Transition Points in our Children’s Lives

school transitionsBefore I went into full-time private practice I worked for several years as a school psychologist at all grade levels.  As this is a time of obvious transition — graduations, wedding season and proms — it is also a time of not so obvious transitions.  We are all ready to cheer on the graduates who are going on to the next phase of their lives or the brides and grooms of summer, but it’s important to also note that there are other points of transition in children’s lives that may escape notice.

When I worked in an elementary school I tended to test children more in first and third grades than any other grades. There are reasons for this.  Kindergarten is easy for the typical child.  By the end of the year the kids have learned some basic skills and if they are not as advanced as expected, it can still be chalked up to maturity. Much growth can happen in a few short months and children often return in September having developed in leaps and bounds.  Early Intervention or the Committee for Preschool Special Education has probably already assessed children who show significant delays or disabilities, but many other children are just plugging along.

Then first grade comes.  Suddenly more is expected of the children. Some districts don’t have full day kindergarten, so just the change to a longer day is hard for some kids.  There is homework to do; spelling tests to study for; writing assignments; addition and many other tasks that were barely touched upon in kindergarten.  If a child has a learning disability, it may start to show itself during first grade. Children who just seemed a little immature last year may now be lagging further behind their peers and showing difficulties in learning basic academic tasks.  If by the first report card there are concerns, a teacher may recommend that a child be assessed.

First grade is a difficult transition.Those who get through first grade without any problems will breeze through second grade.  Parents may think that all will be smooth sailing until the change to middle school, but that is not necessarily the case, as third grade is another big jump. Second grade builds on first somewhat, but in third grade the child is expected to master multiplication, cursive writing and work more independently. There is increased homework and more long-term projects such as book reports.  Again, a child who made it through previous years may begin to struggle in third grade as the demands become greater. We prepare kids for the bigger transitions such as to high school or out of preschool, but when a child is staying in the same school building for four or five years, it is easy to forget that each grade has its own climate and demands.  Third grade is a transition in a way that second grade is not. I often explain the testing part of my practice as focusing on “third graders who can’t read or sit still.”  This simplifies it, and is of course not the only population I test, as I even evaluate adults post-injury or assess college students for learning problems that may have been too subtle to cause difficulties before. However, a huge percentage of my evaluations are on third graders.

The rest of elementary school tends to be a steady climb without too many huge leaps, and each school district has its own ideas of what is to be expected of children in these grades and when to start middle school.  It is often middle school that is the next significant jump where problems may arise.  Most children with serious learning disabilities will have been identified by now and would be getting supportive services.  But for those who are disorganized, perhaps have mild attention deficits and some problems with executive functioning; this will be the first time that it starts to become a hindrance.  Often parents will say, “Well, looking back, I can see there were always signs, but my child always managed to pull through and get the school work done in the end.”  Once children enter into the second half of their school career, they don’t get as much handholding as they did
before.  Suddenly a child will be expected to work on a long-term project without much guidance.  Tests cover more material.  Students will be encouraged to pick their own topics or books to read.  Children who had shorter deadlines and less independent work can do fine with a parent or teacher guiding them along, but if there is trouble with organizational or attention skills, they may find themselves losing papers, not completing projects and getting failing grades.   The same can happen for some kids during the transitions in high school, as they are expected to do more independent work, maybe hold part-time jobs, commit to sports and otherwise start to divide their time in many ways.

Many kids make it through high school pretty well, get good grades and find school to be relatively stress-free.  They can balance life and school in a way that appears easy.  However, it won’t be clear until they leave home how much was being balanced for them.  It is not unusual for me to treat young men and women for therapy who go away to school then come back because they simply were not successful at college.  Often it has nothing to do with intelligence or the ability to learn the material, but rather has more to do with time management and self-monitoring. Unfortunately many teachers — even in high school, give the students too much guidance so that when they are thrust into college they are timid and afraid about how to work independently.  Even in the introductory college classes a lot more structure is now needed to help with the transition.  I recently had a young woman tell me that she didn’t understand her college assignment because there was no ‘rubric’ or ‘outline.’  I asked what the assignment was, and she said, “Choose any topic we are covering this semester and write an eight-page research paper on that topic.”  Having taught college as an adjunct on and off for many years, I thought, “Well, this is how I usually assign work.  What’s wrong with that?”  I suggested that she could discuss a topic with the teacher to get some guidance; otherwise she should just move full steam ahead.  It was surprising to hear that she had gotten through high school and even her first year of college, yet still had so much guidance and hand-holding when it came to doing her work.  How then will she transition to a job where she might be given even more independence?

So, as we eat cake at graduation parties and watch kids move up from one school to another and on to face the world, let’s not forget that there are transitions at many of life’s junctures and all are opportunities for growth and new experiences.  Allow your kids to try something and fail, allow them to learn new skills by giving them less support.  Take off the training wheels.  Be alert to the less obvious transitions that your children might find too challenging, like multiplication or long-term projects and ask for help from the school or an outside professional if the need be.

Onwards and upwards!  Have a great summer!

[blockquote class=blue]Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D, practices child, adult, and family psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow. [/blockquote]

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