The number of young children experiencing poor emotional wellbeing is increasing rapidly, most acutely for vulnerable children, such as those with special educational needs (SEND), experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), in receipt of Pupil Premium Funding (PPF) and have been or are at risk of being excluded and/or suspended. In this article, Dr Charlotte Bagnall explores how for these vulnerable children, primary-secondary school transitions can be especially difficult, and outlines some key recommendations for policy and practice on how we can support vulnerable children through this period of transition.
- Knowledge of how best to support vulnerable children has the potential to improve the mental health and educational trajectories of children across the life course, reducing long-term inequalities.
- Education policymakers should encourage implementation of a sensitive transition curriculum, running until the end of Year 7, with targeted support for children’s emotional wellbeing at the forefront.
- A tool being developed by Dr Charlotte Bagnall and her research team at the University of Manchester, will provide the first step within a transition curriculum by building capacity for educational practitioners and researchers to identify and support children’s emotional wellbeing during this time.
Vulnerable children – risks and outcomes
Children with SEND are especially vulnerable to poor experiences of primary-secondary school transitions, shown to report lower levels of wellbeing, experience feelings of rejection, face greater emotional and behavioural difficulties and show poorer academic performance than children without these difficulties. Children with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) difficulties and without an education, health and care plan (EHCP) are also disproportionately more likely to be excluded and/or suspended during this time. Research shows that this can have significant negative implications for children’s self-conception, emotional wellbeing and school belonging in the short term and could impact academic attainment and life chances in the long-term.
Children with SEMH difficulties negotiate significant and unanticipated structural changes in support and standards over primary-secondary school transitions differently to their peers. This leads to children and their parents/guardians reporting feeling emotionally unsettled and unsafe. Poor adjustment during this time can exacerbate existing social inequalities and lead to poor mental health and reduced life chances.
One recommendation to manage this period more effectively for children with SEND, and especially SEMH (whom are at greater risk of exclusion and/or suspension during this time), is to improve collaboration and communication channels across systems and stakeholders. From the primary school the child is moving from and the secondary school they are moving to, it is important that parents/carers and children are included within discussions, with a key member of staff at each school for the family. This could be facilitated at the Local Authority level and would ensure that our most vulnerable children and their parents/guardians receive continuity in standards and support adjusted to meet their individual needs. It would also support short-and long-term emotional wellbeing and help children feel safe and feel a sense of control of their transition, which is shown to be paramount during this time.
Children who receive Pupil Premium Funding (PPF)
Children from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, who are in receipt of Pupil Premium Funding (a UK government grant given to schools to support disadvantaged pupils), continue to be reported as having lower academic attainment and poorer wellbeing than their peers. They are also at greater risk of being excluded from secondary school.
This can result in children in receipt of Pupil Premium Funding making less progress, widening attainment gaps in the first three years of secondary education, and this is reported to have increased further following the Covid-19 pandemic. Our recent qualitative interview research conducted with Year 6 children in receipt of this funding, has shown that these children report greater ambivalence about transition than more affluent peers, with many looking forward to transition, but simultaneously worrying about it.
Children who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
For children who have experienced ACEs, primary-secondary school transitions can be especially difficult as many of these children experience poor emotion management and regulation. Supporting the development of children’s emotional literacy in the lead up to primary-secondary school transitions and then continuing this support into secondary school can be especially protective for all children’s emotional wellbeing, but especially for these most vulnerable children.
A transition curriculum
An early-intervention, gradual and sensitive primary-secondary school transition curriculum, from the beginning of Year 5 to the end of Year 7 has been recently piloted. Support for this as a “promising school-based intervention” has been referenced in recent NICE and Health Policy Scotland guidelines following my 2020 research.
The Department for Education and Local Authorities should work with educators to further develop and implement this transition curriculum more widely. As part of this transition, curriculum lessons should focus on developing children’s awareness, knowledge and ability to cope with the multiple changes experienced over primary-secondary school transition, by practicing skills, asking questions and discussing their feelings. This can help children feel prepared, but not overwhelmed by their next chapter, which has been shown within qualitative research to be a fine balancing act.
Transition provision to continue into secondary school
A systemic approach to primary-secondary school transitions provision is needed, with emotional wellbeing central to this. It is recommended that both universal and targeted support for children’s emotional wellbeing should be at the forefront of transition provision, and this should not end as children leave primary school. This support should help children to recognise, understand and manage their emotions.
Further support – P-S WELLS
It is also worth noting, that some children, and especially vulnerable children, may need further targeted support beyond this. Early detection of children who are vulnerable to poor transition and providing them with additional support tailored to their individual needs is paramount. As a first step in doing, our research team are developing a scale to measure children’s emotional wellbeing in the context of primary-secondary school transitions. This novel instrument will be named Primary-Secondary School Transitions Emotional Wellbeing Scale (P-S WELLS). It will add distinct value at a community level by developing a tool and manual to build capacity for educational practitioners to obtain immediate insight into the universal support their class needs and identification of specific children who need additional support. Education policymakers and local authorities should engage with the development and rollout of this instrument and advocate to embed this into a transition curriculum.