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Close-up of primary school boy wearing a blue and white uniform in a classroom, looking assured.
02 February 2023

Helping pupils manage change

One of the few certainties in life is that things will change. Change is inevitable and to be expected, yet so often change can bring feelings of discomfort and unsteadiness. Equally, change can offer new opportunities, new ways of thinking and feelings of excited anticipation. Children can experience all kinds of changes in their lives – from changing teachers, classes, schools or the areas in which they live, to changes in their families, bereavement, loss, separation, and so on. All change can be uncomfortable – no matter the reason – and it is how adults support children through change that makes a difference in their experiences.

Feelings chart showing a range of emojis for children to indicate their emotions

To help pupils to understand how to process change, it may be useful to ask them to think about the changes that have happened in their lives recently. They might have felt unsettled, unsure and disconcerted in heavier moments and in lighter moments, they might have felt that life is full of possibility and they are able to embrace it all. For children who prefer visual communication, this could be through the use of feelings charts, feelings pegs or various facial expressions. For children who prefer communication with words, feelings charts, word clouds or similar can help.

The crucial fact about change and uncertainty is that it isn’t necessarily the thing that has changed, it is the feelings that go alongside the change.

It might have more to do with feeling ready and resilient, rather than the change itself that is important. That said, here are some simple tips for helping children deal with change and uncertainty.

Top tips

  • Encourage self-knowledge. Help children to think about and verbalise how they respond to different scenarios. That way, when things change, they will be forearmed for these occasions. Encourage pupils to reflect on times when change has occurred previously and recall how they responded. This will help them to know what to expect when they experience change in the future.  And in turn, if the adults around children are better able to do this, they will be more able to support children. If adults have self-awareness and self-knowledge, they are better equipped to notice in children when they might need support in times of change.
  • Ask for help. There is no harm in asking for help – from a trusted adult – so that children can weather the change more effectively with tools and with support. It is vital that children do not feel that they have to experience change and the subsequent repercussions on their own.
  • Know that things will eventually settle down. That is, the thing that has changed will eventually become the norm, until the next thing changes!
  • Consider seeing change as an opportunity to approach things differently. When things change, it can be a time to do things differently, to pivot, or to be inspired to change something else. Change does not necessarily have to be a time of difficulty, depending on how you look at it. That said, children mustn't feel like they have to ‘keep smiling’ through change, especially if it feels awful for them.

Normalise change

Remember that the human brain wants to keep you safe so will likely view any change as unsafe: this is where unsettled feelings can come from. Assure children that their brains will adapt over time and that what was once new and fearful will become the norm soon enough.

Self-help methods for pupils

In times of change, there are things that children can do to help themselves manage the process more effectively. Be mindful of not giving them too much responsibility here when it is the job of the adults to support children. Here are some ways that children can help themselves:

  1. Tell a trusted adult about how they are feeling. The adult will need to validate their feelings and offer support, if necessary. Often, children need to simply tell someone their feelings, rather than have them ‘fixed’.
  2. Do the things that help them feel better, like playing outdoors, reading a favourite story, drawing, dancing, singing, watching a film, creating something – whatever takes them away in the short term from the change.
  3. Remember when they might have gone through change previously and how they managed that. Children (and adults) can often forget when things went well in the past, so a quick reminder about when things went well can help the current situation feel better.
  4. Realise that many feelings pass after a while and that what feels difficult now will probably feel easier soon.  

Maintaining mental and emotional health is an ongoing process and might sometimes feel more difficult and equally easier than at other times. For many people, this is part of being human and is to be expected. Finally, remind pupils that everyone is different. Not everything will resonate with them and that too is okay.

The Pupil Wellbeing Award offers a comprehensive strategy to support children in your school.

About the author

Joanna Feast

Joanna Feast is an education consultant specialising in PSHE education across the age ranges. She is also the founder of Clean Well-Being and the author of the Outdoor Learning Award.


Helping pupils manage change