Childhood Transitions: Providing Sensitive Guidance

Prof. Dr. Stefanie Greubel
Photo: S. Fux

In an increasingly individualized society in which nothing is as constant as change, children and young people today must face countless challenging transitions, often at an early age. These changes affect numerous areas of life, including transitions between daycare and different schools. In order to successfully manage these, children require sensitive and caring guidance, both from their parents as well as from attentive educators. In this interview, Prof. Dr. Stefanie Greubel, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Alanus University, discusses the focal points of her research and the importance of imparting self-trust and self-confidence as essential resources in handling challenging phases of life.

Professor Greubel, as a researcher you have been studying transition processes for many years. What is the importance of such transitions in early childhood development?
In developmental psychology research, it has long been agreed that every transition releases important impulses that affect one’s further course in life. Older theories, for example that of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, state that facing crises – that is, challenging developmental phases – contributes to the development of the individual’s identity. A contemporary view of transition processes draws on this view and attempts to develop models that can guide and strengthen individuals in transition processes. As a result of social changes that have led to an increasing number of transitions in the early childhood years, this model is becoming increasingly relevant. Entrance into early childhood education, for example, is a large step for families and can pose a challenge to the child and family. That is why it is even more important today to address this topic, both from the perspective of the parents and the educational institution. We want to strengthen our children and make these transitions easier for them.

What characterizes transitions?
A transition is always a complex, dynamic process that changes the identity of a person, a group, or even an entire system. Transitions often initiate a so-called “phase of intensified learning,” in which we leave our own comfort zone and must confront new life situations. There are some normative life changes, for example when children start school, that almost all boys and girls must confront equally. Early loss of a parent, on the other hand, affects only a small number of children. But both events need to be processed in a transition process, as they represent important biographical experiences that require the child to integrate discontinuities on multiple levels.

What are those levels?
Transitions affect the child on three different planes: the individual, the interactional, and the contextual. Thus, the transition phase that the child is experiencing will affect his or her personality and his status within the group; and this will result in new roles and responsibilities, because there are also new expectations of the child and his/her abilities. In addition, new attachment figures may replace existing relationships and thus recreate the relationships as well as the social and cultural milieu of the child and his/her environment.

Which factors determine the course of such a transition phase?
Research that focuses on transition processes usually takes an interdisciplinary approach and views these processes from, for example, a pedagogical, sociological, or psychological perspective. From the perspective of developmental psychology, the concepts of so-called “risk and protective factors” are interesting. These factors accompany us throughout our lives; we can be born with them or can develop them through personal experience. Factors that can positively or negatively affect our development include, for example, the quality of our relationships or our own physical health. Personality traits and character qualities are highly relevant, as well. All together, they make up a “package” of aspects of our person that determine how we face life. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu speaks in this context of a person’s assets or “capital.” From an educator’s perspective, these theories are helpful for offering pedagogically effective and meaningful guidance for young people. A strong, secure stance on the part of the adults in the child’s life is therefore one of the most important factors in ensuring that a transition is successful.

How can adults provide intentional, effective support to a child in a transition process?
In conversations with adults and students, I always emphasize the role and responsibility of the social network in developing the personality. As central attachment figures, educators and parents need to fill up a child’s emotional “backpack” with self-confidence, trust in his/her own abilities, and dependable relationships. All children need to hear this core message from an early age: “No matter what happens, you can always rely on me.” Children should know that even if things sometimes go wrong or they are worried about something, they can always talk to a trusted person and can, with their help, think about how the problem could be solved. If children carry this message rooted deeply within them, then they trust that nothing truly bad can happen to them. This is exactly the resource that they need to successfully manage crisis situations.

How can we apply these insights to the transition between kindergarten and elementary school?
This process is a very sensitive phase for many children. Among other things, they realize that the field of influence of their parents is shrinking, and that performance-based, external evaluation plays a greater role. Disappointment and unfairness are now processed on another level, but also success and praise contribute to competence in self-formation; children develop strategies to deal with these forms of feedback. The central source of strength in this time is therefore a supportive, encouraging environment. As experts on their own child, parents can be most effective when they serve as advisors to their children, but without immediately taking over for the child. On the other hand, they should give their child a sense of being taken care of in the new situation or environment and should demonstrate how to face and manage challenges. But some parents need help with this because they are themselves not yet accustomed to the new life situation, because they themselves had negative experiences, or because they do not (for other reasons) trust their child’s abilities at school. That’s why it’s essential that attachment figures are integrated into the transition process, guided by school counselors and educators, and receive transparent information about future developmental steps.

What does that parental support look like?
Depending on the biographical phase that we find ourselves in, a transition can be even more difficult for an adult than for a child – depending on what kind of transition we are talking about and what resources are available in our environment. Here it is important to develop transition models that engage all participants and that meet families where they are. From practical experience, we know that the transition from home care to kindergarten can be guided by a “mentor” – that is, a mother or father whose child has already successfully transitioned to kindergarten – who then accompany the parent(s) who are just beginning this process. For the later transition into elementary school, it can be helpful to have contact with other families who are more familiar with the school system. This is especially important for families whose cultural background does not provide extensive experience with the German school system.

How much can parents and educators “expect” from a child?
The age and the personal developmental status of the child are decisive here. For one eight-year-old child it is a test of courage to go to the bakery alone; other children are ready to do this independently at a much earlier age. That is why it’s important to support each child at his or her own tempo and to make clear: “You are okay as you are.” At the same time, of course, we also need to trust young people. It’s important that they face certain experiences at the right time, so that they are not suddenly overwhelmed at a later point. Ultimately, they must learn to find their own way in life. We adults can assist our children by creating a safe space where they can “practice” certain behaviors; by showing them what to look out for in certain situations; and modeling appropriate behavior. When they know what to expect and they feel safe, then they can draw strength from their experiences.

How can we know that a transition has been navigated successfully?
Transitions are very individual processes that can be evaluated differently, based on several different factors. The intensity and duration of a transition differ depending on the resources that a person brings. In terms of the transition to a new kindergarten or school, we can view this process as completed when the child feels comfortable there, has made new friends, is eager to explore and learn, and has a generally positive mood at school.

More information about the Department of Education and full-time and part-time degree programs in Childhood Education can be found on the Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences website. This video discusses the fields of work that are open to graduates of a degree program in education.