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41 JUNE 2002
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Notes on change, transformation and transition

Jackie Winfield

Some initial concepts

"Change. All of creation is in a state of constant change. Nothing stays the same except the presence of cycle upon cycle of change. One season falls upon the other. Human beings are born, live their lives, die and enter the spirit world. All things change. There are two kinds of change. The coming together of things (development) and the coming part of things (disintegration). Both of these kinds of change are necessary and are always connected to each other.

Changes occur in cycles or patterns. They are not random or accidental. Sometimes it is difficult to see how a particular change is connected to everything else. This usually means that our standpoint (the situation from which we are viewing the change) is limiting our ability to see clearly." (Bopp et al., 1985:27)

  • Change occurs when something new starts or when something old stops.

  • Transformation is a fundamental change of state, the passage from one way of being to another.

  • Transition is a gradual psychological and emotional process through which individuals and groups reorient themselves so that they can function and find meaning in a changed situation.

"Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal." Bridges (1991:3)

Change is about endings and new beginnings. Psychological transition requires that one let go of the old ways of doing things.

  • It is the task of the Child and Youth Care worker to facilitate the transformation of young people

  • Young people who enter Child and Youth Care programmes are in a process of transition which involves crisis (e.g. the placement/admission of a young person into a programme)

This process consists of three parts:

1. Endings
2. Wilderness
3. New beginnings

Seven Guidelines for Transition Management

1. You have to end before you begin
2. Between the ending and the new beginning is the wilderness
3. The wilderness time can be creative
4. Transition is a developmental process
5. Transition is a source of renewal (similar to crisis as opportunity)
6. People go through transitions at different speeds
7. Organisations (and individuals) need to be “transition ready" (create temporary rules until “the new" is created)


Endings which might be important in Child and Youth Care programmes: transfer or resignation of a staff member; admission of a child/youth; transfer of child to another group, programme or placement (including home); ending of a student's practical placement; a death; end of school term or year. Such endings often represent crises in the lives of young people.

Leadership has a powerful influence on how crisis is managed and therefore, how change occurs. The leader is required to assist individuals and groups to cope with transition as effectively as possible. This may be done in the following ways:

1. Identify who's losing what

  • describe the change in as much detail as possible

  • what other changes might be caused by the primary change?

  • who is going to have to let go of something?

  • what is over for everyone?

  • What are some of the changes and losses which the young person experiences during the period of transition? What are the feelings experienced by young people during the period of crisis.

2. Accept the reality and importance of the subjective losses

  • active listening and use of empathy

  • use a phenomenological approach (loss is a subjective experience)

  • try to understand people (this will increase their commitment!)

Imagine the following situation:
Ronnie is a sixteen-year old who has been sent to the Child and Youth Care programme as a result of his involvement in selling dagga (marijuana) in his community. He smokes dagga every day and says that it helps him to relax with other people. The use of dagga is not permitted in the Child and Youth Care programme.

What do you think might be the subjective experience (thoughts and feelings) of Ronnie when he hears that he will not be able to smoke dagga while attending the programme?

What behaviours is he likely to display?

How might a Child and Youth Care worker assist him to manage this transition?

3. Don't be surprised at “over-reaction"

  • beware of labelling the responses of others as “over-reactions"

  • remember that they are reacting to losses (not changes)

  • they are reacting to the loss of a piece of “their world" (think phenomenologically!) – there may be much at stake

  • reactions will be linked to how previous losses have been experienced and dealt with – losses which have not been dealt with adequately will resurface so that grieving might seem to be out of proportion to the particular situation, e.g overreacting to the dismissal of a manger who is obviously ineffective – this may be caused by the individual's anxiety about what this means for them e.g. will I be next?

4. Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically

Losses must be brought out into the open and acknowledged. Concern should be expressed for those affected. Child and youth care workers should have skills in this area – helping others to identify and express feelings

5. Expect and accept the signs of grieving

Loss or separation often results in a grieving process which is similar to how one deals with the death of a loved one (the ultimate loss).

Grieving is a natural process which occurs as a result of loss and endings. Signs of grief include:

  • denial – healthy if it doesn't last long; unable to believe the situation; carry on as usual

  • anger – aggression, withdrawal, destruction, lack of cooperation; acknowledge feelings but be clear about any inappropriate behaviour

  • bargaining – unrealistic attempts to get out of the situation, trying to make a deal, making promises linked to undoing the change (I'll go to school every day if I can live with my mum); some people try to make deals with God when in crisis (e.g. I'll go to church every week if my dad recovers from his stroke) “be realistic; use problem-solving

  • anxiety – fear of the unknown; provide people with as much relevant information as possible

  • sadness – silence , tears, encourage expression of feelings, use empathy

  • disorientation – confusion and forgetfulness, insecurity – give support and reassurance that disorientation is natural

  • depression – feelings of tiredness, hopelessness, down

In a group, individual members might exhibit diverse reactions during transition. As a leader, your task is to ensure that all members have an opportunity to express their feelings.

