Literature Review: Transition from Early Childhood Education to School

Publication Details

The review’s purpose was to deepen understanding of transition to school by critically analysing research literature. The focus was on what successful transitions to school look like, the factors that play a role in how well children transition from ECE to school, and the ways in which children can be supported by teachers and families to transition as successfully as possible.

Author(s): Sally Peters, The University of Waikato, Report for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

Chapter 3 Characteristics


Chapter Two looked at successful transitions for all children. This chapter considers the Ministry of Education’s second research question and explores whether there is any evidence in the literature to indicate that there are special issues to be taken into account in relation to how the characteristics of the child, their family and whānau, the ECE service(s) they have attended and the school they transition to, play a role in how well they transition. Based on the research questions provided, the groups that are focused on in this chapter are:

  • Māori children;
  • Pasifika children;
  • children who are linguistically diverse and/or come from linguistically diverse homes and children who have attended immersion/bilingual ECE services;
  • children with special educational needs; and
  • children living in lower socio-economic households.

Clearly these groups are not discrete as children may identify with more than one of these categories. It is also important to note that the issues already discussed in Chapter One and Two continue to apply here. Literature relating to all children, including the groups now being given individual attention, was used to establish the themes relating to successful transition presented in Chapter Two. The aim of this chapter is simply to highlight whether any additional points should be taken into account for specific groups. In doing so, full recognition must be given to the diversity that exists within these groups, and the analysis has been sensitive to exploring this. Considerations of the measures used, whose voices are heard and not heard, and what time frame has been analysed, continue to be relevant. Inevitably there will be some overlap with points already covered.

The chapter ends with brief consideration of the characteristics of the early childhood service children attend, and reflection on the circumstances under which better or poorer transitions tend to occur.

Interaction of individual characteristics and features of the context

The apparently simple question, which forms the basis of the chapter, becomes incredibly complex when, as discussed in Chapter Two, one takes into account that the characteristics of the child and family interact with the characteristics of the school setting they enter, leading to different developmental outcomes (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1997). The same child would have very different experiences in settings that invite, permit or inhibit different forms of engagement (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1997). Consideration of the characteristics of both person and context has the potential to identify ecological niches: “regions in the environment that are especially favorable or unfavorable to the development of individuals with particular personal characteristics” (Bronfenbrenner, 1992, p. 194).

This interaction of individual characteristics and features of the context was illustrated in Skinner et al.’s (1998) study of 21 Head Start children, and the ways in which features of the classroom structures and larger social processes interacted with characteristics of the children in ways that led to risk or promise. In some contexts “children whose behaviours and skills were not those deemed ‘successful’ by school standards” could still do well. They described one teacher who achieved such results.

Ms. Kompton structured each activity and space for optimal learning, not only of content, but of critical thinking. She devised innovative tasks that required children to think and make logical comparisons, and she provided the scaffolding, through her questions and detailed steps, that allowed them to accomplish a task that some of them might not have been capable of on their own… [She] differed from most other teachers in the way she thought about, talked about, and acted toward children. She had high expectations for all her children and exuded compassion and love for them .... Ms. Kompton gave all of her children individual attention and encouragement. She did not view them as being at risk but constructed her students to be children of promise. (p. 307)

Similar findings were documented in a New Zealand study where Māori students who had been identified as having learning and behaviour difficulties, showed marked improvements in a class that appeared to have many features in common with Ms Kompton’s, especially with regard to the teacher’s relationship with students, expectations and teaching approaches (see Macfarlane, 2004). Some of the literature reviewed in the following sections highlights these interactions. However, not all research designs address the complexity required to fully answer the sub-questions within Research Question Two.

Māori children

Overall there appears to be very little research literature that provides insights into the actual transition experiences of Māori children in the period 2004-2009. The studies that were located tended to focus on literacy. Key themes for Māori children fitted closely with the points covered in Chapter Two and included the extent to which the school context welcomed their culture (Macfarlane et al., 2007), the nature of their relationships with teachers and others (Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Bishop et al., 2003; Macfarlane, 2004, 2007; Macfarlane, et al., 2007), the nature of the teachers’ expectations for their success (Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Rubie-Davies et al., 2006) and whether a sense of belonging was fostered (Macfarlane, 2004; Simpson & Callaghan, 2005).

