The really wild approach to school transition

1st July 2016 at 00:00
Take a few tips from zoological behaviour experts on how to make the move as painless as possible for the 11-year-old ‘primates’ new to secondary

“Generally, if you move a rhino from one environment to another, it is happy if you give it a bush to eat and some nice weather,” explains Adrian Harland, animal director at Port Lympne Reserve safari park in Kent. “But primates are a lot more complex.”

Animals, like 11-year-old humans, don’t tend to deal well with transition. Some deal with it better than others, but all, in the main, find it tricky. As such, there is plenty of research on how to help animals adapt to new surroundings, just as there is a plethora of academic study on the process of a human moving from a primary to a secondary school. Are there any connections between the two?

While it may seem improbable, and while acknowledging that animals and children are of course very different, academics on both sides of the (electric) fence believe there could be – enough to warrant a degree of expertise sharing. Application will differ greatly, obviously, but there is much in the theory of animal transitions that schools could learn from.

As any primate researcher will tell you, we are closer to the animal kingdom than we are perhaps comfortable acknowledging and, when it comes to transition, the instincts of humans are surprisingly similar not just to primates but even to domestic pets.

When animals move to a completely new environment – whether it’s a wild animal, an animal that’s been held in captivity or even a domesticated household pet – they often struggle to adapt. Animals that have been kept in captivity for a sustained period of time can be overawed when released into vast open savannahs filled with other wildlife. Likewise, cats and dogs that have been raised in a litter by their mother initially have a hard time getting used to living away from their family in the home of their new owner, sometimes alongside other animals.

Fight or flight

The key here is stress: whether it is a rhino, a human or a dog, the same fight or flight reaction kicks in and symptoms of stress appear.

“There are comparisons with humans and primates,” says Harland. “The gorillas can suffer a loss of appetite and general body condition following a move.”

The key to managing the stress for gorillas is support through familiarity. “We send a keeper, a familiar face, to accompany the gorilla and help them to settle into the new environment. We’ve done the same for rhinos,” he says.

Before releasing animals into the wild, they are removed from public contact and, when the time comes, the reserve introduces animals to their new environment slowly. “We have sent a number of black rhinos back to Africa and we have tried to put these individuals on to our 140-acre mixed safari exhibit first,” says Harland. “Out there, they come into contact with other species and learn to feed themselves by browsing on the hawthorn and blackthorn bushes – Kent’s equivalent of acacia.”

This gradual adaptation process is similar to the “blocking” strategy that some people advocate within education (see this week’s cover feature on page 30), where students are kept in smaller groups – or mini schools – for at least the first few years of secondary.

“Children are anxious when they move between schools because there are so many unknowns,” explains transitioning expert Jennifer Symonds, developmental psychologist and lecturer in education at University College Dublin’s School of Education, and author of the book Understanding School Transition: what happens to children and how to help them.

“They draw comparisons between the simpler environment of primary school and more complex secondary schooling and wonder how they are ever going to adapt. These unknowns are even more scary when children move schools without friends, or have developmental or learning disabilities that make it harder for them to adjust.

“So with blocking, what [schools] do is they create a first-year environment in secondary school that’s more like primary school. In secondary school, you have mixed-ability grouping, multiple teachers and also multiple classroom groups to adapt to.

“Blocking reduces that by organising Year 7s into smaller subgroups like school houses, then teaching them together, with a smaller number of teachers, and keeping children with the same group for the first year.”

Smaller scale

While this has proved successful, it is relatively rare in education and it does involve a complete rethink of how key stage 3 education is approached. So what other lessons could we take from animal behaviour experts that are on a smaller scale?

Graham Thompson is vice-chair of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. Despite comedic visions of animals reclining on couches, it is actually a team of experts specialising in animal behaviour that works on referrals from veterinary surgeons.

The first thing Thompson advises people with pets struggling to adapt to their new environment is to get inside the mind of the animal. “It is important to make the transition in a way that allows the animal to progress at its own pace,” he says.

Thompson advocates an individual approach. There is a clear lesson for teachers here: schools can be guilty of a blanket approach to transition that can leave little room for the needs of the individual. Perhaps the process should be a more personal one, with individual transition pathways.

Yeah sure, with what time?

In the world of dogs, it isn’t necessarily onerous. Thompson says that a simple way of creating a bespoke move is by taking something that an animal is already familiar with to the new location. “So we take the dog’s own bed and toys to the new location and ideally they are there when the dog arrives so the dog instantly feels at home,” he explains.

In schools, a similar approach could be facilitated by having a transition specialist that works with Year 6s and Year 7s extensively, being the constant between the two environments. Or more simply, it could be a piece of work that carries over – a project that runs in both Year 6 and Year 7.

Once at the new location, Thompson advises pet owners to create a safe space for the animals to explore their new surroundings.

“With dogs, we often encourage ‘find your treat’ games, where they learn to forage for treats as they explore [their new environment] while being able to escape to their den as needed,” he says.

While a school treasure hunt may be seen as a little infantile for would-be teenagers, some initial orientation exercises at the start of the academic year, rather than simply throwing students into their timetable, may be useful.

Finally, both Thompson and Harland say that the key to success is a constant monitoring of the subject and of the transition, along with a willingness to react and step in to adapt the environment to minimise disruption and stress. Considering the frameworks set up to constantly track a student’s academic progress, it should not be too onerous to add some wellbeing data entries to those spreadsheets to adopt this approach.

So, there’s much to learn from the world of animal behaviour. While humans are more complex, with a plethora of social and contextual issues to contend with, it could be worth looking to the world of animals occasionally for inspiration – add some Jane Goodall books to your summer reading list.

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist based in Kent @simoncreasey2

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