‘We can actively programme ourselves to respond positively to change’

Co-founder of the award-winning Self-Esteem Team and author Grace Barrett led a GDST Talks event on Managing the Transition from Primary to Secondary School, focusing on strategies for dealing with anxiety related to change management, as well as building confidence and self-belief. 

Grace was keen to share the message that there are strategies that young people can start deploying now, to influence how they perceive and respond to change, to be better prepared not only for the move to ‘big school’ this autumn, but for any change at any point. ‘As human beings, we can tend to stick with what we know because it feels safer than change, so it’s normal to feel scared,’ she reassures. But, she stresses, both parents and students can take steps to overcome this worry.


Reprogramme your subconscious. ‘Everything we’ve learnt to do without thinking – for example, driving or reading – we have learnt through repetition,’ explains Grace, ‘so we can actively programme ourselves to respond to change in a way that is helpful and positive to us.’ She suggests checking in and acknowledging with ourselves when we experience a feeling or a thought around the theme of change: in this context, starting secondary school. Make notes, or just reflect internally each time you are confronted with the change ahead. Do you feel uncomfortable? Are your reactions changing as time goes by? Grace suggests giving yourself a mantra that you repeat each time you think about the thing that is worrying you, and repeat it each time you experience the worry. ‘When I am confronted with something new that I wasn’t expecting,’ explains Grace, ‘my mantra is: that’s not what I expected, but I welcome change, because change always brings something new and exciting.’ It can take three months for a new idea to be adopted into your subconscious, so starting now, with the repetition of a positive mantra, can help to reframe anxiety into courage and excitement by the time September comes around.

Override fight or flight mode. When we are confronted with something unexpected we can go into the classic fight or flight mode, triggering the racing heart, breathlessness, sweaty palms and shaky legs we associate with anxiety. ‘Our brains can believe we are in danger even if the situation is not dangerous, by just making us feel a bit nervous,’ says Grace, ‘but it is possible to teach your brain to stop sending anxious signals to your body, just in the same way as a mantra can train your subconscious mind to welcome change.’

The way to do this, Grace continues, is to give your brain a physical cue that everything is alright. When you are feeling cool, calm, collected and content, you can use a physical touch to programme your brain that you are feeling positive and in control. ‘Some people tap their nose, others fiddle with their earlobe. I pinch the skin between my thumb and forefinger,’ Grace shares. She explains that if we can do this at least once a day, hopefully more often when we feel good, we are showing our brains that this is the signal or physical cue for everything’s ok. ‘Telling your brain to step off the nervous platform with a physical cue that you can use whenever you want is really physically empowering,’ Grace says, adding ‘I still use it myself before I step on stage sometimes.’

Be more of yourself. It can be tempting to make yourself small and shrink into the background when you’re nervous. ‘But if this is your response to a new situation where you feel nervous, there’s potentially no end point, and you get smaller and smaller,’ says Grace. In new situations, then, she advises forcing yourself ‘out there’: ‘Remind yourself of your positive traits, and be more of yourself. Before you leave your primary school, ask your best friends about what they like about you, and then remember that that is what you will bring to the table.’ The good news is that parents can help here, too. ‘Encourage your child to order the food if you’re in a restaurant or to ask for help in the supermarket,’ Grace suggests. ‘Striking up conversation with a cashier or a sales assistant is excellent practice for new social situations.’

Change is exciting, too. A reminder to GDST students thinking ahead to September: it’s also perfectly normal to feel excited about the prospect of change, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re already welcoming the transition. Nina Gunson, Head of Sheffield Girls’, who hosted Grace, reassured students and parents, too. ‘It is absolutely normal to have so many questions about the tiniest details of joining your senior school, and you’ll be getting a lot of information and support from your schools over the coming weeks to help you,’ she said, ‘and don’t forget that not only do you have so much to look forward to, but you now also have games, tips and mantras in your toolbox to help you. Everyone gets nervous but we’re right behind you. Good luck!’


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