There is an increasing appreciation of the importance of protecting the mental and emotional health of children and young people so that they are empowered to better access learning and reach their full potential. A happy or content student is going to get the most out of their educational experience. This makes it a very important task to ensure that students are at their best – particularly at difficult times during their educational journey.
One such example is when they go from elementary to middle school. There can also be significant risk to young people’s emotional and mental balance when they must deal with other major readjustments, such as when they go to high school or college. This change in the structure of school, plus the significant increase in difficulty, can be hard to manage.
There are various ways that educators and parents make these transitions as smooth as possible. Some of these are relatively straightforward methods of minimizing concerns, disruption and stress for children and young people. However, it is often school counselors who step up to provide support for the more anxious or easily distracted children, who could face a tough time during a process of change.
What ‘educational experience’ means
Every child should be provided with the best possible chance of benefiting fully from the whole educational experience and settling as quickly as possible into their new educational environment. Educators, counselors, and parents need to work together to ensure that all students can fully enjoy the many other things we ‘learn’ at school and college.
The most obvious of these is, of course, social skills. However, the years spent in education should also give children and young people lots of personal development opportunities, and ways to develop their personalities, preferences and emotional intelligence.
School and college are often where we first try new sports and other activities, and in some cases develop an interest that remains with us into adulthood. Educational experience also includes opportunities to develop a more comprehensive world view from classroom discussions, trips, and student body events. Games with classroom buddies in break helps children to develop spatial awareness, boundaries, the ability to follow instructions, and an appreciation of teamwork, for instance. Even journeys to and from school and break times can be formative, as this is often when important friendships are forged and strengthened.
As school life is such a rich and diverse learning environment, it is vital that every child is given the chance to fully engage with it, by removing barriers, hurdles, and potential pitfalls. It is a shame when concerns about transitions rob children of their confidence or calm for any length of time.
Parents and teaching staff at schools and colleges are aware of this, of course, and there is a push to also provide access to focused counseling support for individuals or groups of students facing a significant period of change.
School life can be good preparation for the future
It could be argued that much of what happens in modern schools prepares students to be resilient, resourceful, and adaptive. This can include schools that provide students with learning opportunities linked to personal development as well as academic goals.
For instance, some schools amalgamate activities that help their students to explore emotional self-management and self-regulation techniques as part of their holistic education. After all, these are coping strategies that will also help their students face up to exams and important career choices in a calm and focused manner.
Schools that provide access to guidance on conflict resolution, diversity and inclusion, socializing skills and improved self-confidence will also find that this policy becomes invaluable during periods of change in their student body’s progress. Because, let’s face it, fear of the unknown and feeling shy or even anxious about new situations is something that can happen to anyone, at any age. These emotions can be amplified in children by the fact that they have so little experience of adapting to something new and different.
Helping children to cope with even small changes can be important for helping them to be ready for the big ones.
Each step brings its own challenges
At this point, it’s worth exploring why the move from elementary school to middle school is sometimes viewed as such a significant change. Middle school can seem especially daunting for pre-teens, as they are at an early stage of their emotional and cognitive development.
Children of this age are already undergoing various physical changes, and now they are about to have to get used to a bigger and more overwhelming educational environment and lots of strangers.
However, puberty, hormonal changes and shifting relationship dynamics can also be factors that confuse and complicate the transition from middle to high school.
Then comes the highly significant step of going off to college, when young people will very probably move out of their parents’ home. There can be a lot of pressure on young people to reach certain standards of performance at college – academically, sports-wise and even socially. It can also involve many months, if not years’ worth, of planning and tasks that are designed to make college students self-reliant and able to support themselves financially.
Every stage of education will be a transition period for a child. So, if the transition between elementary and middle school goes well for impressionable pre-teens, perhaps the future educational changes will seem more manageable?
The role of school counselors
Even if a child has an excellent support system at home, or they have teachers who are great with them, there is always room for improvement in helping a child at school. This is where school counselors come in.
School counselors are experts in creating a connection with their students and getting them to open up about challenging situations – for instance, if a child is embarrassed about something, or reluctant to share information that may be affecting their progress. School counselors can also help students dig a little deeper into mental and emotional issues that they may be trying to bury.
Of course, school counselors have a multitude of roles in modern schools, including providing career guidance and helping students navigate academic barriers. Their remit can also vary from state to state, district to district, or even from school to school – it could cover everything from emotional issues, to sexuality, to classroom disagreements. The training that school counselors receive ensures that they are equipped with not just professional skills but also personal skills. These are abilities that will make students feel comfortable and able to explore their own vulnerabilities in a ‘safe space’.