Tamarua’s (2006) PhD study was one of the few studies that looked specifically at the transition to school. Tamarua explored the experiences of four Māori children, their whānau and their teachers. Although the number of participants was small, there was valuable detail about the experience from a number of perspectives. The families reported participating in a wide range of literacy activities prior to the children starting school, integrating principles of kaupapa Māori teaching/learning processes within activities, alongside conventional (ie, school related) teaching and learning. The parents felt confident about their child’s literacy knowledge and the initial transition went well, with the children adapting to the classroom environment (although this took a little longer for the three children who initially did not know anyone at school). Case studies provided a very detailed picture of children’s literacy at home and at school. Children were observed to engage more effectively in classroom activities where a transfer of learning between familiar to unfamiliar instruction was made. The findings suggest “the need for teachers to develop wider and more diverse awareness especially about children from diverse cultural backgrounds” and indicated that “formal literacy assessments can limit teachers’ knowledge of the social and cultural bases of literacy development at home” (p. 262).

Teachers who support Māori children to connect with familiar knowledge may help to foster children’s sense of belonging at school. Simpson and Callaghan’s (2005) small study explored mana whenua/belonging over one child’s transition by interviewing her ECE and primary teachers and main caregiver. The three participants and the authors, who were all Māori, felt that a sense of belonging was essential. The primary school teacher described some of the practices, which she felt had been helpful:

An emphasis on whanaungatanga is fundamental to the ethos of my classroom. It includes positive relationships (tuakana/teina), fostering whanau connections and including whanau in all aspects of our curriculum (whakawhanaungatanga), a buddy system (manaakitanga), caring for and supporting each other’s learning (tiakina tatou i a tatou), sharing responsibilities and looking after our environment (kaitiakitanga), respecting our kuia and kaumatua and marae protocols (tikanga) (Teacher B, Primary). (p. 44)

Relationships were also identified as important in very early research on children moving from Kohanga Reo to mainstream schools. Ka’ai (1990) noted that pedagogical differences between these contexts included less emphasis on tuakana/teina (sibling/peer teaching) roles, and on whanaungatanga (relationships) at school. More recently, Tamarua (2006) showed that tuakana/teina relationships were a prominent characteristic within the four Māori families that she studied, and children engaged in similar collaborations in the classroom.

This style of learning together in groups resembled culturally preferred ways of learning which Māori identify, and that occur within the concept of whanaungatanga (incorporating family values, care and nurturance). A significant feature of the tuakana-teina relationship is the responsibilities that children have of each other within the whānau. The process by which children come to understand their role and responsibilities within the whānau are not exclusive to the home environment, but are easily transferable into other contexts. (p. 234)

Recent initiatives where Year 5 children become mentors for kindergarten children and support them through their transition to school (Hartley, Rogers, Smith, Peters & Carr, 2009) might be worth exploring further as initial analysis suggest these tuakana/teina relationships have potential benefits for all children, and for both the older and younger members of the pairs.

Another study that raises issues to consider for Māori children is Rubie-Davies et al.’s (2006) research with 21 teachers in Auckland to explore teacher expectations for students. This was not a transition study as most of the teachers taught older children. However, six teachers taught Year 1/ 2 so the study has been included here. The study found that the teachers had low expectations for Māori children.

Teachers had expectations for Māori students’ achievement in reading that were below their expectations for other ethnic groups. This was despite the finding that Māori students’ performance was not below that of any other ethnic group at the beginning of the year…. Teachers judged the achievement of Māori to be low by the end of the year and, by that time, their achievement had fallen to be significantly below that of both New Zealand European and Asian students. (p. 439)

The authors discussed possible reasons for these concerning finding, and the limitations of the study. Nevertheless, this study does raise questions as to whether Māori children’s transitions are affected by expectation effects, something which warrants further investigation, given that teacher expectations, relationships with the teacher, and teacher understanding of culture and a caring attitude have been found to be a key factor in Māori children’s success (Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Bishop et al., 2003; Macfarlane, 2004, 2007; Macfarlane, et al., 2007). For example, Year 9 and 10 students described their frustration when they perceived their teachers held low expectations, and commented that they welcomed teachers who showed appropriately high expectations and encouraged them to work hard to meet them (Bishop & Berryman, 2006). While most of these studies have been with older children, there is some evidence that this an issue for Year 1 and 2 Māori students too (Macfarlane, 2004).

