A 'Transition Triangle': tips to shape support for your little one's start/return to school/nursery
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
Preparing for your little one to start or return to an education setting can bring a mix of emotions for a caregiver. In addition, to physically throwing extra balls into the ongoing caregiver juggle struggle:
Transitions can be exciting and present new opportunities, but the changes they bring can also be daunting and scary for us all. Transitions and separations are key themes in my chats with families in my role as an educational psychologist.
There are so many variables and factors to take into account, which can lead to so many possibilities/eventualities (cue big risk of feeling overwhelmed!). However, it is important to emphasise that we are all different, and we all have different circumstances.
To simplify some key factors and ideas to support, I have created the ‘Transition Triangle’. This offers a visual guide for families (including mine!) of things to consider when separating/transitioning from little ones. I hope this guide can help boost your confidence in developing ideas that will work best for your family.
The ‘Transition Triangle’ highlights three key (out of many) areas that I feel are essential to think about when preparing for a little one’s transition:
1. The separation from their caregiver(s)
2. The relationship with the receiving grown up(s)
3. The environment in which everything takes place
These three key factors are all connected, but connection is also at the centre of everything (#connecttoprotect).
Here are 10 ideas based on my ‘Transition Triangle’, to help support you and your little one:
To support your little one to separate from you:
1. Practice and support separating in advance
It is important to ensure that your little one knows that you are going away and will come back. Practice and get them familiar with you leaving and coming back. It can be so tempting to sneak off when they are not looking, but this can leave them feel insecure and uncertain, which could leave them feeling more distressed. Overtime, with a consistent and familiar routine in a safe and supportive environment, little ones can feel more confident that you will return and this will help them to feel safe. Depending on your little one’s interests and needs, this can start off with little games like ‘Peekaboo’ or building up little routines at home, where they can get use to you separating and coming back.
2. Think about how you can have a psychological ‘presence’ when you cannot be physically ‘present’
Find ways to connect emotionally when you are unable to be physically present. For example, could you give your little one a special object/comforter that they can ‘look after’ for you until you return? Can you send your little one of with a picture/drawing that a grown up in the setting can place somewhere special for them to look at a certain time of the day?
3. Plan how you will connect on return
Could you develop a little ritual just before you separate from each other that could extend into the time that you are not together? Could you then set a little activity to do and look forward to on return?
To support your little one’s relationship with a different grown up:
4. Help your little one get familiar with different grown ups in advance
What can you do to get to know the person in advance? Could you show or tell your little one about them advance? You could use pictures, videos, role-play or stories. Perhaps you could even arrange a meeting, or some transition visits to the setting. Think about how you can you help your little one know what to expect from a new person.
5. Help new grown ups get familiar with your little one in advance
Can you help provide some information about your little one in advance? A One Page Profile can be a fantastic way to do this: One-page profile templates - Helen Sanderson Associates
6. Think about ideas that could help your little one and grown ups can bond when meeting
Are there some ideas for some bonding activities that you could share with your little one’s new supporter? Communicate with staff at the setting to make your little one’s entrance extra motivating when they arrive, for example, by setting up an activity/object based on their interests to greet them.
To support your little one’s environment:
7. Help your little one get familiar with their new environment and what their new setting looks like
Help your little one to visualise what their new environment will be like. It can be particularly tricky for children at an early stage of development to imagine what to expect. You could use stories, pictures and/or their preferred ways of communicating. You could even make your own, personalised story about what will happen at school, based on specific information you have. You could also try things like taking the route and practicing the journey to the setting.
8. Help your little one know what to expect about their new environment in advance
Again, you could use pictures, stories, gestures or signs to help your little one understand what will be happening and when will it be happening. You could create a visual timetable, detailing parts of the routine, which they can mark as complete by mark making, using stickers or vocalising, depending on their needs and preferences. This will also help children and ourselves get ready more smoothly. The calmer that we can arrive for a ‘drop off’, the smoother the transition will be.
9. Communicate about the new environment in a curious and hopeful way
It is important to validate any feelings that your little one has. You should let your child know that all feelings (including tricky or mixed feelings) is okay, and sometimes to be expected. Rather than trying to dismiss any uncomfortable feelings, get curious and wonder together, this can also help give you clues about what ideas you can develop to support them. Communicate with hope and enthusiasm, focusing on the new opportunities they will have (again, try to focus on their strengths and interests with what you pick to communicate about). For example, “I wonder what new toys will be there?”, ‘It will be interesting to meet new friends…”
10. Empower your little one by helping them make choices
Listen or observe your little one’s preferences. Helping your little one have some choice in how/when things take place, where possible and safe, can help them feel that they have some control of changes. For example, you could ask them what they would like to take with them on their journey, which route they would like to take, or what they would like to do when you pick them up etc.
Finally, remember, you cannot and do not have to do it all. Every child is different and has different needs. Try to focus on those most important to your child (and you), and do not underestimate the value of even the little things you do to support them to adapt to new changes. Do not forget to be extra kind to yourself – you have to support yourself first, to be able to best support anyone else!
Dr Abigail Wright is a mum to two young girls aged two and five years old. She works full-time an Senior Specialist Early Years Educational Psychologist for a Local Authority in Wales. She has written articles and blogs related to her special interests in the early years, play, caregiving and attachment, social communication and interaction, and autistic spectrum condition. In Abigail's spare time she runs @PsychEdMum pages on Facebook and Instagram.
@PsychEdMum aims to support families of young children and those that support them, through creating free and accessible content based on child development, psychology and wellbeing. This blog represents the views of the individual author.