Associate Artist and actor Mahsa Hammat Bahary reflects on her experience of our new Transitions Project in North East England primary schools.

It’s Thursday and we’ve just completed the final day of our Transitions Project, a pilot research–development project focused on helping primary pupils navigate their emotional and mental wellbeing alongside their crucial transition to secondary school.

The challenges for some of these children are enormous – I myself would be stressed if I were facing them, and I’m not 10 or 11 years old. And the challenges lie not only in the changes the transitions will present. For these pupils have just missed out on years of school experience during lockdown, and many of them face stress at home from the cost of living crisis, and the unemployment levels in the North East. In addition, some have only recently come to England and are adapting to a new living situation in a new culture. Not easy.

The Transitions Project aims to help the children manage their emotions, actions and reactions through all this – by offering practical coping strategies, with lots of fun thrown in, and presented through a creative drama approach.

The Damn Cheek team heading up the project included myself as performer–facilitator, director Darren Cheek, writer Brendan Murray and educator–facilitator Revd Danie Lindley, alongside Teresa Bramilow and her colleagues from Children North East. Together we visited 6 schools in the Gateshead area, spending a full day in each school to run 70-minute workshops for 350 pupils in Years 5 and 6.

The children were amazing. Some of them began the workshop a bit wary and maybe even a little anxious – perhaps understandably. At their age, I certainly would have wondered what on earth I was going to be asked to do!

We helped manage their unease in several ways – contracts of safety, clear guidance on activities, a mixture of individual and group work. For some of the more sensitive activities, we allowed for confidentiality by the children writing anonymously.

That anonymity guaranteed, it was crucial that the children’s voices were heard – not only for their validation, but also as central material to help us research the core issues for school transition and judge the efficacy of the pilot project.

So after each of the 6 school visits, we collected the children’s writings. From them, writer Brendan then created several dramatic scenes, using authentic voices and answers to reflect the key ideas of the children’s contributions, while Darren and the team collated the actual words the children had written in thematically stylistic and often poetic lists.

On the final day of the project, all the pupils, staff and other stakeholders involved in the project gathered at the St Alban’s Centre in Gateshead – a total audience of 370 over 2 sharings! There, we played out Brendan’s quirky, funny and creative scenes – and also spoke word-for-word the thoughts and feelings that every child had anonymously shared.

The reaction was deeply touching. The children were astonished and moved to have their experiences acknowledged, witnessed, affirmed, validated and so authentically voiced.

The 2 weeks of the Transition Project were not always easy. It was heavy work, emotional, draining. I was not alone in sometimes needing to summon my energy – and courage – to see children struggling, often because of life experiences that no one, especially a child, should ever have to deal with.

I remember one boy whose family came to the UK only a year ago – and who, when asked to think of a safe space, always retreated to memories of his home country. It broke my heart that he still didn’t yet feel safe in England, and I shared with him how I myself had been the same age when I made the same journey from another country to live my life in the North East. I hope it helped him.

Hard though it sometimes was, the Transition Project was also hugely joyful. The children proved so responsive, mature, profound, wise. And the teaching staff proved so committed to their pupils, so eager to support and care, so willing to put the children at the absolute centre of everything. It was inspirational.

Will the Transition Project have results beyond the immediate impact of these 2 weeks in schools? I like to think so. The past 2 weeks have given us invaluable research insights into pupils’ needs around transition, and our future aim is to mount a full-scale nationwide schools theatre tour offering workshops and therapeutic support. How amazing would it be to develop an entire show based on children’s own words, own experience, own hopes and fears around transitioning to senior school? 

For the moment, though, my focus is firmly on the 350 pupils from 6 Gateshead schools with whom I have spent the past 2 incredible weeks. I hope that Damn Cheek has not only given them experience of having their thoughts and feelings safely seen, heard and valued. I also hope we have given them future coping mechanisms – ways of calming themselves emotionally, ways of helping them find safe internal spaces, ways of focusing on the positives in their lives.

And I hope that both of those gifts will not only help them through the upcoming transition to senior school, but will ripple on out through their entire lives.

The image accompanying this blog post is taken from the writings of the children involved in The Transitions Project.