Transitions as a time of change

Transitions are a time of change requiring careful reflective thought about the practice within early years provision, whether that is childcare settings or Reception classes. In early years, transitions happen a lot and it is important that children feel safe when change happens, writes Early Years consultant Rebecca Fisk.

Transition involves a shift or change from one state to another. Sometimes this involves a change in a child’s identity, for example, parents often change their expectations of children as they become a school child and can use phrases such as ‘big boys don’t cry’. Transitions can be difficult for children and families. Transitions happen frequently in early years environments, for example, as part of the daily routine, at the beginning and end of sessions, or moving from one age group facility to another. For many children, it is the times of transition that are the hardest for them to understand, especially if they do not have the accompanying vocabulary or cognitive development to know what is happening and what it means for them. It is therefore the responsibility of the key person to work with the child and parents to support all transitions and enable a child to feel confident with this change through better ‘knowing’ about the change.

Trust and time are essential to a good transition

The challenge of transition is to minimise the degree of change all at once for a child by providing continuity, whilst also embracing what new opportunities and experiences can bring. For example, where children are indicating difficulty in separating from their parents a setting can encourage parents to stay with their child as they settle each day, playing together. This allows parents to demonstrate to their child that they trust the staff to look after their child until their return. Going at the child’s pace, where possible, can help them build a secure attachment within the setting in order to feel ready to relax into their play and learning in the new environment. It is important that initial separations are handled with care and that children are given the support and time to build a safe relationship with adults that are warm and nurturing, responding sensitively to each child’s individual needs.

The onus is on the setting staff to demonstrate that they understand transitions, and are able and willing to manage them effectively, through a calm environment and a warm approach. The key person supports a child through many transition points in a day, not just the start and end of a child’s session in the setting but also at mealtimes, sleep times and play times.

Important elements to consider in times of transition

  • Support children to have a sense of self-worth and a positive identity, which will build their resilience to change. Adults who respond warmly to the unique needs of each child, helping them to grow in their new identity, and to make choices and decisions as part of a smooth transition can promote this sense of self-worth, demonstrating that the child is valued.

  • Be dependable and build trust with parents and children. Settings can reduce the changes of staff during key transitions times to provide better continuity. Home visits can support the family to develop familiarity with staff which often enables better communication between home and the setting, as well as staff having a link with the child about their home and interests.

  • Support each child in a proactive way to develop new friendships and feel included in a social group. Key person small groups can be effective in giving children a sense of belonging in their new social environment. Often children starting a new provision do not know other children there, and it is crucial that activities are planned in a gentle way that supports building new relationships and encourages shared interests.

  • Help children to actively know about their new environment or routines. This involves clear communication by staff, through a variety of methods, such as visual photographs and timelines or objects of reference. For example, showing a child a nappy to indicate that nappy changing time is approaching can support their transition from their play to their self-care routine especially for children at an early level of language, such as those learning English as an Additional Language, children with delayed speech and language, or pre-verbal children. Knowing about a new environment involves knowing lots of new things, such as the physical geography of the space, the size of the space and how it connects, the different staff to child ratios, and the unspoken cultural and behavioural expectations.

  • Explicitly teach the new behavioural and social expectations in a calm and positive way, making all reminders clear. Be supportive if children (and parents) forget! New things take time to learn. For example, families may have to change their daily routines to arrive at school on time for the formal register, which is unlike at a childcare provider where there is more flexibility. It can take time for them to get into new habits, such as preparing packed lunches the night before, or leaving ten minutes earlier to manage traffic at different times of the day. Giving parents an overview of expectations is helpful, with regular reminders.

  • Sensitive responses to children, and parents, who need more time for a positive separation is vital. A small-step approach can be beneficial, helping to reassure. Transitional objects can be encouraged as a protective factor at times of transition. A safe place can be provided for the object when the child is ready, so they can make choices about when they need that particular reassurance, such as at rest times.

  • Provide an environment of opportunities for children to participate at their own level, whilst allowing them time to explore and develop new interests. At first children may prefer more repetitive play with familiar resources before being ready to branch out. Children will often play with and talk about what they know. By encouraging children and parents to share interests from their own homes and communities their sense of belonging will be enhanced, allowing them to flourish and feel included.

Resilience in Transition

Transition is a time for knowing about the changes that are coming. The power of communication and talk, taking time, and building trust are fundamental to positive transitions at any age. Even more so with those that are young. The development of language and social skills are critical in supporting the process of engagement and the ability to communicate and cooperate with others. Early years settings, through providing a secure base and good relationships with all children, whatever their needs, can foster these skills so children can build their ‘transition resilience’.