Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Supporting Kids Through Times of Change

Ten ways to help children cope with tough transitions in school—whether you’re their teacher or their parent.

May 24, 2017

Students routinely experience unexpected changes, like learning that a favorite teacher will leave their school, or that a classmate will move away, or that the band program they’d hoped to join the following year will no longer be funded.

Transitions are always hard for kids—they crave and need consistency and routine, and so the end of the school year can be challenging anyway. But if big changes (or even medium-sized ones) are on the horizon, it can be even harder on kids.

This year, my son’s school has been rocked by a rapid series of challenges. As a parent, I’ve had to do a lot to process my own emotions—anger, sadness, and worry—and mindfully share with him what I’m feeling. It’s important to be honest with kids (I’ve expressed my sadness and frustration with my son) as well as to be hopeful.

Suggestions for Helping Children Work Through Change

Whether you’re a teacher supporting your students or a parent supporting your child, here are 10 ways to make unwelcome change easier for kids:

  1. Invite them to talk about their feelings. Listen to whatever they say—to their anger and sadness and confusion. Validate their feelings and let them know that whatever they’re experiencing is OK.
  2. Help them see the elements of stability in their life and school. Name all the teachers and adults who aren’t leaving, the classmates who will stay. 
  3. Assure kids that the foundations of their community and learning experience will be strong. Even if a beloved staff member or principal is leaving, don’t fall into catastrophizing with your students or children. Help them see that their experience in school is more than one person, program, or other element.
  4. Make sure they don’t take the change personally. Kids tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. Make sure to emphasize that they did nothing to make anyone leave, to drive someone away, as children tend to think whether a teacher or staff member leaves to work at another school, quits the profession, or is perhaps released from the position.
  5. Direct children to see what they are in control of. Unwelcome change makes people feel like they don’t have control over their lives. Ask your students or children, “What are you free to choose right now?” and they’ll be reminded of their own power.
  6. Guide children to focus on a positive future and what might be possible a year from now. Help them imagine making new friends, forming strong connections with other adults, and finding joy, community, and fulfillment at school. If there’s anything they can do to make these things happen (such as making new friends) guide them to do those things.
  7. Allot a brief time for worry. Especially if you have a child who worries all the time, suggest a 15-minute time during the day when they allow themselves to worry. When they start worrying at other times, remind them that it isn’t their designated worry time.
  8. Ask children: What really matters here? Help them see the big picture, gain perspective, and keep the change in proportion.
  9. Help them connect with their own resilience, coping mechanisms, and energy. They have dealt with change and challenge before. Help them access those resources and remind them that they will get through this latest challenge.
  10. Help them see their own resources for making changes that they desire. Help them think about how to be proactive about creating the kind of school and experience they want, even in the face of unwelcome change.

As a teacher, I often had to support students with the above strategies as changes rippled through our school every year. My students, of course, responded differently. Some wore their emotions on their sleeve whereas others were harder to read.

Take the time to explore how students are experiencing change when it strikes. In the end, change is all we can count on, so it’s always useful to help children refine their coping skills.

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