Transitions are quite often difficult for vulnerable children. Moving up years in school, coming towards the holidays, moving house or going on holiday for a while. Change basically is something that can create anxiety for children who have experienced lots of changes in their short lives already. The stability of a consistent carer, a routine and familiar surroundings gives such a strong foundation for a child to build the rest of their lives on. When a child doesn’t experience this kind of start then when changes happen it can trigger that feeling of fear, anxiety or powerlessness again.
As we are reaching the end of another year at school for one of my children this anxiety has shown itself in a way that has led to an exclusion. I know the reason she’s behaved in a certain way is due to her heightened anxiety at going into year 9, but the school don’t seem to be able to recognise that. The way the school responded is as most Secondary schools do these days – the rules are the rules – the same for everyone, if a child does something on the list, regardless of why, then the punishment stands. I understand why they feel the need to do that but what does it achieve? An exclusion just means a day at home so for a child who may feel anxiety at being at school then it’s more like a reward than a punishment. For children who actually school is a better place for them to be then home, for them they are worse off – walking the streets or playing on their x-box all day.
However my real concern with our behaviour policies are that they don’t teach children to be honest with their emotions and to find ways to deal with their anxieties. For my daughter she was told that to earn trust back with the staff that she’d wronged she had to be happy, smiley and helpful all week! Whilst that is maybe a good thing to be, it isn’t how she really feels. I’ve worked very hard with her to get her to a place where she actually can say if she’s anxious or worried. In fact I was praising her over this incident that she actually told me herself what had happened, and then she was told by the school to slap on a happy face and pretend everything is ok.
Why are we so obsessed with being happy and smiley? That somehow that indicates that we are ok inside. I know many people, and have done this many times myself, who are happy and smiley on the outside by feeling awful inside. I wish we would allow people to feel what they actually feel and then they can maybe work out better ways to express their anxieties.
So some things to think about in terms of transitions:
1) For children without boundaries at home they may struggle with transitions and need to be given a break in terms of their behaviours at those times. Try to set stronger boundaries and keep to some kind of routine towards the end of term to help them.
2) For vulnerable children who’ve experienced a chaotic start in life then moving on can be tough too. They need more guidance on how to transition well. Things need to be clearly stated for them – like who their next form teacher will be, where will their next form room be and what actually happens in each year. My daughter is terrified of the exams at the end of year 11 and she’s only just going into year 9. She’s heard about options but doesn’t really know what they mean.
3) Use these times of change as an opportunity for the child to learn something about themselves. This incident with my daughter allowed us to talk more about how she was actually feeling about moving up and how we can reassure her that things will be ok. The same could be done by the school – when their behaviour changes use that as an opportunity to get closer to them not to push them away and exclude them.
So as the summer approaches and we go into another time of change just remember that what you see in terms of behaviour is not the end of the story but only the beginning. Everything communicates something. Look beneath and maybe you’ll be able to understand more and help the child move up in the best way possible.