Rubie-Davies et al.’s (2006) findings regarding teacher expectations leading to lower literacy outcomes for Māori students (reported above) raise other important issues to consider. Concern has been expressed that early literacy difficulties persist and may lead to further issues, including attitudinal and behavioural challenges (Ministry of Education, 2008a). This was evident in Chapman et al.’s, (2004) study (discussed in Chapter Two) where children viewed by their teachers as poor readers were rated as being less happy, having less adaptive classroom behaviours and more classroom problems than their peers. Teacher expectations and relationships with children are important aspects of the context to consider when exploring the transition experiences of Māori children. Where problems occur, disrupting these patterns is likely to depend on changing the environment (Bishop et al., 2003; Macfarlane, 2007; Macfarlane, et al., 2007).

Philips et al. (2004) examined the impact of an intervention aimed to enhance literacy achievement in the first year of the school. Their study involved 72 teachers in 12 low-decile schools. Of the 343 children involved, 90% were identified as Māori or Pacific Island, or having both identities. The intervention took the form of intensive professional development for teachers. The findings were compared for an intervention group of children, a non-intervention group (who were in the same class as the teachers receiving professional development, but not the focus of the intervention) and a baseline group (who provided data on achievement in the first year of school prior to the intervention). The research found that the children in the intervention group made accelerated progress and gained higher levels of achievement across a broad band of literacy measures compared with the other two groups. Although this study did not look at transition per se, and looked only at one aspect of the children’s experience, it concluded that “it is possible to manage the potential mismatches children face on arriving at school and reduce the degree to which being at school carries risks for achievement” (p. 322).

Overall, while there is information about concerns, and advice regarding the ways transition can be supported, there is very little literature in the last five years on the transition experiences of Māori children and their families, and their voices are noticeably absent from most of the literature. Even less is known about transition to Māori medium settings, with only Simpson and Callaghan’s (2005) very small study appearing to be from te kohanga reo to a Māori medium classroom. Two potentially valuable studies appeared to be in progress. A major longitudinal study of children in kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Te Rerenga ā Te Pīrere (the flight of the fledgling) is a longitudinal study of children in kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa. Although the study will hopefully yield information about the transition to school, this was not covered in the Phase One report (Cooper, Arango-Kemp, Wylie & Hodgen, 2004) and no further publications on the study were located. Another project is underway, exploring transitions in education from ECE to secondary but the findings were not available yet (personal communication, Anne Hardman, Te Puni Kōkiri).

Pasifika children

Relationships were also a key feature of literature on Pasifika children’s transitions, along with teachers’ cultural understanding, affirmation of children’s language and cultural identity at school, and home-school connections supported by Pasifika liaison officers.

A key study regarding Pasifika children’s experiences of transition to school was Podmore, Wendt Samu and the A'oga Fa'a Samoa’s (2006) Centre of Innovation project. Some key features of this setting included the fact that the A’oga and the school were on the same grounds and the children entered a bilingual classroom at school. When a child was about to start school, the primary caregiver from the early childhood setting accompanied him/her to school and was part of the transition experiences. In addition, children and families had opportunities to join in with school assemblies and powhiri, and four-year-olds visited the school library each week to borrow books.

Only brief data were presented regarding the children’s actual experiences of transition but the authors noted that their observations showed evidence of a sense of belonging, with the children’s cultural identity being affirmed at school and their Samoan language used at school. Parents noted the importance of the children’s familiarity with the school setting, the strong sense of relationships between all involved, the presence of siblings and also older children who the new entrants knew from the A’oga, warm caring and friendly teachers, and parents who were enthusiastic and passionate in supporting the primary school. Overall the study concluded that the following were important features of enhancing transition experiences:

  • Having the caregiver move to school with the children, which supported their sense of belonging and security;
  • Transitioning as part of a small groups of peers, which fostered a sense of belonging and contribution to the group;
  • The establishment of a buddy system at school; and
  • Time spent in the bilingual class at school and the language immersion practices, which supported both confidence and competence in communication as well as the children’s cultural identity.

