Wednesday Wisdom

July 10, 2024

Moving On Up

By Dr Cassie Rhodes

Moving On Up

Reflect

Eight. That’s the number of days my daughter has remaining until her primary school education is completed. It’s also how many days I have left of the school drop off, before she joins her older brother on the bus to high school. It’s no longer strictly necessary for me to accompany her, but I like to anyway, when I can, for the routine of a short walk and quick chat with friends and familiar faces. After all, as a family, we’ve been doing it for the last 10 years.

The next week and a half is packed with transition days, end of school celebrations, a day at secondary school, music recitals, choir concerts, two performances of the Year 6 play, a leavers’ assembly and probably quite a few tears (my daughter already shed some when her choir leader said some kind and encouraging words to her last weekend). It’s all passing by in a blur.

My WhatsApp hasn’t stopped pinging with parents rushing to organise lifts to and from the numerous events, or trying to sort out end of year gifts for teachers. By Friday lunchtime next week, it will all be over, summer will have started, and we’ll be off to the school uniform shop to buy all that we need for the next chapter.

As I already have one teenager, I know that the next part of our school journey will be different. There will be less daily interaction with other parents and teachers. I’ll say goodbye to both of my children at the front door, not the school gate (a whole hour earlier than I’m used to!). Familiar routines will change and new friendships will form. Teen spirit will develop. Autonomy will grow and organisational skills sharpen. It’s an exciting, era-ending, bittersweet moment for the whole family; one that is right, necessary and wonderful to be part of, but which is accompanied by pangs of loss. Moving on up is a big deal, for both us and our children.

Motivate

As parents, we probably sometimes wish we could look inside our child's mind and hear their thoughts, dreams and worries at pivotal points of transition like this. What is really whirring through their brain? The latest Disney release, ‘Inside Out 2’, tries to do just that, offering a window into the head of young teenager, Riley, as she approaches the start of high school.

The film cleverly shows the tween/teen mind for what it is: a building site, a work in progress and a place of change. The emotions of childhood, Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger and Disgust (who all made appearances in the first film), have to make room for some more complicated cousins, Anxiety, Embarrassment, Envy and Ennui. At the beginning of the movie, Riley discovers that she’ll be going to a different school to her best friends. One where she doesn’t know anybody. At a summer sports camp, led by new emotion, Anxiety, Riley decides to prepare herself for this unknown world by attempting to make friends with older teens who already go to her new school. In a bid to fit in with the cool kids, she dabbles in a bit of showing off, avoids her old friends, takes unnecessary risks, and is frankly unsporting with her hockey puck. Without giving too much away, what eventually brings Riley back to a sense of relative equilibrium, is developing a strong set of core beliefs about herself.

It reminded me that whilst change can be exciting, it can also be scary. It can make us feel wobbly and happy and eager and expectant and nervous and overwhelmed, all at once. There are no ‘right’ emotions to feel in periods of transition, for us or our children, but acknowledging them, whatever they are, is important.

If you too are anticipating a big change in family life, it’s a good idea to focus on the controllables and on all of the things that are going to stay the same. It's also helpful to consider how we might encourage our children to solidify their sense of who they are, what they are about and who is there for them (just like Riley). Actively thinking about these things prompts retrospection and reflection, both of which can build resilience. It sounds simple, but having a strong sense of the activities that they like and the people who support them can help children to feel more grounded, and better able to navigate the challenges of change.

So, alongside all of the shopping for new pencil cases, shoes and blazers, in the coming weeks, make sure that you know which of their friends your child is really keen to stay in touch with and help to facilitate this. Support them in attending celebrations and goodbyes. Where possible, try to increase their sense of familiarity with their new setting. Be curious about worries or wobbles (if they have any), and proactively work through these together, looking for evidence, gently challenging their assertions and asking about the potential benefits of moving on.

