Interview with Tina Fersterer

Tina Fersterer is a psychologist with extensive experience supporting children with additional needs, their families and schools. After 10 years of working in intensive early intervention programs for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, Tina moved into the education sector where she spent a further 10 years working collaboratively with schools in developing practices and processes that support all students, but particularly those with disabilities and additional social emotional or learning needs.Tina now has a private practice in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

What is a psychologist’s role in supporting families and children adjusting to school transition? How does a psychologist work collaboratively with families, schools and other health professionals to support children transitioning in and out of primary school?

Transitioning to school is one of life’s great milestones and along with this transition often comes a myriad of thoughts and emotions for both children and their families. Starting primary and secondary school can generate stress and anxiety for children which often impacts negatively, not only on the family environment, but also on a child’s ability to learn and capacity to adjust to the expectations of school. All students benefit from consideration when starting school and psychologists play an important role providing support, education and strategies to assist families through this process. Psychologists understand that children vary in the range of skills and abilities they bring to their first day at school and can facilitate a transition pathway that draws on their strengths while also supporting areas of difficulty. Psychologists can also help children and families to understand that anxious feelings are normal and expected during times of transition or change and provide a range of strategies to help manage those feelings. Effective communication between families and schools is important for a smooth transition, ensuring that the needs of students are met from day one. Prior to starting school, psychologists can assist with developing support programs and facilitating open and productive communication processes between families, schools and relevant health or educational professionals.

What interventions have you found helpful for children experiencing difficulty adjusting to primary and secondary school transition?

Thorough preparation and effective communication is critical to a successful transition to school and it’s never too early to begin establishing rapport between school and families. Familiarising the child with the school environment, teachers, students, as well as routines and expectations can be helpful as is ensuring that teaching staff understand the needs of the students they are working with.

In terms of principles, transition supports don’t necessarily differ depending on the whether the child is attending secondary or primary school. What is important is that the strategies are developmentally appropriate and engaging to the child. If the child is not comfortable with the strategy it is unlikely to be effective. For example, we know that visual representations of the daily schedule or routines can be helpful in reducing anxiety and supporting executive functioning for many students. A visual schedule with pictures and a post-it box for finished tasks might be appropriate for young children, whereas a secondary school student might find a written checklist in their diary a more acceptable form of scaffolding.

One resource that many children and their caregivers have found useful is a ‘Welcome to school’ or ‘Starting School’ book. This is a child-friendly document to facilitate orientation using a story book format. This document also provides information about the purpose of school and descriptions of the environment, staff and daily routines. The ‘Welcome to school’ book can be developed collaboratively with the psychologist, school and parents/carers enabling children to familiarise themselves with the physical surroundings and expectations of school life well before the school year starts. It also allows for an opportunity to respond to questions or concerns the child may have, practise school based skills, and clarify behavioural expectations. Depending on the individual child’s needs and developmental level, the book can include a range of information including photos and descriptions of:

  • Buildings, teaching spaces such as classrooms, and other areas like the library, toilets, and playgrounds. Visual learners may also find including a map of the school helpful.
  • Photos and information about the child’s classroom teacher, school principal, specialist teachers and ancillary staff is particularly helpful. Including an encouraging and welcoming statement from the child’s new teacher and school principal can also help to reduce anxiety by promoting a personal connection and familiarity with key staff.
  • School rules or behavioural expectations and core values stated in positive terms are also useful for both parents/carers and the child as they ensure that there is opportunity to teach and practise new skills while developing an understanding of school expectations prior to starting.

Prior to starting, some children may also find extra visits to the school helpful for orientation. Sitting in on classes, observing children in the playground and meeting staff can reduce anxiety and encourage a sense of familiarity. Classroom teachers can further assist by showing a genuine interest in things the child enjoys and incorporating a child’s interests into the curriculum to help create a positive perception of learning. Many schools allocate each new child a ‘buddy’ who can spend time the child during play ,assist with orientation and ensure they are feeling safe and supported. Psychologists can also work with children and their families in relation to normalising and managing feelings of anxiety or stress for both the child and their caregivers.

What strategies and resources are useful in supporting children with additional needs and their families in school transition?

Children with additional needs will benefit from the strategies outlined above. However, students with additional needs may also require more extensive supports and adjustments to be made. In these cases a targeted and individualised approached is required and effective communication and collaboration between family and school becomes even more critical.

At enrolment, it is important for the parent/carer to provide the school with all of the assessment and diagnostic information available, including reports from relevant external professions such as paediatricians, psychologists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists. This will ensure that the school has all relevant and necessary information about the student. However, at times, large amounts of documentation can be overwhelming for teaching staff so documents which consolidate key information about the child may be useful. One way to provide key information is to develop a student profile. A student profile is a document that helps a teacher to understand the individual needs of the student and assists the development of learning program that is relevant and engaging for the child. The student profile should be seen as an organic document that is frequently reviewed and evolves as needs change. It should also transition with the student to different year levels and teaching staff.

A student profile can be succinct or extensive depending on the individual needs of the child. It typically covers information about relevant diagnoses, the child’s likes and dislikes, learning priorities, educational and environmental adjustments required and previous supports that have been effective. The psychologist can assist families to develop a student profile that meets their child’s needs, help with decisions such as who will have access to the profile and develop manageable strategies and goals. The type of information often included in a student profile is:

  • Recommended supports.
  • Child’s like and dislikes.
  • Communication skills e.g. are they able to ask for assistance?
  • Descriptions of behaviour support systems that have been effective.
  • The child’s learning style and cognitive ability.
  • Recommendations from health providers such as strategies that help the child when anxious or upset

Depending on age, need and level of ability, many students can also benefit from a range of visual supports to assist adjustment to the new school and executive functioning. These can include strategies such as colour coded timetables and subject materials, activity planners, schedules, checklists and reinforcement systems.

Another strategy to assist with starting school is to develop a transition plan. Transition plans draw on the student profile information to develop a working document that outlines concrete and specific information about how strategies and supports will be implemented, by whom and where. Like the student profile, transition planning documents are an organic document that is constantly evolving according to the student’s needs.

The planning document typically includes:

  • Behavioural, curriculum and environmental adjustments and modifications that will be required and how they will be implemented,
  • Concrete management plans for challenging situations,
  • Information about safety nets, buddies and support people,
  • And any other strategies that are recommended.

Students with disabilities or special learning needs may also require a regular student support group meeting. Ideally support group meetings begin prior to the child starting school to set programming goals and explore relevant strategies for the child’s individual and ongoing needs. Support group meetings should occur at least once per term and ensure all key participants continue to work collaboratively.

In sum, a positive start to school can be facilitated by thorough preparation, effective communication and a collaborative approach. Psychologists, together with parent/carers and schools can put in place a range of individualised supports that enhance a child’s first experience of school by reducing anxiety, increasing familiarity and drawing on the child’s strengths. Through an open and flexible approach even the most anxious child can develop a positive response to learning environments and template for future transitions.