The approach taken in this setting seemed to overcome some of the issues noted in earlier research such as Podmore, Sauvao and Mapa’s (2003) study, where 27 children moved from Pacific Island early childhood centres to English speaking schools. In this situation, all groups involved (children, families and teachers) identified concerns related to the transition. Most of these concerns centred in some way around discontinuity in language and culture, although the children also had concerns about being lonely or bullied. The authors recommended more involvement of Pacific communities at school “and systematic representation of Pacific peoples in educational management, policy, and research” (p. 41). McKenzie and Singleton (2009) show how even in a Palagi mainstream school, Pasifika students’ transitions can be supported through working in partnership with the local Pasifika community. Key factors were the teachers knowing the children, knowing their culture and providing opportunities for the children’s Samoan language to be used at school.  The authors make the point that “the culture of the child cannot enter the classroom unless it has first entered the consciousness of the teacher” (p. 5).

Some of the points raised by Podmore et al. (2003) were reiterated in Fletcher et al.’s (2009) more recent study, which conducted focus groups with teachers of Pasifika students and with Pasifika parents and community members from five schools. The aim was to uncover what these groups perceived as supports or barriers to learning for Pasifika students. Although the focus of the study was not transition, the findings are relevant to considering transition to school for Pasifika students.

Literacy issues: It was felt that while Pasifika students generally had strengths in decoding words, they may not understand the meaning of some words if these relate to things that the Pasifika students had not yet experienced and/or were unfamiliar concepts, or were words that were not commonly used or did not have equivalent translations in their first language.

Risk taking: It was suggested that Pasifika students may prefer not to take risks or to put themselves in a position where their possible lack of knowledge would be exposed to their peers.

Recognition of the different Pasifika languages and cultures: The parents considered it important that their children were confident speakers of their first language, as this enabled access to their cultural community.

Cultural capital: Several of the teachers in this study mentioned the importance of acknowledging the cultural capital that the Pasifika students brought to their schools.

As a group, the teachers offered a range of additional ways of integrating Pasifika cultures into their classroom programmes. These included bringing Pasifika music, drama, dance, journals, visual arts, myths and legends into classroom lessons and activities; having the class study the different countries represented by their Pasifika peers; using different languages to call the register; and establishing a ‘‘Pacific Studies’’ journal containing examples of phrases from the different Pasifika languages of the students in the school and what these phrases meant in English. (p. 29)

Family involvement with the school:
Both the Pasifika parents and the teachers stressed the importance of strong family support and interest in the children’s progress at school. However, it could be challenging to find appropriate ways of helping all parents to acknowledge and understand their role in the home–school partnership, and due to work and other commitments, some parents did not have time to be involved. It was felt that Pasifika liaison officers in schools or school clusters could help support family involvement. Three parents explained how having a Pasifika person would support and encourage them and other Pasifika parents to feel more comfortable about being involved in their children’s schooling.

Literacy through the Bible: The study noted that out of school, many Pasifika children are involved in reading the Bible. This has implications for their learning approach at school:

Pasifika children learn that questioning Biblical text in any form is considered completely inappropriate and seen as challenging fa’asamoa (traditional Samoan knowledge). There is thus a conflict between fa’asamoa where children listen and obey without question, and opportunities for discussion between children and adults that typically is encouraged in New Zealand classrooms. (p. 31)

Behavioural mores:
The study noted that Pasifika students were generally well behaved in class and that this benefited their learning. However, their cultural approaches to learning, of listening and obeying may be at odds with teaching and learning approaches such as working with peers and engaging in discussion. Pasifika parents in Australia expressed similar concerns about whether their children interact with teachers in the ways in which schools might see as appropriate (Dockett & Perry, 2005b). Each point offers information that could be incorporated into pedagogy. However, it is important to acknowledge that these are all adult opinions, and whilst based on the participants’ experiences, they do not appear to have been tested in relation to strategies to improve the transition to school. Robinson and Timperley (2004) offered contrary views on some points and it seems this is another area where further research is warranted.

