Relationship-building During Transitions

"Parent" and "Family"

In this resource, "parent" and "family" refer to all adult caregivers who interact with early childhood systems in support of their child. These caregivers include biological, adoptive, and foster parents; pregnant people and expectant families; out-of-household parents; grandparents; legal and informal guardians; adult siblings; and other family members.

Frequent transitions and change are a part of life for children, families, and staff in Head Start and Early Head Start programs. This resource is designed for family services professionals, home visitors, program leaders, and all professionals whose work involves supporting families as they navigate transitions and times of change.

Continue reading for strategies and additional resources on building positive, trusting, and responsive relationships to support children, families, and staff through transitions and change.

Supporting Yourself During Transitions

Transitions can bring up feelings of excitement and joy, worry and uncertainty, or a combination of all these emotions and more. As a Head Start or Early Head Start professional, you may feel many mixed emotions as you navigate transitions occurring in your programs.

Here are some tips you can use to focus on your own well-being during times of change:

Acknowledge your feelings. When you are going through a big or small transition, acknowledge and name your feelings before, during, and after the change occurs. Do you feel calm? Overwhelmed? Nervous? Optimistic? These feelings are completely normal and OK to have! Being aware of them helps you to be thoughtful about how you do your work and respond to others.

Woman sitting back and taking a deep breath to relax.Take a deep breath. Belly breathing or deep breathing exercises are a proven way to reduce stress. Find a comfortable position and try this technique:

  • Place your arms and hands in a relaxed position.
  • Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
  • Focus on your belly, the lower part of the stomach. Imagine a small balloon inside.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. Imagine the balloon inflating. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth, imagining the balloon gently deflating. Blow out of your mouth as if you were blowing out a candle.
  • Repeat at least three times.

Ask for support. Asking for help and reaching out to your support network is a sign of strength. Reach out and talk to a colleague, a supervisor, a friend, a family member, a therapist, or a call specialist at a crisis and support hotline. The perspective and support of others can help you feel more confident in how you are managing change.

Supporting Families During Transitions

Relationships are at the heart of family engagement. These relationships are the foundation of the partnerships that staff create when helping families navigate changes, large and small. Through strong relationships, staff and families can work together to navigate what comes next, and staff can let families know that they are not alone.

Common Transitions for Families

  • Entering or exiting a Head Start or Early Head Start program
  • Moving from a home visiting to a center-based program option
  • Transitioning between Migrant and Seasonal programs
  • Progressing from an Early Head Start program to a Head Start program, or from a Head Start program to kindergarten
  • Starting to receive an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), or changing from an IFSP to Individualized Education Program (IEP) services

Communicate frequently with families, and create ongoing opportunities to collaborate with them before, during, and after a transition takes place. These two strategies can strengthen relationships with families while supporting them during transitions.


Communicating with families builds the foundation for strong relationships. When you make yourself available, express interest, and respond to individual needs and requests, you show families that you care about them and respect their unique circumstances.

Promote an open-door policy. Frequently provide families with various in-person and virtual opportunities to build a relationship with you throughout the program year.

Here is how you can enhance these opportunities:

  • Make sure that families know the easiest way to contact you during the day.
  • Find out and use, to the best of your ability, each family's preferred language and method of communication (e.g., text message, phone, email).
  • Give families information and support in a timely manner.

Ask questions. Ask families how they feel about any upcoming transition. Create a trusting space for families to ask questions and express their hopes and concerns.

Provide materials in the family's home language. Make sure all materials and resources are available in the family's home language. Seek out translation and interpretation services as needed.


Set goals with families to support their upcoming transitions. Your relationship with a family makes it possible for you to discover the information you need to support them in setting appropriate and realistic goals for navigating a transition.

The following examples are goals that family members may identify to support transitions for themselves and their children:

Father reading a bedtime story to his young daughter.

  • Read books with my child about the transition to a new classroom.
  • Find reliable transportation so I can join socialization groups or parent activities.
  • Create a routine so my child goes to bed at the same time every night.

Partner with families in finding ways to practice self-care. When family members look after their own physical and mental health, they are better able to support their children.

Share the following messages with families:

  • You are strong.
  • You are enough.
  • You are only human.
  • Connect with others.
  • Pause, breathe, and respond.
  • Take breaks.
  • Seek help.
  • Do what brings you joy.