If you are interested in helping children through the challenging transition periods of their life, you may be wondering how to become a school counselor. There are programs available from reputable institutions, such as the Master of Science in School Counseling offered by St. Bonaventure University. When embarking on this online program, students develop key skills and gain various human growth and development insights; just some of the learning outcomes that help school counselors provide effective care. Be it individual or group sessions, graduates of this course are prepared to assist schoolchildren facing change in their lives.
Are there openings for school counselors?
Professional counselors who work in schools do a great deal to guide students through a broad sweep of academic, mental, and emotional issues. Therefore, it is clear to see why work is underway to train and appoint more people to this job role throughout the US.
The American School Counselor Association, in particular, is constantly lobbying for more investment and recruitment, to enable education to meet the high demand for these valuable professionals. This is especially true in schools where academic barriers are even more significant.
Other educational support for change
School counselors are a significant element of the staff body at a school, and helping groups of students to get ready for new educational environments and adventures is very much a joint effort. They often work in tandem with teaching staff to help prepare groups of students for exams and transitions, including the perceived ‘leap’ from elementary school to middle school.
What sort of concerns and questions can the whole school staff be aware of and diffuse? The concerns that children have when going to middle school typically fall into three main categories. One is academic, of course, and they can become apprehensive that the work will be harder and more exacting than what they are used to.
The second common cause of stress in making this move is social anxiety. Young children are going to be part of a much larger student cohort, with a lot of strangers. They can become concerned that they won’t ‘fit in’ or find friends, or even that they will be bullied at middle school.
The third category of concern is far more practical, as children can become anxious about the logistics of middle school life. Students may particularly struggle with lockers and combination locks! This can seem such a minor detail from the perspective of an adult, but to young children, it is tied up with their fears that they will look silly, be late for class, or have to ask for help from strangers.
Another example would be that many students are comforted by having a clear, familiar routine. The prospect of getting to new lessons on time, in an unfamiliar building, can seem overwhelming. They may need help to prepare for and cope with a new timetable, classroom layout and daily sequence of events.
As this sort of worry is so widespread, teaching and support staff start to tackle some of the issues at an early stage. Pre-move visits to a new school can help, as students get to see first-hand that the new venue is not as big and scary as they thought!
Staff at the school that the children are leaving behind can encourage them to think positively and tackle common concerns together. Then, staff at the middle school – or high school and college – can give new students support during the process of settling in. This can include providing classroom buddies or college mentors, who make transitions less lonely and bewildering.
Mostly though, educators and other staff can make the process of change and entering new learning environments easier by constantly reminding children that progress is normal, natural and valuable. It can provide a chance to make new friends, and to gain more learning experiences, social opportunities and adventures.
Preparing children for their school career
Of course, emphasizing the positive aspects of school life is something that parents need to do before their children even start their education. In fact, a lot of the groundwork that parents do with very young children is an investment in making them more reliant, resourceful and willing to learn throughout their school and college life.
The charity Save the Children has drawn up a list of 10 tips to help young children before they start school. It includes fun ways to introduce them to the concepts of math and literacy, and also games and activities that boost focus, concentration and creativity. What is highly relevant is that the charity states: “Take time to listen to what your pre-school child is trying to tell you and respond to them. Chat with them about what’s happening around them that day.”
The charity adds, “Give your child plenty of time to respond when you’re talking with them. Young children take time to understand what you’ve said and to plan what they want to say.”
This all lays a vital foundation for them to share their thoughts, concerns and observations with you, at every stage of their education.
After all, no one knows your children better than you do. So, spotting signs of stress and providing a calm, non-judgmental opportunity for your child to be honest with you could be the best way of making their educational journey much smoother.
Other ways to help children manage transitions
Although school counselors and other faculty staff play a significant part in helping students through transitional phases, or more personal difficulties, there are things that parents can do to enable their children to self-manage their mental health at these crucial moments.
Mention has already been made of giving children opportunities to talk about what is going to happen and to ask questions. Parents can also encourage their sons and daughters to research their new school online and connect with students who already go there.
If practical issues are a cause of stress, then you could request a school map or some other information that your child can use to virtually rehearse their arrival – use of lockers and location of bathrooms, for example.
For children with significant concerns or emotional needs, parents may need to find additional methods of keeping them calm during this important change in their life. This could include giving even young children an appreciation of traditional and proven relaxation methods. It could also include simple breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, mindfulness and contemplation to find wellbeing and joy.
Playing outside or exercise before or after school can also help children self-manage their mental health. It stimulates the production of neurotransmitters called endorphins, which are hormones proven to create a ‘feel-good factor’. Boosting these has been shown to be a great way to relieve stress. Ultimately, a school counsellor is an excellent way to ensure that a child can transition between schools with as little ill effects as possible.