6. Compensate for the losses

This is not always wholly possible. For example, one cannot replace a loved one who has died. However, whenever possible, the leader should try to provide something to neutralise the effects of the losses experienced. For example, a young person who has been placed in a residential centre experiences loss as a result of the separation from home, family and community. The programme might attempt to compensate for this by providing opportunities for other meaningful relationships in the life-space and by facilitating visits and other contacts between the child and family/community. It is important to remember that the relationship between the worker and the young person should never replace the parent-child relationship. Professional Child and Youth Care practice does not involve substitute parenting.

7. Give people information, and do it again and again

Endings remove people from “the known" and thrust them into “the unknown". This causes anxiety which may be allayed by providing adequate information. This helps people to know what to expect and decreases insecurity and anxiety.

8. Define what's over and what isn't

It is important that people are reminded of those aspects of their lives which remain stable. Take the example of a worker who is leaving the programme. The young people need to be reassured about those staff who are remaining, about the continuity of particular activities and about the continuation of their own individual programmes.

9. Mark the endings

Rituals are often used as a way of marking endings. How are different endings marked in society? Remember cultural diversity. Remember that rites of passage include initiations and certain birthdays (e.g. 21st).

Think of appropriate ways in which the following endings might be marked:

  • end of a student's practical placement

  • transfer of a young person from a residential programme to home

  • a young person who has decided to stop smoking cigarettes

  • a seven-year old boy whose mother has died

10. Treat the past with respect

It is important that “the old" is not treated as “all bad" and “the new" as “all good". Positive memories and an appreciation for the past should be encouraged where appropriate.

11. Let people take a piece of the old way with them

Lolly arrived at the Child and Youth Care programme clutching a plastic bag. Inside the bag were a number of objects: a torn photograph of an old woman, some sticky (old) sweets, a dirty teddy bear with one eye, an empty cigarette box and a few stones. The Child and Youth Care worker took the bag from Lolly and looked inside. “Yeuch!" she exclaimed. “This bag should come with a health warning!. What on earth is all this rubbish? The stones belong in the garden, the sweets and empty cigarette box can go in the bin. There's no need to keep these torn and dirty things. We can replace this old photo with a nice picture and I have a new teddy bear as a welcome present."

  • these objects are significant and meaningful for Lolly – what might be the meanings which she attaches to these objects?

  • the worker is being judgemental and insensitive

  • transitional objects help people during the process of change

  • what might the Child and Youth Care worker have done differently so as to demonstrate more respect to this young person's past?

12. Show how endings ensure continuity of what really matters

This links to point 8 above. The idea is to help people understand “the big picture". For example, the transformation of the Child and Youth Care system requires a new way of working with young people. Despite the end of the old system, there is continuity of what really matters – what really matters is a service which offers assistance to young people and families.


This is a period of great difficulty. The wilderness is where most young people are during their time in Child and Youth Care programmes.

Characteristics of the wilderness:

  • anxiety rises and motivation falls

  • increased absenteeism/withdrawal

  • old weaknesses re-emerge

  • confusion, miscommunication, tasks go undone

  • polarisation

  • vulnerable to attacks from outside

These features are common in troubled children and youth.

Remember the notion of “crisis as opportunity" – when there are no rules, creativity is called for; innovation should be fostered. During the wilderness, the role of the leader is to:

  • normalise the wilderness – make sure that it's understood that confusion is normal

  • redefine the situation – e.g. the notion of a sinking ship versus the idea of a last voyage or a change of course

  • create temporary systems – procedures, rules, policies, roles, relationships, set short-term goals which are realistic

  • strengthen intra-group connections – counteracts isolation; communications, shared activities; beware of favouritism


"The mystery of all endings is found in the birth of new beginnings. There is no ending to the journey ... The human capacity to develop is infinite."

Beginnings are psychological phenomena involving new values, attitudes and identities. Think about a significant beginning in your own life (e.g. moving to a new house, setting up home with a partner, starting a new job/career, having a child, etc.). What were some of the feelings which you experienced at that time?

  • ambivalence – exciting but scary

  • might reactivate anxieties

  • what if the new approach doesn't work?

  • risk – fears of failure

Identify a person who helped them during this phase of transition. What did this person do which facilitated the transition? This person served as a leader in their lives. The role of the leader is to provide:

  • purpose – clarifying the reasons for the change, the goals and objectives

  • picture – identifying the broad vision

  • plan – identifying smaller manageable tasks which lead towards fulfilment of the vision

  • part to play – clarifying the roles of each person in the new situation


1. The marathon effect – people are able to cope with change at different rates. Some people make transitions more easily than others, embracing that which is new. Others struggle with transitions, preferring to stick with what they know and where it is more comfortable. It is perfectly acceptable for people to change and grow at their own rate.

2. Don't overwhelm people with the overall vision/picture. Particularly at the beginning of the transformation process, too much detail about long-term plans can be overwhelming. The vision/picture must be perceived as realistic and one with which people are able to identify. Breaking the vision into smaller steps (stages or objectives) makes it more manageable for people.

The following hints will help leaders to facilitate transformation:

  • Be consistent

  • Ensure quick successes

  • Symbolise the new identity

  • Celebrate the success

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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