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Adult Roles in a Child’s Transition

Explore key adults in children’s lives, and how adults can fill these roles in ways that support children during change or transition.

Adults play an important role in children’s development across all age groups, from early childhood to adolescence. In this step, we explore key adults in children’s lives, and how adults can fill these roles in ways that support children during change or transition.

Communities and families have unique experiences and these examples serve merely as guideposts. As you read, think of the adults that surround the child or children in your life and imagine the roles they play. A good place to begin is the social mapping activity from the last unit. Adults that the child identified as crucial to their social map in the last unit probably fit into one or more of the roles described below.

Keep in mind that during a transition, adults may take on roles that are different from the ones they typically hold. By being flexible and responding to children’s needs, adults can help children and youth of all ages to navigate uncertainty and build resilience.

Primary Caregiver(s)

The primary caregiver can refer to anyone that is present in the child’s everyday, immediate environment and to whom the child looks for the provision of basic necessities like food, shelter, and physical and emotional comfort. Primary caregivers are also those with whom a child tends to have frequent and meaningful interactions. Social-emotional skills are learned through daily interactions with others. Therefore, primary caregivers can have a big influence on children’s social and emotional development. In many settings, this role is filled by one or both parents, or close family members like grandparents or aunts/uncles that live with the child and engage in daily caregiving responsibilities.

In a situation of change, the primary caregiver’s role is to reassure the child of their presence and their willingness to listen and respond to the child’s physical and emotional needs. As discussed throughout this unit, a sense of predictability is foundational to healthy development. Primary caregivers can provide a sense of predictability by being available to children and youth in consistent ways. In situations where a primary caregiver has become unavailable, it is important to identify another adult who can provide consistent and responsive support.

Secondary Caregiver(s)

Childrearing is often supported by secondary caregivers such as relatives, neighbors, or friends of the primary caregivers. These trusted adults play an important role in supporting the child and the primary caregiving adults. Secondary caregivers can provide physical and emotional support by helping with childcare, logistical support such as transportation or housing, and a listening ear. In situations of change, these individuals can help primary caregivers coordinate community resources and caregiving responsibilities. They can also provide reprieve and emotional support for primary caregivers.

Secondary caregivers also tend to have a relationship with the child and may provide key emotional and psychological support. In many cases, children learn important social skills as they form relationships with these trusted adults, engage in play or conversation with them, and think about the world outside of their immediate home environment.

Teachers and Educators

Children and youth also rely on their teachers and other educators for stability and support. These can include formal school teachers, coaches of sports and other extra-curriculars, or other educators such as camp coordinators and mentors. These adults provide important structural support to a child’s social world. From kindergarten onwards, many children rely on the predictability of a school day for familiar faces, routines, and expectations.

In times of change, these structures may be disrupted due to limited access to schools or other facilities. Caregivers can buffer children from some of the stress of disruptions by communicating with teachers and other educators, acquiring materials or resources from them, and finding ways to help the child stay connected. In turn, educators can contact caregivers, provide children with opportunities to connect and improvise on established teaching practices to provide lessons in virtual or other formats.

Immediate Community

The community – local hospitals, schools, and other community organizations – are an important resource during change or transition. By mobilizing help and accessing available services, caregivers can provide additional material or psychological support to children and youth. For instance, by exploring community mental health resources, or by participating in a child’s school’s decision-making, caregivers can match needs to resources.

Adults can support children by understanding and activating these different roles. By involving multiple adults and leveraging community resources, adults strengthen the resilience of the child’s social world. In the next step, we will involve other adults in this process by mapping out their roles in a child’s life.

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