Navigating big transitions, such as starting highschool or a new school year, brings added challenges for young people who are neurodiverse, have ADHD, or experience learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. For these groups of young people, executive functioning skills often require extra support to develop in a resilient way.
It can be heartbreaking for families and educators alike when students struggle to adjust as expected, be it at home or at school. When the hours before school regularly feel like a battlefield, or assignments continue to fall by the wayside, feelings of powerlessness and overwhelm are likely. As a caring adult in a young person’s life, such enduring patterns are cues for curiosity and compassion rather than frustration and punishment. The five Heart-Mind qualities can act as a roadmap to investigate and, when necessary, intervene to help young people adapt to the new challenges and opportunities big transitions bring in a supportive way.
Practical Tips for Supporting School Transitions, the Heart-Mind Way
The following tips, insights, and actions can help guide parents and educators to support healthy transitions for young people in grades 5-8. While these suggestions address the back-to-school transition for this age group specifically, they can be adapted to other age groups and types of transitions.
Secure & Calm
- Starting the day off on the right foot can set the tone for a smooth home-to-school transition. Focus on calm mornings grounded in the absolute essentials - so long as your young person is dressed, their teeth and hair are brushed, and there is something in their stomach, consider it a win! Providing process praise for each completed task can build confidence to start the school day on a positive note. Use incentives to encourage getting ready on time. Peaceful mornings often begin the night before - see suggestions for getting organized under Alert & Engaged.
- Name your feelings & support young people. It is ALWAYS better to name what you're feeling, rather than brush it under the rug, otherwise young people may personalize your negative emotions. Pair naming your feelings with supportive action to demonstrate that they don’t need to fear your big feelings because you can recognize them AND still provide the support they need. Teachers can engage in this practice as well.
Alert & Engaged
- For young people (and adults) who find transitions challenging, organization is key! Parents and educators can learn six ways to help young people to strengthen their organizational skills and executive functions for smoother transitions.
- Being an Alert & Engaged parent requires staying atuned to challenges that transcend the typical speed bumps that affect most young people in transition. While getting used to a new school routine can initially be a bumpy road, it becomes smoother for most students over the course of several weeks. If you’ve tried several strategies to support the young person you care about, and none of them are working - or your gut instinct tells you they need more help - it is likely time to seek out professional support. 
Compassionate & Kind
- Most young people (and their parents/educators) can benefit from maintaining the perspective that they are trying their best, with the skills and resources available to them, even if it might not look like someone else’s “best.” Supporting and modeling positive, realistic, and growth oriented self talk can nurture the ultimate gift of self-compassion in young people struggling through a transition.
- Being kind to yourself as a parent or educator is crucial while supporting tweens & tweens - just because they are experiencing adjustment challenges, it does NOT mean you’ve failed them as a parent or teacher. Being tuned into their struggles is a sign that you ARE a good enough parent/teacher, and willing adapt the support and scaffolding you provide (which some young people naturally need more of) in a responsive way. After all, giving them space to try and fail on their own with unconditional support nurtures resilience.
Gets Along with Others
- Help young people avoid the comparison trap, which breeds resentment and can complicate feelings of social acceptance - it can be hard to feel like you belong when those around you seem to have it “all figured out.” Based on your child’s ability to cope with distractions and overstimulation, it may be helpful to set some supportive expectations for homework completion, such as that homework is done at home in a quiet space (with parental support and snacks) BEFORE spending times with friends.
- Depending on a young person's age, it may be helpful to build direct communication lines between parent and teacher to facilitate efficient information sharing, especially if remembering assignments and other information sent home is a challenge for the student. Include young people in the information exchange when appropriate - for example, CC them on email conversation exchanging information on key events and deadlines. Bringing them into the loop in this way models respectful and proactive communication and builds healthy communication skills.
Solves Problems Peacefully
- Plan ahead to support young people to hand in assignments even late. Most teens and tween, especially those with learning differences or who are neurodivergent, need help to manage the organization and workload. of assignments and homework, and may not be forthcoming about outstanding assignments. Stepping in to support prevents students from taking advantage of the “if I ignore it it will go away” avoidance mentality, which can be a less-than-beneficial coping strategy.
- Support young people to take the lead when it comes to troubleshooting issues that arise at home and at school - lawnmower parenting doesn’t nurture the skills they need to solve their own problems peacefully. This is especially true as they move into the upper grades of secondary school, where students are expected to take owenership over their learning.
