Written by Claire, one of our wonderful team members who has completed her Masters in Education (ECE) through Auckland University. Transitioning to school is one of the topics Claire is passionate and knowledgable about.
Starting school is usually a very exciting prospect for many children and their families, but it can also be a time that brings feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Indeed, research on the transition-to-school process suggests that starting school is as big of a deal to children as many other significant life events. In terms of meaningful lifetime transitions, starting school is on par with the likes of the birth of a sibling, moving to a new house, the separation of parents, or even the loss of a loved one. Further research suggests that the success of any major transition in the early years of life has a positive correlation with the success of further transitions people experience throughout their lives. In other words, a successful transition in the early years will help ensure the success your child has in adjusting to other transitions in the future. A positive start to school will help give your child the confidence to tackle any other significant life adjustment.
As with most things regarding our children and their development, the key is resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to adapt to change, to work through problems that arise, to look for solutions, and to keep trying even when it’s not easy. From a very early age, children will look for ways to build their resiliency. Infants don’t stop trying to walk just because they keep falling over. Our brains are wired for movement and we must be resilient as we learn this crucial component of our survival. As parents and teachers, there are ways in which we can both support and (inadvertently) hinder our children’s drive to become resilient people. We can help children by allowing them to face some uncertainty and enabling them to encounter new challenges. When we know children well because we have developed relationships with them, we will understand ‘how much is too much’ for each child. We don’t want children to face challenges that are insurmountable for them at the time, but we do want children to encounter enough difficulty, where something is just tricky enough for that child that they will need to exercise their resiliency muscles a little bit. Conversely, if we shelter children from adversity too much, and if we remove any risk of failure for a child, their natural drive toward resiliency goes unsupported and undeveloped.
What could a successful transition look like?
A successful transition will differ from child to child. Naturally, children will partake in school life differently depending on their personalities. More extroverted children might be comfortable getting involved in school activities and be quick to make new friends, whereas more introverted children might be happy to keep to themselves a little more. The basic questions to ask yourself will be:
- Does my child generally look forward to going to school most days?
- Does my child come and talk to me about any problems they might be facing?
- Has my child’s general behaviour changed since they started school and, if so, in what ways?
When a child feels generally content with where they spend the bulk of their week, and when a child can trust that you will hear their problems and offer support if they come to you, you can feel confident that your child is adjusting to school well. It’s also worth looking at any behavioural changes that may have occurred since your child started school. Not all children will verbally articulate a problem but they will ask for help in other ways. An example of this could be a child who now refuses to get themselves dressed in the mornings, even at weekends. This change of behaviour could be their way of saying, ‘I’m not happy and I need your help’. It is always worth looking for the cause of the behaviour, rather than focusing on the behaviour itself.
How can I ensure a positive transition to school for my child?
There are several steps you can take towards finding success in the transition-to-school process but, first, you need to consider whether you think your child is ready to start school. It is worth remembering that children in New Zealand are not legally required to start primary school until they are six years old. School life requires a lot of children’s social and emotional development. You know your child better than anyone else but you can also talk to your child’s ECE teachers if you have any queries or concerns about your child’s emotional ‘readiness’ before they start school. Rest assured that children need only focus on developing their emotional capabilities at this age, and this will continue to be a ‘work in process’ for some time. Do not worry about where your child is at academically before they start school. There is plenty of time for the ‘academic’ part of your child’s brain to develop once they have spent enough time working on the ‘emotional’ part of their brain. In fact, there is plenty of research on brain development to show that most children’s academic abilities level out around the age of seven or eight years old, meaning a child who could recite the alphabet at age four is not necessarily any more academically advanced than the child who mastered the alphabet at age seven.
Additionally, research shows that starting school with a friend makes the process much easier to tackle. As adults, we know how hard it can be to be the only new person starting a new job. For children, who have fewer life experiences than adults, starting school can feel very daunting. Some schools allow for cohort entry, which means children will start school on the first day of term after their fifth birthday. This means that, rather than being the only new child in a classroom, there will be several new children entering the classroom together at the beginning of each term. Alternatively, some schools will see children start on any particular day of the week from the day they turn five years of age. In this case, if you know other children who will be starting at the same school around the same time, it might be worth chatting to those parents and seeing if you can coordinate a start date with the school to allow the children to start together. If your child will be starting school by themselves, don’t stress! There are other things you can do to help support them.