Over the summer, talk (informally) about your family's core values. What matters most to you? Discuss digital hygiene and online behaviour, and chat about how we can charge up our bodies and brains with enough sleep and good food. Teach your children that they have the agency, ability and skill set to establish connections and make new friends, but that this can take time, and that’s perfectly normal. Hone their social skills by thinking through conversation starters as a family. How might they initiate a conversation with another child on their first day at school? Which conversation openers might help to get the chat going?

Your child, like mine, may be turning into a teen, but remember that they still need time to play and have fun. Far from frivolity, research shows that fun is intrinsically connected to meaningful experiences and relationships for children, and to the development of their self-esteem and sense of identity. Over the summer, encourage them to spend as much as time as they can with those that love and value them, doing activities that they relish and which enhance their self-esteem, social skills and confidence. Trying a new skill and working towards achieving something can also help to boost their overall emotional and physical resilience. Perhaps the whole family could try to learn something new?

Finally, try to remember that, whilst they might be embarking on a new, more grown up chapter, our children need us now as much as ever, gently scaffolding their growing independence and skills.

Support

If you do feel that your child is struggling to navigate this transition, it’s worth considering how your family has coped with other changes in the past, and mapping out a toolkit of coping strategies with your child, which they can use in the coming months when they need to.

Think about changes that have opened up opportunities in the past. What seemed scary at the time, but led to new friendships or valuable experiences? Remind them that change might not always feel welcome, and it’s natural to feel some anticipatory anxiety, but it can also lead to exciting outcomes.

Tried and tested strategies that might offer some support through starting school nerves include drawing things that they are worried about, adding worries to a family wobble jar, or visualising their first few days at school and working out together what they can control and influence.

Closer to the start of the new school year, role play can be effective. You might practise openers for conversations with new people or think about ways to initiate interactions at break times. Lean in. Ask your child how they are doing. Find out what they are looking forward to and what they aren’t. These kinds of conversations shouldn’t be one offs. You have the time to dip in at natural and appropriate opportunities over the summer holiday.

It’s also a good idea to honestly assess your own mindset. Do you feel anxious about your child’s next steps? If the answer is yes, it’s optimal to try to approach this constructively. Jotting down the things that are worrying you, or talking them through with a partner, friend, or your child’s new school, might help to alleviate them. We don’t want to unwittingly pass on our own concerns to our children. So, where possible, strive to model confidence around change, an acceptance that we can’t control absolutely everything, and let’s try to show our children that we have a strong sense of belief in their skills and capacity to both cope and thrive.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Like mine, many families will currently be thinking about change and transition. After the relaxation of the summer break, many young people will take their first steps into school, move up to the next stage of their education, or possibly move out of the family home for the first time. Tooled Up can help to make these step changes easier for everyone in the family with a range of articles and activities all on the topic of transition.

If your child is just about to start school for the first time, check out our list of books which can help open up conversations about what to expect. You can also help your child to feel school-ready by completing our exciting sticker challenge or trying some of our early years summer challenges. For children in the lower end of primary school, our “I’m Moving Up A Year” activity prompts reflections on how change makes them feel, what they’re excited about and what might make them feel a bit wobbly! It's also a turbulent time of change for parents. Listen to our interview with Dr Caoimhe Dempsey to find out what the research shows about common parent experiences and tune in to our brand new interview with Professor Claire Hughes for some top tips for parents and teachers during periods of transition.

If your child is moving on to secondary or senior school, why not listen to Dr Weston’s 5 top tips, download our moving up activity, dip into our transition ‘family talk’ prompts or watch this short video with your children. If you have a little more time, do tune into our recent webinar which is packed with tips designed to support families with this transition. At this pivotal point in children’s digital development, we also have a suite of resources that can help spark conversations about staying safe online and being a good digital citizen. In particular, take a look at our Parent-Child Phone Contract and Family Digital Values template.

For any family with school-age children, our 10 Things every family should talk about before schools go back will allow you to address wobbles, set expectations and boundaries and help prepare children to pick up where they left off. If your children have finally reached the end of school and are preparing for university, we also have a selection of resources just for you.