This resource was developed in collaboration with the Learning Disabilities Society [LDS]. The Dalai Lama Center would like to extend special thanks to Jenn Fane, LDS Director of Education, who was a close collaborator on this resource. LDS is a nonprofit charity that has been serving individuals with suspected and diagnosed learning differences in Greater Vancouver and across BC for over 50 years. Our mission is to empower all children, youth, and adults with learning differences to recognise their unique strengths and develop tools to achieve lifelong confidence and sucess. We meet this mission by offering research-informed and evidenced based one-to-one instruction and small group programming for individuals aged three to adult. For more information, visit our website at ldsociety.ca
If you feel the morning stress mounting as the clock ticks down, check in with your feelings about the morning’s activities and time pressures. If your anxiety is off the charts, your child will be able to sense that but might not understand why.
Naming your feelings can sound like “you can probably tell I’m pretty stressed out this morning. I’m worried about getting you to school and me to work on time, seeing as we have been late every morning so far this week.” Janet Lansbury and Daniel Siegel have excellent resources for learning to name your feelings with children and youth.
Building organizational skills and strengthening executive functioning in young people can start with working with them to:
- write assignments, appointments, and memos down in a reliable spot as soon as the information is available (such as a planner or notes app on their phone)
- make important items bigger (because bigger things tend to be easier to find - think adding a bulky accessory to a keyring)
- always keep important items in the same place (such as placing wallet and bus pass in a basket by the front door upon arriving home)
- use visual cues in key transitional places (such as a sticky note by the front door with a checklist of must-have items when leaving the house)
- pack bags together as a bedtime ritual. Packing backpacks and gym bags the night before can reduce the challenges of the morning rush, and is often a less combative time to engage with young people who find getting organizaed overwhelming.
- sleep in clean clothes the night before to avoid morning battles over getting dressed
The primary thing to be attuned to is patterns - while occasional low moods, school-related worries, and disorganization are to be expected, challenges such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns present as enduring patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting over time.
Messaging should be consistent, reinforce progress over perfection, and remind young people through words and actions that “we’re a team and I’m here to help you build the skills & strategies you need to succeed.”
As children transition to middle or high school, the complexity of teacher communication increases with the number of subject teachers a student has, which may be as many as 8 per year. Bringing your child into the process of developing a communication plan for multiple teachers can build their awareness of the forethought that goes into managing complex communications proactively.
Starting points for building collaborative family-teacher communication include:
- logging into your child's school based email or team/communication app to ensure you have access to their class and assignement information
- attending parent teacher meetings and asking about how information is given to your child about their school work
- asking to see the feedback your child received on tests/assignments so that you can stay aprised of any supports they may need and celebrate sucesses!
Foster the mentality that handing in work is “better late than never,” and reassure them that teachers will accept late assignments up until the final work completion day of the semester as they want your child to succeed.
E.g. “I would love to support you to get out the door on time - I don’t know what school work you need to bring with you, but I would love to pack lunch for you. Would you like a sandwich or a wrap?”
Executive functioning skills are the mental skills that support us in managing our day to day lives. Skills such as attention, problem solving, flexible thinking, working memory, self-control, and even emotional control and all skills children (and adults) need to develop and use each day. If executive functioning is a challenge for your child, this may look like struggles with planning, prioritization, organization, keeping track of belongings, and staying on a task.
Click here to lean how to nurture these skills in tweens and teens!
Your child's GP is generally a great place to start if you have concerns, and can refer or suggest other specialists to consult. If your GP isn't taking your concerns seriously, other professionals that work with children experiencing significant challenges with transitions are clinical counsellors, occupational therapists, and behaviroual consultants.
One way to incentivize this routine is to let them invite a friend over for dinner and to hang out afterwards, so long as homework happens first.
E.g. Plan to stop for a hot chocolate on the way to school when time permits.
Going through class materials with the young person you care about can be a highly effective way to avoid finding out that they have missed submitting large amounts of work throughout the semester and may be at risk of not completing the class.
Taking a supportive back-seat shows you have confidence in their ability to figure things out and communicates care without overbearing. Their insights or approach might surprise you as you support them to work through issues from a place of self knowledge. When frustrations arise, remind the young person you care about that you are ON their team, not against them, and want to see them succeed despite the challenges they may be experiencing.