Hamish Goes to School – Transitioning Though Change

Almost everything I know now about transitioning people through change, I learnt from my son Hamish.

Hamish likes routine and doing things the way he has always done them; not unlike a lot of us really.

However, unlike most he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that means some things are more difficult for him—change in particular. Starting primary school recently was a huge challenge for him, and for me.

As a leader, you will be asked to manage a raft of change. The first thing you need to get your head around is that every change, whether it is perceived positively (e.g. a promotion) or negatively (e.g. facing a redundancy) means going through a psychological process of transition for those affected.

Getting people through the transition from the current to the future state is essential if the change is to work as planned. When a change happens without people going through a transition, it can be a recipe for disaster; in the case of Hamish, that disaster is usually a meltdown of epic proportions involving kicking, hitting, crying, and screaming.

A Model for Transition

The William Bridges Transition Model clearly identifies the three phases that people need to go through to make a successful transition:

article - hamish school - william bridges

The three phases are:

  1. Ending, Losing, Letting Go: letting go of old ways and old identities. This first phase of the transition is an ending, and the time when you need to help people to deal with the loss they are experiencing.
  2. The Neutral Zone: going through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. The Neutral Zone is when critical psychological realignments take place.
  3. The New Beginning: coming out of the transition and making a new beginning. This is when people develop their new identity, experience the new energy, and discover the new sense of purpose that makes the change begin to work.

You can think of transitioning as starting with an ending and finishing with a beginning.

Ending, Losing, Letting Go

It doesn’t take long to settle into a routine or habit—and it can be especially infuriating when the bad ones catch on quicker! Changing something that has become ‘normal’ for you means that you have to let go of the past. It can be a form of grieving.

The first step to letting go is to acknowledge that you won’t be doing the same things any more. It is important to understand exactly what will and won’t be the same. Think of a big change that you have experienced in your life, such as moving home. Your address changed, maybe even your local supermarket and library. You may still have caught the train at your old train station. Your new routine had to take all of these things into account.

With Hamish, it was saying good bye to kindergarten: his teachers, other children, and the security of the familiar buildings and playground. He had to be inducted into the new school environment—children, teachers, routines—over many visits. We also followed up with social stories: positively phrased explanations of what was expected of him, with matching pictures of his teacher, new room, playground, toilets, etc..

During this phase, you should also take stock of the past and celebrate your achievements—Hamish had a kindergarten valedictory concert—and acknowledge that there are both good and possibly bad things that you won’t be doing any more.

The Neutral Zone

In between saying goodbye to the past and starting to accept the ways of the future, there is a space that is called the Neutral Zone. The Neutral Zone is a chance for people to think about the implications of the change, and to start learning the ways of the future. It is quite normal to suffer confusion and even want to abandon the change. People should be encouraged to ask questions, voice their concerns, and think about creative ways of taking on the change.

This zone is the most challenging and potentially has the biggest payoff. It is where new identities, solutions, and motivation can be forged.

Rush or push people through this zone at your peril!

The New Beginning

Beginnings are the final phase of this process we call transition. They can only happen after you have been through the Neutral Zone.

A successful New Beginning is characterised by an understanding of what is expected of you and what you need to do. You may have documented processes and procedures to follow—reference Hamish’s social stories—or you may not. The important thing is you have the emotional commitment to do things the new way. I knew Hamish had got to this stage when he dressed himself for school without major arguments, cajoling, and (I’m not proud of it) nagging on my behalf.

The End of Transition

Don’t be surprised if you find that you or your people appear to be experiencing Phase 1 of the transition model (Ending, Losing, Letting Go), or Phase 2 (The Neutral Zone) again when you were sure that Phase 3 (The New Beginning) was well underway. It is not unusual to cycle through these phases and revisit them a number of times before you can say that a transition period has been successfully traversed.

My son Hamish’s transition to primary school has been a long, involved one with lots of explanation, practice visits to the school, visualisation exercises through social stories, backward steps and celebrations of little wins along the way. We have probably cycled through the 3 phases of transition more times than I can count!

All I can say is that Hamish is happy to go to school now. Some changes are worth it.


This article is part of a series involving Angela’s son, Hamish. Hamish has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder which means that he has particular difficulty dealing with change. Angela has learned many lessons about change from Hamish, and she is sharing them through these articles.

Other articles in this series:


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