It is a familiar complaint – if only we could go through life as carefree as a small child. Still, even small children experience moments of stress, for example when they start school. This period can have an impact on the rest of their lives. According to Raphaela Carrière, it is therefore important to make this transition as easy as possible. Carrière will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 28 May 2009.
Children develop a sense of safety at a very early age. Among other things, this is based on relationships with other people and the predictability of their surroundings. Change destabilizes this sense of safety and makes children extra vulnerable. Carrière: ‘This is especially the case when many things change simultaneously in their surroundings, daily structure and relationships.’
Simple measures can make these changes easier, according to Carrière. If children can meet their future classmates and teacher, this will enable them to build up relationships based on trust. Safe relationships can be preserved by, for instance, putting friends and acquaintances in the same class and making things more predictable by explaining the rules and daily routine and structure. Because this takes time, it is best done gradually and in the company of a source of safety, usually one of the parents.
‘Children have a fighting spirit and will eventually adapt to a certain degree. However, it is important to keep an eye on children in a transitional phase’, Carrière reckons. ‘During such phases, small things can have huge implications. Not only will the way children experience this phase be affected but also their general mood and eventually their personality.’
Negative experiences in important periods such as these can lead to unpleasant associations with transition in general, according to Carrière. They will influence the way someone in the future will respond to stress or deal with change and the extent to which challenges will be sought out or evaded. If transitional phases are experienced as positive, they will be a valuable reference point for future transitional phases.
Carrière’s research is mainly theoretical, examining what policy and guidelines should be developed. In order to know how a child is doing, it is important to know what is ‘normal’ for that particular child. In other words, the child must be the centre of attention. Therefore Carrière argues that teachers and parents should work more closely together so they can identify how the child is developing, what that child needs and, above all, when children are extra vulnerable. This will make the learning process more effective and will facilitate tailor-made education.
As part of her research, Carrière has developed a dynamic, theoretical framework of reference to study the transition to school. ‘It was striking that there was no general theory yet. How else would it be possible to determine whether a child has coped with the transition well? Thus far, research has been fragmented and mainly aimed at cognitive skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic and on whether children can focus on class processes. According to Carrière, this doesn’t necessarily give us a good idea about whether the children have coped with the transition positively.
In order to find this out, it is important to get to grips with the complex interactions between the child, its inner world, experiences and surroundings during the transition to school. This transition already starts before the first school day and continues for a while. During this transitional phase it is best to follow the child’s development and adaptation by keeping a close eye on its sense of security and safety.
Raphaela Maxine Carrière (Groningen, 1970) studied Political Psychology in Leiden and conducted her PhD research at the Clinical and Developmental Psychology Department of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences of the University of Groningen. Her supervisor is Prof. P.L.C. van Geert. The title of her thesis is ‘The Transition to Early Education. A dynamic theoretical framework’. She is currently working as an Operational Auditor in the Audit Service (research department) of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in The Hague.
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