Helping vulnerable pupils to handle the transitions of school life

Written by: Nicola Marshall | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The challenges of the many transitions that pupils go through in school can be incredibly difficult to overcome for vulnerable young people. Nicola Marshall offers some useful strategies

“By building a child’s social and emotional capabilities we enable children to be happily engaged with others and with society, and to learn, to develop fully, to attain and to achieve. In essence, it delivers school-ready, life-ready, and child-ready members of society.”
Early Intervention: The Next Steps (The Allen Report), 2011.

Why is it hard for some children and young people to adapt to change? This has been the big question for me while researching content for a guide on transition – and also in my own experience with my three adopted children. I know they do find it hard, that’s obvious (sometimes), but why exactly? I think there are three areas of our development that are paramount to being able to understand why transitions and change are so hard...

1, Trust

From the moment we start developing in our mother’s womb we are dependent on our mum. We need them to survive, to develop and grow. Once we are born that continues. We rely on adults to give us all the things we need to be able to survive. When babies don’t consistently receive those things then trust doesn’t develop. The world feels unsafe and survival becomes a priority. As children grow we can see this lack of trust in their relationships with others. They may be in the care system or have been through it and feel let down time and time again by adults who are meant to protect them. They may still be in a vulnerable home environment where basic needs are not being adequately met.

What about transitions and trust? Well, if you are in survival mode most of the time, watching for danger and being let down, when something new comes up you automatically assume the worst.

Bryan Post puts it so well in his book The Great Behaviour Breakdown (2009): “When we encounter a novel event, we perceive that event as a threat until deemed otherwise. Anytime we encounter something new or are encouraged to do something new, we perceive it as a threat until we can prove it to be safe. It takes most of us a millisecond to shift from that place to the next. That is a transition. Children with trauma histories have had brain impacts that prevent them from making this shift so quickly.”

2, Worth

Another result of not getting our needs met as babies is that we learn to internalise the rage we might feel into shame. Trust doesn’t develop but shame does instead. Shame is about how you feel about yourself. You may feel that the world around you is bad, but more than that you feel that you are bad.

Feeling bad about yourself makes it more difficult to be an optimistic person. Due to what your early experiences might have been and the fact that you have very low self-esteem, it is incredibly hard to take on new challenges.

For some of us new challenges are exciting. There might be a tiny bit of fear or anticipation but excitement is the over-riding emotion. For children who have experienced early trauma the outlook is not bright and shiny. When you ask them what they want to do in the future they will either not know or tell you something that shows how little they feel about their potential

We need to consider always – how do we raise the aspirations of children and young people who feel shame at the core of their being? We have to focus more on strengths than weaknesses.

Our educational system tends to focus on weakness to raise standards to an “acceptable” level. I understand that. However, for some of our more vulnerable children they need to know they have strengths and can achieve great things. They may not be academic and go to university but they could be brilliant artists, actors or thrive in the caring professionals.

3, Regulation

Again, this is an indication of a child who received “good enough” parenting. The ability to self-regulate comes from being co-regulated by primary carers. Over time we learn to self-regulate as we grow in independence. We internalise the instructions parents have given us and begin to be able to regulate ourselves. We might get our own food and drink when we need it. We might take our cardigan on and off accordingly. We might take ourselves out of a situation that we know is stressful.

All these abilities help children to adapt to the changing world around them. Without this ability they are blown about by anything that comes their way. They get upset easily, they might be angry when hungry, they go off in a sulk when someone says no, they refuse to move when they don’t know where they are going. There are hundreds of transitions in a day that might activate a fear response in young people and if they can’t regulate that who knows how that may come out in their behaviour?

Putting this all together then, if a child struggles to trust others and to feel safe, feels bad about themselves and how they might be able to cope, finds it hard to regulate their huge feelings, they will find getting through a day filled with change and uncertainty near impossible.

Transitions and strategies

There are so many different types of transitions – from those daily small movements from one place to another, to the huge moves between years, schools and stages of development. They can all create stress and anxiety for some children and as adults we need to be able to support them as much as we can.

