CRFR Associate Director Professor Divya Jindal-Snape writes about her research on transitions, from early years to higher education.
Nurseries, schools, colleges and universities go to a lot of effort to make sure that learners have ‘successful transitions’. Similarly, families do their utmost to support children to have successful transitions. But what does ‘successful transition’ mean and from whose perspective? What does transition mean for that matter? These words are used without unpacking their meaning.
From our research it is clear that there is a lack of shared understanding about the concept of transitions. This can be illustrated by the different conceptualisation of transitions even within the same school or across the school cluster.
For example, two primary school head teachers consider transition to be:
‘A seamless move from primary to secondary with a clear focus on teaching and learning’
‘Any move between stages or establishment or settings or even classes’
The first focusses on moving institutions whereas the second suggests that children experience transition within the same institution. A guidance teacher highlighted that transition is about holistic adaptation:
‘Transition is physical, social and emotional adaption to new environments and stressors’
This view regards transition as stressful, perhaps not surprising as a guidance teacher might mainly see learners who are affected negatively by transitions. In actual fact, most children/young people, whether starting primary school or university, thrive during transitions. Why shouldn’t they? For most it is a marker of growing up, being more independent, and getting more (and better) choices and opportunities. For some though, it can be challenging and stressful. Transition is dynamic and chances are that some aspects of transitions will be going very well whereas others might not. So we can define transition as (i) an ongoing process of psychological, social and educational adaptation (ii) over time (iii) due to changes in context, interpersonal relationships and identity, (iv) which can be both exciting and worrying at the same or different times, and (v) requires ongoing support.
What do we consider to be successful transition? A lot of research has focussed on the dip in attainment and motivation at the time of transitions. Is that surprising? If you measure academic aspects at a time when children and young people, and of course their families, are mainly focussed on making friends and getting the relationships right, is it any surprise that there is a dip in ‘academic’ attainment or motivation? Would we find different results if we focussed on motivation to make new friends and develop good relationships with staff? This difference in focus on academic or friendship aspects comes from a difference in views about what successful transition is. For some it is about having no dip in attainment and in fact the learners excelling. For others, it is about having a sense of belonging and positive identification with the new environment. Perhaps the vision of successful transition needs to be more holistic and it may be that success at different times can be conceptualised differently.
More importantly, shouldn’t ‘success’ be about what that individual considers to be a successful transition? Have we asked children and young people about this? According to our research what children and young people look forward to the most, and also worry about, is making new friends. So if they are able to make new friends easily, they consider it to be a successful transition. This of course changes over time; precisely because transition is an ongoing and dynamic process. Institutions put support systems in place when children/young people start school or university. Our longitudinal studies show that there are some for whom transition might be going very well at the start but after a few months things might start going wrong. In a longitudinal study over three school years we found that most children reported that they were continuing to have successful transitions, some had issues initially but were now feeling that things were going well for them, but for some problems arose in the third year with no one supporting them. As one boy said,
‘There’s nothing (no transition support) because they think we’ve settled in enough’
Children and young people also highlight repeatedly that they get most support from families and friends during transition. This is not surprising as during times of change, they might be their only consistent support. However, it is worth remembering that as children and young people go through multiple transitions (new physical and social environment, change in teaching approaches, change in organisational culture, change in expectations of others etc.), their transitions trigger transitions for significant others such as their families, friends, staff etc. Similarly, when significant others in their network experience transitions, they trigger the child/young person’s transitions. This has been conceptualised within a theoretical model of Multiple and Multi-dimensional Transitions (MMT, Jindal-Snape, 2012, 2016), which can be visualised as a Rubik’s cube with one small change for one person leading to unexpected, and unplanned for, changes for others. So not only do the children/young people need to be supported through their ongoing transitions, the significant others need to be supported too.
Until education and other professionals understand the complex, dynamic and ongoing nature of transitions, they will find it difficult to support learners and families. Also, they need to be mindful of their own transition support needs. There is more to be done in terms of their training as our research has repeatedly demonstrated that professionals are not provided adequate opportunities to consider transitions during either qualifying programmes and or post-qualifying Continuous Professional Development (CPD).