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A smooth transition to big school can have a lasting impact on a child’s education.

Tears were plentiful at the school gate when I waved off my first born to the beginning of her 13-year educational adventure. I wasn’t the only parent patting my face dry with the handful of tissues bought specially for the occasion. There were plenty of red, puffy eyes and lost looks as we made our way back home, to work or to sit in silence in the local café to regain our composure.

Getting kids ready to take on the challenge of big school back in the old days entailed pointing to the school from the car window in the weeks before the big day, and talking about how much fun meeting all those new friends was going to be.

And if an anxious little one clung desperately to mum or dad’s leg as that first morning bell rang for assembly, a kindly teacher would come and peel their little hands away and lead them to their respective class group to face the next phase of their childhood lives.

But in more recent years, that transition from home to big school has been transformed as research revealed that if kids were to find their feet in those first few weeks and months of academic adjustment, things should be made a little more user-friendly – not just for the kids but for their caregivers too.

Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, senior lecturer in early years education. Photo: Paul Jones

Early start for big school

As early as 1975, researchers found that kids who feel “suitable, relaxed, well-adjusted in kindergarten are much more likely than children who do not to experience success beyond kindergarten”.

However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that academics realised that “school readiness” had more to do with how comfortable students felt in their new environment than with whether they had a certain level of literacy and numeracy skills.

A critical aspect of being “child ready”, a report from the US National Education Goals Panel found in 1998, was if a school helped its new cohort to make a seamless transition from home or pre-school to school.

“Children are anxious when they start school,” says Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, a senior lecturer and Director of Academic Studies – The Early Years in the UOW Faculty of Social Sciences. “There is huge variability and a lack of familiarity or the unknown with which children have to deal.

“It has been shown that there is separation anxiety in about 10 per cent of children around four to five years old. It may not be overwhelming for all but it does have an impact. However, most schools are getting better at that transition now to help demystify the whole process for children so they know what to expect.

The key to success in school is not about writing your name, but about connecting with friends and that is what the transition process should be about.

Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett

“But it’s not just about the children, it’s also about the parents. In preschool there is a connection with parents, but that often diminishes in kindergarten and primary school. Transition programs also have information for the parents so they understand what is happening and also feel part of the process.”

Dr Neilsen-Hewett says the transition process in some schools starts months before the beginning of the next school year, which is ideal from a developmental perspective as it creates stronger connections and familiarity between the school and its new students.

“And this creates better academic and social connections and hence better outcomes,” she says. “Better access to information [as parents] has made us more aware [of what we don’t know] and in some ways hungry for more information and seeking support in order to create a sense of security for our children [when they make the transition to school].

“As parents we want to know if our child will be safe? Will they be able to cope? Will they make friends, go to the toilet or be able to open their lunch? What happens if my child experiences problems? Transition programs, good ones, will help provide this information.”

Comfort among friends

As important as familiarising young students and their parents with their new environment and procedures, is building positive relationships – between kids, parents and the wider school community – says Dr Neilsen-Hewett.

“Things such as morning or afternoon teas help create connections between families,” she says. “Parenting may have changed, but in reality, it is a reflection of the times. We don’t parent in a vacuum and it often is influenced by how our friends parent their children as well.

“As such, creating that smooth transition to school is as much about building a sense of community, and social network. Friendship networks are very important for people to feel embedded in a community, including a school community. We now live in a time where there are unique challenges that face us.

“There are the demands of economics, with both parents having to work, and unfortunately, unlike earlier times, the incidental connections that may have happened between parents at the school gate don’t always happen anymore. It’s therefore important that transition programs provide a framework for parents as well as children.”

As parents we want to know if our child will be safe? Will they be able to cope? Will they make friends? Transition programs will help provide this information.

Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett

Dr Neilsen-Hewett says if children see their caregivers interacting in a positive way with the school community, they will in turn feel more comfortable in their new environment.

“It’s all about relationship building and valuing education and the individual,” she says. “The key to success in school is not about writing your name, but about connecting with friends and that is what the transition process should be about – using it to begin connecting with familiar peers so they start school in a much better place.

“A successful transition into school is not about the academic process, but the social process. Of course, it’s important to know children can sit still and follow instructions as well as have a level of independence, but it’s also just as important there are open lines of communication between the school, parents and the community.”

