedroom, a different house, in an unknown place; the journey feels uncertain, unclear and littered with risk. My children ask irritatingly astute questions that I don’t want to think about yet. How will the cat cope? Where will we put him on moving day? How will we fit the chicken coop in a removal lorry? Where will we catch the bus to school? For once, parental enthusiasm is being dampened by the sharpened minds of children whose comfortable habitat feels under threat.

At this time of year, change is something many parents are mulling over. Most of us have a good idea of which school their child has been allocated for the beginning of the academic year 2024-2025, or at the very least know which year their child will be going into and what a step-up that will be. You may have begun to do what we all do best as parents; worry! Will they be ok in their new setting or year group? What if they get allocated a class with people they don’t like or know? Will they cope? Will they be able to settle? Will they get along with other pupils and make friends easily?

Parental anticipatory anxiety ahead of a whole school move can be particularly high and understandably so. However, as we start to mull over any autumnal transitions, let’s make sure we are at the very least talking about change positively. It is a good idea to keep any adult worries under wraps, and to be positive about the fact your child will be ‘moving on’; a fact many are excited about and looking forward to. If you are invited to transition evenings in school over the coming weeks and months, try to enjoy the experience as a family. Pay attention to the layout of the school as much as the content of the transition talks. New pupils will often worry about getting lost, so perhaps draw a little map out when you get home (of where their class is, for example) which they will be grateful for come the autumn. Encourage your child to tell you what they enjoyed from any transition activities and don’t put pressure on them to make firm friends as these events; making friends takes time.


Traditionally, getting a smartphone appears to have been a rite of passage when a child is moving to secondary or senior school. However, we now understand that in the UK, children are frequently getting their hands on smartphones at a much earlier age, coinciding with the start of primary school.

It has been reported that nearly a quarter of UK five-to-seven-year-olds now have their own smartphone. Social media use also rose in the age group over the last year with nearly two in five using messaging service WhatsApp, despite its minimum age of 13. In a BBC article published this week, the communications regulator warned that parental enforcement of rules "appeared to be diminishing". So why are parents becoming complacent about advisory age ratings?

One hypothesis is that many parents think, "Where is the harm?”, feeling that when children use devices in front of them or in the comfort of their own home, it is a safe activity. Yesterday, I attended a conference with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) whose job it is to remove child sexual abuse imagery from the internet. They showed a series of highly alarming slides that described a 25% rise in children being abused in the age range of 7-10, often at home via the internet on phones, in bedrooms, bathrooms and even living rooms. Some of the abuse they experienced was of the worst kind, yet these are children in supposedly safe spaces. It seems incongruous that such harm can occur in the context of a normally safe physical context. The IWF highlighted new trends relating to self-generated content where children are encouraged to perform acts to camera (the vast majority being young girls and now often very young children under six) and they warned about an alarming rise in boys being ‘sextorted’, often in return for some sort of reward linked to gaming, for example.

When parents think about giving their child a smartphone at any early age, they likely think it is a fun device on which to watch a movie, interact with family, or play a game. They could never possibly imagine their very young child could be in touch with adults who want to cause harm. Yes, tech companies need to do the vast majority of the heavy-lifting here in terms of protecting young users, but parents are the ones who place the phones in the hands of their children, set boundaries and fund the very endeavour. We shouldn’t get complacent about the unacceptability of smartphones in the hands of young children or about the range of digital risks that are real and growing.

Giving a child a smartphone shouldn’t simply coincide with a move up in a school year, but should instead be a decision linked to the child’s maturity, ability to recognise and navigate risk and report harm. If your child isn’t able to articulate your family’s digital values, rules and potential risks, they probably aren’t ready for a phone!


At Tooled Up, we ran a fascinating event on school attendance last week. We heard from panellists and parents about how, for some children, anxiety can be persistent, disabling and often coincide with transitional points in their educational journey. For many neurodivergent young people, for example, change can feel insurmountable.

We heard that as educators and parents, it is important to pay particular attention to putting supports and scaffolds in place for children who might be very anxious about change, and that an effective collaboration between school and home is always key from an early stage.