Find more strategies to support families and children in Making the Move Together: Transitions During Uncertain Times.

Supporting Children During Transitions

Transitions bring up complex feelings for children of all ages. Young children are typically unable to identify or share what they are feeling and why. As a result, they may need more support from caregivers to help them feel safe and secure as they experience change.

Head Start and Early Head Start staff and families can use the following strategies to support children through transitions:

Focus on the parent-child relationship. When parents provide repeated experiences that are responsive, predictable, and dependable, children learn they are safe, understood, and valued. These kinds of parent-child interactions are even more important during transitions, as they help reduce the stress that children may experience. Head Start and Early Head Start staff can use these skills and practices from the Relationship-based Competencies to Support Family Engagement for Family Services Professionals to support parent-child relationships:

  • Partner with parents and other program professionals or experts to identify, provide, and support ongoing learning opportunities for parents to enjoy with their children at home and in the community.
  • Communicate with parents about transitions that might be challenging for their child. Then work with parents to develop strategies that can help their child.
  • Support successful transitions by providing families with appropriate information, training, and connections to future early care, intervention, educational settings, and kindergarten.

A group of multi-ethnic children wearing face masks gathered around a teacher who is reading a children's book to them.

Let children know what is going to happen. Children need to be able to prepare mentally and emotionally for upcoming changes. Staff and families can help children prepare by using signs, cues, stories, and routines to let them know a transition is about to take place. For example, First Day Jitters is a book that staff and families can read with children to help them prepare for and talk about their first day in a new classroom.

Share the following tips with families to support children's well-being:

  • Maintain routines, consistency, and schedules for your children as much as possible.
  • Start the day with some stretches, slow-movement activities, and breathing exercises.
  • Allow for sensory breaks that give your child a chance to relax in a quiet place with calming toys (e.g., stuffed animals, stress balls, fidget toys).

Supporting Head Start and Early Head Start Staff During Transitions

Transitions and change can affect staff in different ways. Program leaders should provide staff with protected time and space to ask questions and share ideas about upcoming events or changing circumstances that will require adjustment. In addition, staff should reach out to colleagues to offer peer support and a listening ear.

The following questions may arise for staff throughout the program year:

  • How is this program year different from past years?
  • What will I do to engage new families?
  • How will I engage families I have not met with in a long time?
  • What are my professional goals for this year?

In light of these kinds of questions, program leaders can use the strategies below to support their staff in finding answers as they work through transitions.

Provide Reflective Supervision

Head Start and Early Head Start staff work to support families and children. To be successful, these staff members must receive support themselves. Reflective supervision is a key strategy program leaders can use to provide this support.

Reflective supervision serves to guide staff in navigating and processing their daily experiences. This guidance requires a caring and respectful relationship between supervisors and staff. This kind of relationship helps ensure that staff members never feel alone in their work.

Reflective supervision gives staff a dedicated time and place to express their feelings, solve problems, and strategize. By creating a safe and professional space where staff can talk about their emotions, supervisors and staff work together to better understand the roots of problems and decide how to address them.

Focus on Relationships

The Relationship-Based Competencies (RBCs) to Support Family Engagement guide staff in forming positive relationships and effective partnerships with both families and staff. These competencies describe the knowledge, skills, and practices needed to successfully build and maintain relationships, even during times of change. On this page, you'll find resources including a guide as well as assessment tools for early childhood professionals and their supervisors.

Bringing It All Together

Transitions can bring up many exciting and difficult feelings for children, families, and staff. It is important to remember that transitions impact everyone, adults and children alike. The ways Head Start and Early Head Start staff support colleagues, families, and children during transitions lays the groundwork for the success of future transitions. The approaches chosen also can strengthen the relationship between staff and families. A strong and trusting relationship can promote resiliency and help buffer stress or anxiety.

You cannot control what happens next in the world around you. However, you can control how you respond to what happens, as well as how you support others through changes.

Consider the following questions as you navigate upcoming transitions:

  • What is one strategy you will use to support Head Start and Early Head Start staff, families, or children in navigating upcoming transitions?
  • What is one thing you can do to care for yourself during upcoming transitions?
  • What systems does your program need to develop or strengthen to ensure that all staff regularly receive collaborative reflective supervision as you transition to full, in-person services?