Tips for getting children ready for ‘big school’

  • Keep new things to a minimum: Children take great comfort from the familiar, so avoid starting any new extra-curricular activities during the first term
  • Connect with friends on arrival: knowing how to make friends is critical to a successful transition. Parents can foster these relationships by inviting children to play after school or on weekends
  • Give your child time to settle in: as your child becomes more familiar with school and the classroom context, connections with their peers and teachers improve, as will coping strategies
  • Don’t forget to look after yourself too: Make time on your child’s first day to start connecting with other parents.

Adapted from an article originally written for The Conversation.

Playing the Game

As an early childhood educator Donna Guest knew that her son would settle into school a lot more easily and successfully if he could walk in that first day of kindy knowing what was going on and with some familiar faces around him.

Coming to the school from out of the area, Guest also knew unless her son made a few new friends before starting at big school he’d be making that big leap into the unknown on his own.

In 2010 she tried to put in place a series of playdates with other kids she knew who would be starting at Balgownie Public School the next year so the kids and their parents could make those first important connections to help ease the anxiety.

“But for four of the five play days I had arranged it rained and I didn’t have a wet weather venue organised,” she says. The next year, Guest got talking to a couple of friends whose children were about to start at Balgownie PS and they persuaded her to once again to set up the playdate program.

Donna Guest founded a playgroup to help children make friends before their first day of school. Photo: Paul Jones

“I had started my early childhood education degree at UOW and we were looking at transition-to-school at the time.” Armed with the knowledge she had learnt from her previous experience and with the support of the new principal at the school, Guest put together the Balgownie Public School Starters’ Playgroup program with fellow parents Kate Smith and Toni Lea-Howie, and its success was almost instantaneous.

“We had between 39-45 children enrol,” she says. “It clearly demonstrated demand for a transition to school playgroup to complement the teachers’ orientation program and it showed that parents and carers value this important step in giving their children the best start to school.

“Most rewarding for us was seeing our core goals achieved: helping children and adults socially and emotionally adjust to this new phase of life. Feedback from our survey of parents early in 2012 was overwhelmingly positive and, likewise, the kindergarten teachers were very supportive and reported they had a more settled, confident group of children that year.”

Playgroup pilots success

In designing the program, the three women drew on figures from the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) to support anecdotal evidence that a transition-to-school playgroup was needed at the school.

These figures showed that 29 per cent of children assessed from Balgownie were seen to be developmentally vulnerable in one or more domains and 14 per cent developmentally vulnerable in two or more domains.

During the pilot playgroup program the children became familiar with the school gradually, rather than having it all delivered over one or two sessions during specific orientation days.

They were introduced first to the new hall, then during a walking tour were taken through the kindergarten rooms, and a half-hour session in the library with the school’s librarian, who read the kids a story and ended the day with a craft activity. On another day, the new starters were able to spend time in the kindergarten rooms with their parents and the current kindergarten cohort while the teachers conducted activities.

There’s demand for a transition to school playgroup to complement the teachers’ orientation program … parents and carers value this important step in giving their children the best start to school.

Donna Guest

“This worked really well as a warm-up for the orientation day the following week. The final playgroup was a big hit with a visit by Billy Backpack and show bags given to all children,” Guest recalls.

Throughout the pilot program, Guest, Smith and Lea-Howie got regular verbal feedback from families who said the program was not just a great initiative but was helping make their children less anxious about starting school.

“One mother said she was sure her daughter handled the orientation day much better than expected due to exposure to the school during playgroup,” Guest says.

“Another mother wrote in an email after the first playgroup: ‘Well done on a great day. It was structured really well and all the kids seemed to have a great time. Although my daughter took a while to warm up, she told all her friends at preschool this morning when I dropped her off about what a great time she had at playgroup with all her new big school friends.’

“And a father told us he thought the playgroup was awesome. He told us how his daughter had started at school two years ago and she didn’t know anyone and cried for the first week until she made friends. But his son met so many friends at the playgroup. He was more confident because he knew where to go and had already got some friends.”

Guest, who is now working for the Early Childhood Training and Resource Centre in Warrawong, says the program is still in place, and it has been the teachers who have pushed hardest for it to continue over the past few years.

“They advocate for the playgroup to continue because they have experienced the benefits of it firsthand in their classrooms,” she says.

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