I asked our Head of Neurodiversity at Tooled Up what small things make a big difference to young people in such a situation. She responded by saying that we can support neurodivergent young people earlier around how to prevent overwhelm in the first place, and we can do more to spot it when it occurs. When a young person’s mental and emotional energy is not maxed out on ‘simply coping’ with their new environment, they will have greater capacity for managing any change.

Identifying and practising skills around regulating emotions, ahead of the change day, with a trusted adult, can also make transitions more tolerable. Understanding helpful strategies such as changing the way we think about a situation or sharing worries with a friend or parent can help to reduce any sense of helplessness. Similarly, learning how to recognise when a young person is becoming stuck in unhelpful strategies, such as trying to avoid feeling emotions or continually ruminating on a negative experience, can make a big difference.

Learning as much as you can about masking will help you see if your child is trying to appear as though they are coping with a new situation, when in reality they are very troubled. They may see their friends sailing through or even enjoying the changes they are finding so tricky. Make it clear that it is ok to struggle, and try to remove any stigma attached to admitting to difficulties is essential. Using social stories to remove as many of the unknowns as possible can greatly support transitions.

At school, optimising classroom environments and keeping helpful classroom practices consistent is important in reducing anxiety, particularly during times of change. This might include providing safe spaces and time out zones for regulation, allowing movement breaks, fidget toys, or early passes to move through the school during quiet times, to name a few.

Sensory sensitivities can go into overdrive when a child is overwhelmed by change. Understanding the cause of their discomfort and making appropriate accommodations can make a big difference. School uniforms are often cited as a source of sensory difficulty and considering some compromise could be a big help. Could leggings be worn instead of tights under a school skirt? Can a soft polo shirt in the school colour replace a stiffer school shirt? The Good School Guide provides some useful advice on uniform items that might work better for children with sensory sensitivities.

For teachers, evidence-based guidance and training is available. We recommend this book on Sensory Solutions in the Classroom, written by former Tooled Up interviewee, Monique Thoonsen, which features over 200 classroom strategies which can help to either activate or calm children, depending on their sensory needs, and the Triple A programme (triple A standing for attention, arousal and anxiety), a short, free 1.5 hour online learning module for educators developed by Durham University.

Clearly, the earlier we can prepare for changes, the better the outcome. As for me, I will shortly be dipping into the Tooled Up packing list to organise my moving house process and the various wobble resources in Tooled Up to accommodate my children’s worries about moving, as well as my own. Proactive approaches to family anxiety about change can hopefully reduce it to manageable levels and clear the way for excitement!

Are you a Tooled Up member?

If, like me, you are planning a house move, why not download our handy checklist and check out our top tips for easing the transition for your children. If you are thinking about getting your child a phone, the Tooled Up platform is packed with advice. We suggest that you start with our Family Digital Values template and watch this Q&A session on important things to consider before heading to the shops.

If your child is soon to embark on a new stage in their school journey, we have a wide range of supportive resources. One top tip is to talk about their ability to navigate change and help them to see where they’ve managed it successfully before. Our activity designed to support children with changes at school, can help, and this video invites them to consider how change makes them feel.

If your child does feel anxious, our wobble resources can help your to understand what features of a new situation are causing them to worry. Start with Wobble Points and then use our I Want To Wow My Wobbles worksheet together to create a plan of action founded on their unique needs and use in conjunction with our emotional literacy tools.

The Tooled Up platform also features numerous resources which can be used by parents and educators to help neurodivergent young people better navigate transitions. It’s worth finding out more about evidence-based solutions from Dr Kathryn Bates, Dr Mary Hanley, Dr Abby Russell and Monique Thoonsen. Watch Dr Felicity Sedgewick’s helpful talk on the effects of masking to understand how important it is to create an environment where a neurodivergent young person can be themselves, and check out Dr Aja Murray’s deep dive into emotion regulation. If you have an older teen soon to start university, we have tailored advice for young people with autism.