Knowledge and communication are key throughout the transition to school. Talk to your prospective school after your child has turned four and find out what their transition-to-school process is like:
- Ask who the new entrant teacher will be when your child starts there.
- What does a typical school day look like in that teacher’s classroom?
- How is the day, and the classroom, structured?
- Find out how many school visits children have before they start school.
Ask as many questions as you need to feel that you understand what to expect when you start the process. It is very important to involve your child in the transition-to-school process, too. Ask them what they want to get out of it. Ask them what sort of questions they have about their new school, new classroom, and new teacher.
As we all know, young children love to feel seen and heard. Throughout their ECE years, your child’s teachers will have looked at making connections between the child’s home and ECE centre lives. They would have been looking at understanding what your child’s interests are and what knowledge and skills they already possess. This helps teachers to make children’s daily experiences personally meaningful to them. Where there is meaning to a child, there is learning. When you can connect a new experience with knowledge you already have, there is even greater learning. When a child starts school, they take all that learning and knowledge with them. They want to see that the learning they have already done will be recognised and valued in their new classroom. This is where communication comes in. Your child’s new teacher can support their development once they get to know your child. You can help them to do this in the following ways:
- Have your child meet with the new teacher, in the classroom, as often as you can manage, prior to them starting school. If your school arranges for one or two prior meetings, ask for more if you feel this is not enough. Encourage your child to ask those questions they might have while they are there.
- Have your child take their ECE portfolio to these meetings so they can show it to their new teacher. These portfolios are invaluable in terms of giving teachers insights into your child’s learning. By having your child go through their portfolio with the teacher, they can start building their relationship, and it might spark some interesting and revealing conversations.
Look at arranging a meeting between your child’s ECE teacher and their new school teacher. The new teacher might be able to come along and visit your child’s ECE centre, or your ECE teacher might be able to accompany you and your child on a school visit to their new classroom. When a child sees that connection being made between their ECE centre and their new classroom, it really helps to bridge that gap between the two environments. If a child can see their current teacher discussing their learning with their prospective teacher, it shows the child that they matter to these teachers and that their learning is important. You could also ask the new teacher to come and visit you at home. This also helps to bridge the gap and it makes it much easier for the teacher to understand your child better, which aids their learning.
Continue to talk to your child throughout the process. Check in with them and see how they are feeling about everything. Try to avoid asking yes-no questions like, ‘do you like your new teacher?’ Instead, try asking them something more observational and specific like, ‘I saw you chatting to your new teacher. What did you talk about? What did you learn about him/her?’ You can glean a lot from these sorts of answers. If your child has an issue, ask them how you can help. Show them that you are someone they can rely on when they have a problem.
Children with specific learning and developmental needs
If your child has a specific learning or developmental need, talk to your child’s ECE teachers and your new school about this as soon as you can. Your child’s teachers can access resources through the Ministry of Education that can further support the transition-to-school process for you and your child; this could include a specialist support person. For children who might be feeling particularly anxious about starting school, it is important to plan ahead so that everyone will know what to expect throughout the process. Arrange meetings between you, your child’s ECE and prospective teachers, the school principal, a Ministry of Education support person (if relevant), and your child (again, it is very important to involve them throughout this process). You may decide to develop an Individual Learning Plan (ILP) with your child’s new teacher. This will help the teacher to support your child’s specific learning needs and gives everyone a documented plan to refer to throughout the process.
Remember our aim: we want to support children as they develop that ever-important resiliency. It’s okay that starting school is hard, it’s okay that it’s different to what they know and that it will take some adjusting to. It’s okay if they’re feeling nervous about it. It’s okay if you are feeling nervous about it! (You can be honest with your child about your nervousness but remember to give them reassurance and a practical solution – ‘I’m nervous about this change but I will feel better after we meet your teacher tomorrow’). We don’t want starting school to be easy. We want children to have challenges to learn to overcome, but we don’t want this challenge to be too great and that is why we have a transition-to-school process. By including your child in the process, and maintaining open communication with everyone involved, (that is, your child, their ECE teacher, their new entrant teacher, and anyone else who may be a stakeholder), you will be able to make this a challenge that your child can confidently tackle and a success that will help them throughout their life.
All the best with the transition!