Supporting School Transitions for Tweens and Teens, the Heart-Mind Way

Navigating big transitions, such as starting high school 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 conditionsFor 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

  1. 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.
  2. Name your feelings and 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 and Engaged

  1. For young people (and adults) who find transitions challenging, organization is key! Parents and educators can learn six ways to help young people strengthen their organizational skills and executive functions for smoother transitions.
  2. Being an Alert and Engaged parent requires staying attuned 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 and Kind

  1. 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 modelling positive, realistic, and growth-oriented self-talk can nurture the ultimate gift of self-compassion in young people struggling through a transition.
  2. 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 to 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

  1. 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 time with friends.
  2. 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

  1. Plan ahead to support young people to hand in assignments even late. Most teens and tweens, 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.
  2. 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 ownership of their learning.  

This resource was developed in collaboration with The Dalai Lama Center and Jenn Fane, LDS Director of Education.

Established in 2005 in Vancouver, Canada, the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education is inspired by the Dalai Lama’s vision for 21st century education. His belief that a balance between educating the mind and educating the heart will help create a more compassionate and peaceful world is the cornerstone of the Center’s mission.