School transition: Grieving the old and welcoming the new

Carmen BryceBlog posts

“Who are you?..” said the caterpillar

“I-I hardly know, Sir, just at present” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Just like Alice in Wonderland, the start of a new school for a young person can be as confusing and disorientating. Once a big fish in a small pond, they may find themselves struggling with swimming in a big sea.  Starting school for a child or adolescent is recognised as a life transition and milestone (Darby et al 2012). This is not only because of the transition to a formal and rule centred environment but also because of the new experiences, opportunities and challenges that face may them.

Children without older siblings may face an additional barrier as older siblings can provide an invaluable source of information and give space to the child/adolescent to discuss their experience. This reinforces that a lack of communication to discuss their experience is cited as a barrier in the transition to primary or secondary school.

It is also important to acknowledge the sense of loss that can be experienced by a child transitioning to secondary school. The child can grieve for their group of friends, teacher, familiar school environment and routine.

Theory around loss has evolved by many theorists who echo that grief is not limited to a death but can also be for relationships and settings such as school.  

Doka (2002) theory of disenfranchised grief is one which can be adequately applied to this experience as Doka suggests ‘the grief a person can experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged or socially supported’.

This theory connects strongly with the transition between schools for adolescents and may help highlight to parents and teachers the deeper experiences of loss the young person may be experiencing and how to support them.

  1. The griever is excluded from the loss– children are an example of this as children are often shielded and not openly allowed to grieve a loss.
  2. Loss is not acknowledged– such as the transition to a new environment and the sense of loss of old friends, teacher and environment.
  3. The way a person grieves is unacceptable– culturally and socially there are different forms of grieving that are seen as acceptable. If a person does not grieve in the socially normal way, the loss can become disenfranchised. An example of this can be a child ‘acting out’ or being behavioural deviant in the new school as a form of mourning.

However it is important to note psychologist William Worden (2010) suggests that the griever needs to act and move through the grief process. Therefore although the young person is going to go through a difficult time, it is important to highlight that this does not suggest it can be avoided.

Adolescents may mourn the comfortable and familiar school and life stage they were in, in what can feel like just a moment ago but being aware and acknowledging this will support the young person through this.

This crucial point is echoed by Worden (2010) who suggests this approach implies that mourning can be influenced and supported by interventions from the outside. This is important for parents, teachers, caring professionals to acknowledge that this transition can be supported and eased.

Worden’s four tasks of mourning can also act as recommendations for the family of a child or adolescent going through this milestone in life

  1. Accept the reality of the loss– accepting that the reality of daily life for the past few years is now over, is an important for first step. Acknowledgment by family members and teachers have been recently noted by Bressie (2016) as essential support systems for young people and their acknowledgment is crucial. Rituals can help with the acceptance of this and can provide a structure and acknowledgment of the loss. This ritual can involve classmates signing a t-shirt and hanging this somewhere in the young person’s room or having a party with classmates. Creating a book with signatures and contact information to retain the friendships in primary school is another step parents can encourage so adolescents know this friendship is not over. Or simply talking to your child about what they will miss and how they feel is an easy step in acknowledging this change in their life.
  2. Work through the pain of grief- sadness, anger, loneliness and feelings of depression are some emotions that could arise for a young person if grieving. Family and friends can sometimes not know how to respond and as a result can give the young person the impression that, ‘we don’t want to see or hear your pain’.  Therefore communication is essential to prevent the grief become disenfranchised. Simply acknowledging that this is a difficult time and allow a safe space to discuss this is important. Creating a worry box can help a young person write down their worries and feelings which can be a release of all the mixed emotions being felt.
  3. Adjusting to a new environment where something or someone is missing- Worden (2010) identifies 3 types of adjustment internal, external and spiritual adjustment.

External adjustment focuses on the new roles, knowledge and skills needed since the loss. A young person can struggle with finding their new role in the school. Where in the previous school they could have been the funny person who always tells jokes, this may be different in a class where many other extroverted people also tell jokes and are outgoing. This can involve the adolescent then ‘feeling out’ where they fit in this new environment and the skills needed to do well academically and socially.

Internal adjustment relates to the young person finding their sense of self. Who am I? What do I want to do in relation to class choices, biology or chemistry? It is important in this adjustment the family reinforce the sense of self the young person once was while balancing this with who they start to become and change into. The young person will inevitable accept new self-images of who they are and it is crucial the family accept this transition which is consistent with all human growth. Allowing a young person to express this new sense of self is an important recommendation, putting posters in their room of the new rock band they love, giving chores to save for a guitar etc can allow they to accept their new sense of self.

The spiritual adjustment involves finding meaning in the loss, this can be the young person identifying possible meaning as to why their best friend went to a different school. Basic assumptions can change from ‘the world is a good place’ to ‘life is unfair’ so finding meaning as to why this difficult change has happened can help the adjustment. The young person may search for the meaning behind this difficult time and if they struggle with this, close family could help clarify meaning behind difficult times but often the person builds a narrative or story behind this difficult time which can ease the transition.

4.  To emotionally relocate the lost thing and move on with life– This stage involves keeping a place in their life for previous stage in their life and also reinvesting energy into the new stage and moving on.  It can help to offer the young person that at the end of the school year they can re-visit their old school or favourite teacher to acknowledge the stage that has passed but also support the young person in re-investing the majority of their energy in this new stage.  Offering a small get together with new friends in the family home, going through school activities and what may be of interest to the young person will help move the energy positively to this new phase.

The main message I hope this piece conveys is the importance of engaging with the young person who may be experiencing loss and acknowledging their experience as real.

Children and young people are often perceived to be immune from grief which can lead to complex and confusing emotions for the person.

There is an old wives tale surrounding loss and grief that talking about it will bring up too many difficult emotions. However, the loss and pain is never too far from the surface and acknowledging it will allow the young person to feel understood and free to speak of the feelings they are experiencing.

This theory of loss and grief can be applied to many areas of human growth and life such as retirement, a new job, and finishing college to name a few, and I hope starts  a conversation that the person may desperately need to have. 

By Michelle O’Connor, MyMind Limerick