All families experience change and go through a life cycle. The family life cycle is made up of emotional and intellectual stages that nearly every family goes through, including independence, marriage, parenting, launching adult children, and retirement. However, the stress of daily living and coping with a pandemic, divorce, moving, death of a grandparent, and other crises can greatly impact a child’s psychological condition. The effect of a transition upon children depends largely on how adult family members handle it, as well as the quality of parenting during the transition. But much of the time, educators are well-positioned for helping students manage transitions.
Normal and Nonnormative Transitions
Not all transitions are the same, and consequently, students won’t always need help processing them.
Normal transitions are changes in a person’s and/or family’s life that are expected, such as children going to kindergarten or graduating from high school. These transitions impact students, but they are not considered significant life events that affect their psychological condition.
Nonnormative transitions consist of unexpected changes and changes in a person’s and/or family’s life that do not occur at the physically, socially, or culturally expected time, such as a parent of young children dying. Helping students manage transitions is key here—and making use of existing resources, including social and emotional learning, can be very valuable.
Children thrive on routine, and today’s students are experiencing a world that is anything but routine. COVID-19 has introduced them to a world in transition, and one that includes unemployment, online school, social distancing, and perhaps the death of a loved one. These nonnormative transitions do not have guidelines to follow, so “families often find themselves feeling their way in the dark as they negotiate unfamiliar territory.”
Helping Students Manage Transitions
Transitions that were once considered normal have become new, undefined territory. According to Andrew E. Roffman, “The family resilience, the capacity for a family to weather and even thrive during adversity, depends on a family’s ability to balance stability and flexibility in changing circumstances.”
Students look to adults for guidance on how to react to stressful situations, but knowing how to help students can be challenging when dealing with nonnormative transitions. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends “acknowledging some level of concern” while modeling “problem-solving, flexibility, and compassion” as we navigate these transitions.
The NASP also recognizes the importance of a connection to school. A “school’s capacity to conduct virtual learning experiences will vary greatly,” so parents should “take advantage of the many companies and online platforms.” Likewise, teachers can support families by reaching out to see how they are coping with assignments and activities.
The NASP says that students, on the whole, will “manage with the support of family members”; still, they recommend watching for signs of anxiety as some children will have “more intense reactions, including severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviors.” These risk factors increase in families that have experienced nonnormative changes in the past, including, “pre-existing mental health problem[s], prior traumatic experiences or abuse, family instability, or the loss of a loved one.” The NASP suggests contacting a professional if students “exhibit significant changes in behavior for more than two weeks.”
Psychology Today indicates that “it’s too soon to fully grasp the psychological toll of students’ abrupt removal from school and shift to remote learning, not to mention potential job losses, family strife, illness, and loss of loved ones.” In this time of seemingly unending change, students need to know that it is normal to feel anxious. Here are a few suggestions for helping students manage transitions:
- Don’t be afraid to discuss feelings of uncertainty.
- Stay physically active, get enough sleep, and eat well.
- Maintain a structured routine.
- Provide opportunities for online students to socialize with friends.
- Be flexible as plans change.
- Focus on the things that are going well.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed at times, but when stress and anxiety impair a child’s ability to function, it’s time to seek professional assistance. Ultimately, students need support to help them through these transitions, but in doing so, they develop lifelong skills and strategies to become successful adults.
Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions about anxiety. https://www.bbrfoundation.org/faq/frequently-asked-questions-about-anxiety
NCFR. (2019). NCFR report: nonnormative transitions. https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/winter-2019
NYU Langone Health. (n.d.). A work in progress: family resilience & COVID-19. NYU Langone Health News Hub. https://nyulangone.org/news/work-progress-family-resilience-covid-19
O’Hara, R. E. (2020, May 11). Helping students cope with coronavirus stress. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nudging-ahead/202005/helping-students-cope-coronavirus-stress
Sievering, K. (n.d.). Helping children cope with changes resulting from COVID-19. NASP. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/helping-children-cope-with-changes-resulting-from-covid-19