• English/
  • Chinese Simplified/
  • French/
  • Gaelic/
  • Arabic/
  • Polish/
  • Punjabi/
  • Russian/
  • Spanish/
  • Romanian/
  • Urdu/
  • Other languages...

Enquire Blog

Transitions: Embracing the messy middle

We need to move away from viewing transition as a linear journey, recognise the ‘messiness’ of change and focus on delivering consistent and co-ordinated person-centred support, writes Billy Anderson.

In March we ran a successful social media campaign focused on supporting young people moving out of school or into senior phase learning. The  #16AndBeyond campaign highlighted the right for learners to choose their own path sharing resources and tips on how to best support young people in their next steps.During the campaign, it struck me that there should also be space to reflect on how we understand what we commonly refer to as “transitions”.

An ongoing period of change

First, let’s consider the language. I have written previously about the power of language, highlighting it’s unique power to mobilise and connect, as well as divide and isolate. There is something in the terminology used around transitions which instantly creates a sense of an ‘event’ that needs to be traversed from one side to the other. It can feel like people are being pushed towards an edge where they will either fall into an abyss or jump the gap.

We often refer to transitions as a single moment in time when discussing movement into, through or out of education. This cements a lack of acknowledgement that a transition is, by definition, a period of change. It is not a single event, but a number of smaller events that happen over a period of time.  And any form of change needs consistent and ongoing preparation, planning and support.

It is also important to remember that it is not only young people who are entering into this period of change. It is their parents and carers too. Each of those  involved will have their own differing emotions and needs. This recognition of differences is the fundamentals of many basic models of change management. Why then is it that we persist with a largely linear view?

Changing our approach

In 2016, I attended the SCLD’s Transitions conference where I heard a keynote presentation from The Scottish Transitions Forum. They presented a slide which read: “Heard it before? We have been having this conversation for 30 years.” I worry we will be having the same conversations for the next three decades. Years on from that conference, we continue to hear the same experiences from young people and families.

These focus on the lack of flexibility:

Young people are not generally asked simple questions (e.g., what is your dream/goal? What is it you love to do?) and person-centred planning wasn’t available to provide them with encouragement and inspiration to do what they would like to do.” – Experiences of Young People with Additional Needs Leaving School: A SURVEY CONDUCTED BY YOUNG PEOPLE WITH YOUNG PEOPLE (DIVErgent Influencers – ARC Scotland))

The failure to meaningfully engage and connect:

“The current conversations around transitions and preparing to leave school felt little more than a tick box exercise.” Supporting Effective Transitions: Inclusion Ambassadors (Children in Scotland))

A blinkered view of what must come next:

“Ask about the small things; don’t go straight into the future abyss.” Time to Talk Next Steps Scotland: Co-Production Sessions (NDTi & Children in Scotland))

Genuine person-centred support

In each of these quotes, directly from young people, there are strong messages about the human elements of change that counteract the prevailing linear narrative that surrounds transitions. They all want a person-centred approach.

Person-centred thinking, planning and approaches are not new, but they can fall foul to being overused, misrepresented or misunderstood. At its core, it is steeped in trusting relationships, positive and possible aspirations, active listening and real tangible actions supported by everyone who knows a person the best.

For person-centred approaches to be genuine, they need time and investment, right from the earliest possible point in the journey, through the middle and along any chosen path. Young people, along with their parents and carers, need to have consistent support through each stage, their hopes, desires – and fears –  listened to, and guidance offered where needed. What they don’t need is to be passed from pillar to post, constantly asked to repeat their story as the move along the transition conveyor belt.

Embracing the ‘messy middle’

We must also remember that transitions are by nature messy and chaotic. There are no straight lines and no givens. When we think of transitions, particularly for those with additional support needs, there is too often an imbalance and tension between social structures and processes and how these interact (or not) with the human capacity to make choices and self-directed steps. In the middle of this tension is the mess. It is in this mess that the most effective support can, and must, be provided. But we need to shift our understanding of what the ‘mess’ is and start seeing this ‘messy middle’ as something of a natural effect of change . We need to adapt and work within it rather than fix it, or battle against it.

In order to work within it, we need to understand it. Talking about “the transition” itself can feel confusing and daunting. We need to stop viewing it as a singular event and recognise it as part of a journey that combines the past, the present and the future.

Recognising the past, talking about strengths and skills in the here and now, imagining the dream can begin to create some clarity. Considering a young person’s whole life journey up to this point in time can give perspective on some of the anxieties they experience when talking about the future.

For young people, and the parents and carers who are experiencing a time of transition, professionals must demonstrate patience and trust, listening to what is truly needed to help and guide the young person down the path that will best work for them. This type of approach must consider the impact on everyone involved and engage with them both as individuals as well as a collective. It is time to start thinking about transitions from the perspective of everyone involved. When we do this, we will truly be placing people at the heart of what we do.

Billy Anderson is Head of Services with Children in Scotland

Resources to help support effective transitions

The #16AndBeyond campaign was a joint campaign run by Children in Scotland, Enquire and Reach. It shared resources and tips on supporting young people in their journey after 16 and the importance of person-centred support.

Content from the campaign can be viewed on our Twitter channel @EnquireScotASL using #16AndBeyond and #PersonCentredSupport. It can also be accessed below:

Parent resource: Support after 16 and leaving school

Supporting effective Transitions (Inclusion Ambassadors)

Preparing for life after school (


to top