Why we dislike change and how we can support children when changes happen, from Vicki Tayler.

Change is something that all humans experience; it’s an inevitable part of life and something that cannot be avoided. However, the fact that changes occur frequently does not make things any easier to cope with, particularly for children.

Why do we dislike change so much?

Scientists and psychologists believe that there are a few reasons why we, as humans, are so resistant to change. One is that anticipating and experiencing change causes uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, stress and even fear to arise. These feelings send us a clear signal that we are no longer in our comfort zone, (somewhere we do not want to leave and are keen to get back to) and so we fight against these changes. Another is that change is unpredictable. Humans are creatures of habit, we find safety in routine and predictability, and change puts predictability in danger.

So, the reason we dislike and fight against change so much (even if we know it’s inevitable and perhaps for the best) seems to boil down to feeling unsafe.

Why is change so hard for children?

When experiencing change as an adult, we are usually fortunate enough to be able to exercise at least a small element of control over the situation. For example, we may choose to start a new job, move house or take up a new hobby. However, more often than not, children have no control over the change they are experiencing, which can make facing it even harder.

As well as having little control over change, children may also be unfamiliar with the feelings of anxiety and fear that it can cause and not know how to cope with or express these feelings.

This can manifest in changes in behaviour. Not all children find change a challenge – some children face it with excitement and enthusiasm. However, we should not assume that this will always be the case and should put in place strategies of support for these children too.

Make it as predictable as possible

As mentioned, humans find safety in routine and predictability. Although some change is unpredictable, many changes can be planned for. Try to make change as predictable as possible in your classroom. Consistent routines are key, and visual timetables are a great way to let children know what is happening and when. You could even consider having a visual item that indicates a change in your typical daily classroom routine (for example, a star border which is placed around the visual item where a change has occurred). Try to make this look exciting and positive so that children begin to see the excitement in change.

A lot of the fear around change comes from the unknown. To overcome this, give children as much information as possible about the change that is going to happen and provide them with the opportunity to ask questions. For example, if you are going on a school trip, show children photographs of where you are going, show them a map or explore the website together, explain what they will take with them, how they’ll travel and so on. This can make the unknown known and help ease any anxieties.

Give them time to prepare

This will not always be possible, but if you know a change is coming (for example, transitioning to a new year group, a change in staffing, or visitors to the school) tell children about this in advance to allow them time to prepare. Make sure that they know they can ask you any questions. The more they know, the safer they will feel.

Plan for the unpredictable

Some change happens suddenly and cannot be planned for (for example, fire drills, lockdown drills and sudden teacher absence). Early in the school year, explain this to children and go through what happens in a fire drill/lockdown drill so that when these things happen, they are as prepared as possible. For children who may find this more challenging than others, social situation stories may be a useful tool to use. These explain what will happen in a series of small steps (with visuals) and can be referred back to when needed.

Support visually

Using the same visuals school-wide can ensure consistency and reduce anxiety for children when the environment they are in changes. For example, visuals to indicate areas such as toilets, where water is available, entry and exit doors etc. creates familiarity and reduces the amount of change children are faced with.

Explain uncomfortable feelings

The uncomfortable feelings that children experience when faced with change add to their sense of being unsafe. Understanding these and why they arise can be very empowering for children and help them to regain the feeling of safety. The following is an example of a child-friendly way to explain feelings of anxiety to children: ‘Anxiety happens when our brains tell our bodies that we are in danger and we need to run away. This was very helpful when we lived among dangerous animals like lions thousands of years ago, but now our brains can get a bit confused and tell us we are in danger when we are not. If we see or think about something scary, our brains think something dangerous is about to happen, like being chased by a lion, and it gives our bodies instructions to run away really fast! That is why we get funny feelings in our bodies when we are anxious.’

Remind children of previous successes

The children in your class have likely experienced change very successfully in the past, such as transitioning to a new year group, moving house, or welcoming a new sibling. Remind them of this when future changes arise. Remind them of the strategies they used to cope with this previously and point out all the positive things that came from this change.

Reframe change

Change may be scary, but it is also an exciting opportunity to learn new things and meet new people. Try to reframe change as something positive to embrace rather than fear.

Read about change

No teacher will need convincing of the power of a good book and there are plenty of books you can share with children to help them cope with and understand change. Examples include:

  • The Cautious Caterpillar by Twinkl Originals – a story about a nervous caterpillar learning to embrace her exciting transformation.
  • Don’t Forget Your Jumper by Twinkl Originals – a story to explain and help children cope with bereavement.
  • Mum and Dad Glue by Kes Gray – a reassuring picture book to help young children understand divorce and separation.
  • Perfect Square by Michael Hall – a story about the transformation of a perfect square into a myriad of other things that highlights how change can be embraced

Don’t overlook small changes

It can be easy to overlook small changes that seem simple to us but can cause children to worry. A change such as moving from the classroom to the hall can leave children feeling anxious and unsafe. Simple actions such as showing them how to access the toilets and where they can get a drink, explaining how long you’ll be in a new area and providing simple instructions about what to do as soon as they reach it, can help them feel safe and more confident.

Provide an element of choice

Allow children to exercise some degree of choice in the change they are facing. This will allow them to feel like they have some control over the situation and help them to feel empowered by change rather than intimidated by it.

Change is unavoidable and a lifelong human experience. By making sure that children feel safe while they experience change, we can better equip them to cope with change as they grow.

And, in helping children cope with change, we just might teach ourselves how to handle it a little better too!

Author

  • Vicki Tayler

    Vicki is the KS1 content writer for Twinkl Digest – providing insights, tools and support to respond to the latest changes in education. Before joining Twinkl, Vicki spent 10 years working in primary schools and early years settings. She was lucky enough to work in the capacity of both teacher and support staff, seeing all areas of school life.
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