Feb 14, 2019
Tips for Building Successful School Transitions to Empower & Connect Students
Kelli J. Robertson, M.A., CCC-SLP
GWAEA Autism Consultant & Assistive Technology Coach
The numbers don’t lie. Anxiety has been referred to as the “mental health tsunami” of today’s generation of students (Flannery, 2018). By age 18, 30% of students (nearly 1 in 3) meets criteria for a diagnosable anxiety disorder (2018 Mental Health Report, Child Mind Institute). Transitions to new school buildings and new teachers can be highly stressful for students (and parents & teachers too!). In my work, shifts to new environments and new teachers can be highly stressful for students, and is often cited as a source of derailment for student-school connection, student interest, student performance, and student self-esteem. According to Hattie’s work (2009), one of the areas we actually can have the most control and influence over in student achievement is the influence on positive student-teacher relationships (Whitaker, 2018). Thoughtful transition planning is an opportune time to build the foundation of success for every student, especially our students who may have more anxiety, trauma, social challenges, and/or sensitivity. Often times, I see more anxiety with students who may have ‘invisible disabilities’ because they may have acquired coping skills (or coping people) in their current environments, and they can be more nervous about what to do in the new environment with new people, as their tools/strategies/supports may be different or may have to change.
Tips for Smoother Transitions
- Start early. I typically recommend starting transition planning and ‘practice’ 4-5 months in advance, depending on the student. For highly anxious students, I’m thinking about transition activities in January/February to help ease the mounting anxiety of the new school/teacher. For some students, this also helps the end-of-year slump because it can help motivate them for the next chapter and build some excitement.
- Gradually introduce the student to the new setting/teachers. See the attached table of transition ideas for a ‘scaffold’ of gradual acclimation activities.
- Share your own experience & empathize -- MODEL. None of us are strangers to discomfort or anxiety-provoking situations. But students don’t know this (our thinking is invisible); make it visible. Don’t minimize student anxiety or respond to students with something like, “This is so easy… you shouldn’t be stressed…” Rather, share “It looks like you might be worried… I can see how you could be stressed…” comments (use mentoring/coaching stems). Share your thoughts, “I can also get nervous when a new year starts…” and what you think/do to positively ‘coach’ and cope yourself.
- Include the student & their input/perspectives. It gives the student a sense of control when they have choice and are included in decision-making (true for ALL of us!). Make sure their voices are heard. They often have great insights on what their strengths are, what their challenges are, what seat might work best, what they might need to focus or be productive, what questions they have, and what concerns they have. Remember: Too many choices can be anxiety-provoking. For example, classrooms with flexible seating options may be too much for some students. They might just like to select from 2-3 options so it isn’t open-ended and overwhelming (e.g., sit near teacher/sit in front, sit in a group of 6/sit in a individual desk or group of 2, etc.).
Gradual Acclimation Structure & Activity Ideas for Transition
Scaffold of Gradual Acclimation
Learning about new setting/teacher in the comfort of your familiar setting
More in-depth interaction about the new setting/teacher still in the comfort of your familiar setting
Initial exploration of new setting
Interaction with new setting
Transition tips that can help the new teacher/staff:
- It can be very helpful if the current teacher takes video of the student using his/her supports, what their work spaces look like, and what types of prompts/cues are provided - and share this with the new/receiving teacher. You might also take photo/video of the students accommodations and any individualized visual supports s/he uses. Video modeling and visuals are helpful to everyone (adults too!!!) and seeing the actual supports in action can frequently translate better than interpreting a written plan. (IMPORTANT: Please follow your district policy for photo/video permissions and sharing)
For more tips on anxiety, check out these resources:
- Article: Helping Anxious Students Move Forward: Strategic Accommodations Can Help Students with Anxiety Develop Persistence and Independence by Jessica Minahan (2017)
- Video (5 min): Safe Classrooms for Anxious Students - Quick tips teachers can instantly implement with Jessica Minahan (2017)
- Site: Teachers Guide to Anxiety in the Classroom from the Child Mind Institute
- Article: Tips for Teachers: Ways to Help Students Who Struggle with Emotions or Behavior from Mental Health America
- Article: Classroom Ideas to Reduce Anxiety by Kim Davis
- Article: 20 Tips to Help De-escalate Interactions with Anxious or Defiant Students by Jessica Minahan (2016)