When children first start school, for example, we can help in many ways. Parents and education staff need to work together to create the best experience for our vulnerable children. Here are some considerations for the adults involved in a child’s first few days of school:

  • If the child is particularly anxious they may need a token from home – a transitional object such as a favourite teddy bear or a photo from home. Make sure all your staff are okay with that.
  • Try to allow the parent to come into the classroom and show the child around. Help them to find their coat peg and find an activity to do and then encourage the parent to leave as soon as possible.
  • It is a very emotional day for all but if the child sees the parents upset it may cause confusion for them. Encourage the parents to try to stay positive however they might be feeling.
  • Make sure a key person is available to meet the child if they are very anxious. This should be someone they have met on a home visit or when they visited the school. Do a “meet and greet” on the playground so the child can see that the parent is happy with the person and trusts them.
  • At the end of the day allow a few minutes for the child’s key person to talk to them and see how the day has gone.
  • Encourage the parents to talk to each other. You may even facilitate this by introducing some to each other. It can be difficult to talk to others when you are concerned about your child, particularly if they are worried about the first day. The more parents can build relationships with each other the better it will be for the children as they progress.

And what about that huge move from primary to secondary school? This is the most talked about stage of development in any adoptive parents’ support group I’ve been in. It is such a massive change and creates high levels of stress for all concerned. Here’s a checklist for primary staff to consider when preparing children to move on, this needs to be passed onto the secondary school staff for a smoother transition:

  • What level of difficulties did the child have in settling in primary?
  • What changes to the curriculum were necessary?
  • What are their anxiety levels and any known triggers?
  • How was their experience of relationships with the adults in the setting?
  • How was their experience of relationships with other children in the setting?
  • What things helped the child to calm down and regulate?

Make sufficient time to end the relationships with current primary staff and children. For some children they may need to mark the end of an era in an individual way with specific staff that have been important to them. The whole class celebration is fine, but for some children they may not be able to take part in that as it might be too overwhelming or upsetting. Having a private farewell might be more beneficial.

An example of this is when my children moved from their foster care placement to us as their forever family under adoption. The schools they attended made a point of saying goodbye. Their classmates signed cards and gave presents. A few years later we returned to the school as our children wanted to see their friends and the teachers again.

A further few years later I was delivering some training at the same school and my daughters’ previous teacher came to speak to me. She said how she remembered my daughter and always wondered what had become of her. What was lovely was that this teacher then recorded a little message on my phone for my daughter which I showed her when I got home. She cried when she saw it, amazed that her teacher still remembered her – it really touched her!

Here is my checklist for the primary to secondary move:

  • Has the secondary school been given all the relevant information about the child? This includes significant relationships, learning difficulties, emotional and social difficulties, triggers, professional agencies involvement.
  • Do the appropriate people have a one-page profile for the child? This will be those working closely with the young person, helping them to settle in and adjust.
  • Does the parent/carer know who to contact with relevant information? Having a single point of contact can be invaluable.
  • Has the young person been to visit the secondary school on at least two previous occasions before the start day?
  • Has the young person had time to familiarise themselves with the school? It may be that a book with photos and other information has been given to them to look at over during the summer holidays before they start.
  • Have prompt cards and a map been made for the young person to help them find their way around?
  • Does the young person know where to go and who to see if they are struggling? If the child has an avoidant attachment style they may not seek out help, so a space and time for someone to check on them would be better.
  • Does the family know of the after-school clubs available for the young person and how they can access those?


The most important thing to remember in any transition is that the child or young person is frightened of the unknown. Going back to the three areas of development mentioned earlier, children need to be able to trust and feel safe, feel good about themselves and to regulate their emotions. Whatever we can do to help those three aspects will support the challenges of change. 

  • Nicola Marshall is from BraveHeart Education, a teacher training organisation that helps schools to learn more about how children struggle in our educational system. Visit In January, BraveHeart published a guide on transition in association with the Welsh government. Find out more via

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