Finally, some important insights were highlighted by the transition experience of the one Tongan child in Peters’ (2004) study. Western frames led to deficit theorising by teachers (for example the teacher’s concern regarding older siblings’ care for their younger sister and the new entrant child’s lack of engagement with playmates of the same age) but when analysed from other cultural perspectives (tuakana/teina relationships, play in traditional Polynesian society generally including a mix of ages) the strengths in the family were evident and could provide a basis for supporting the child’s transition. It was not so much the child and family’s behaviours that were problematic, but how they were perceived and responded to. This is a key point when considering how the characteristics of the child and family interact with features of the environment, and is likely to be relevant when considering other groups covered in the chapter.

Children who are linguistically diverse and/or come from linguistically diverse homes and children who have attended immersion/bilingual ECE services

There is considerable overlap between this section and the previous one as many New Zealand studies that have a bilingual focus include Pasifika children and families. A key factor to consider with regard to language characteristics is whether children move to a school where they are able to use a language they are fluent in. For example, Podmore et al.’s (2006) study, discussed in the previous section, suggested a number of benefits related to belonging, competence, confidence and identity for the Samoan children involved, when they were able to use their Samoan language in the bilingual class at school. In contrast, for many children who might be considered ‘linguistically diverse’, starting school involves entering a context where they may have little or no knowledge of the language being used.

A second consideration is how the adults involved view the child’s bi- or multi-lingual development. Burman (2008) and Gregory (2008) remind readers of the value of knowing more than one language, and the ways in which this has been overlooked and problematised in monolingual research (Burman, 2008). Sensitivity to the additional complexities involved in these children’s transition to school is likely to assist teachers in supporting the transition to school for this group of learners.

Most of the studies that were found on this topic looked at children entering schools where they were not fluent in the language of instruction. Tagoilelagi-Leota, McNaughton, MacDonald and Farry (2005) studied children from Pasifika Early Childhood services, which provided full immersion in their home language (L1) of either Samoan or Tongan, moving to English-medium schools (L2). The focus of this study was bilingual and biliteracy development, not successful transitions, but some important points can be inferred. The results indicated that the schools concerned provided high-quality instruction in English, which led to rapid development in English language and literacy. An intervention study by Philips et al. (2004) also showed that children for whom English was not the home language were able to make high gains in literacy in English, despite their levels of English language on entry to school.

However, an additional factor to consider is that gains in English may be at the cost of continuing development in the heritage language. This was evident in Tagoilelagi-Leota et al.’s (2005) findings at age six years. On a smaller scale, observations of children and interviews with families in Peters (2004) study showed similar findings, and revealed the parents’ frustration at being unable to maintain their child’s first language development in the face of the rapid development in reading, writing and speaking English. If L1 skills are not to be lost, Tagoilelagi-Leota et al.’s (2005) study implies that strategies to maintain home languages will feature in a successful transition to school. For Pasifika students, Tanielu’s (2004) doctoral thesis suggests one avenue for this is through Pastor Schools (cited in Tagoilelagi-Leota et al., 2005). However, this may not be possible in all locations.

Interestingly, Neuman (2007b) cited evidence that suggests children do better if they are taught in their mother tongue until around age six to eight years, and that once they have learned to read and write in their mother tongue this is easily transferable to other languages. The material has been drawn from a UNESCO report and it is unclear how the findings relate to the New Zealand context. However, it does raise possible questions that are worthy of further exploration about the value of moving children, whose home language is not English, from immersion settings into instruction in English, at age five.

The Phase One report from Te Rerenga ā Te Pīrere (Cooper, et al., 2004) included an informative review of literature on bilingualism. It is beyond the scope of this review to cover this detail here. However, extrapolating what this might mean for the transition from immersion ECE to non-immersion schooling indicates that many of the features already discussed in Chapter Two are relevant, along with an understanding by their teachers of bilingual development and fostering learning for bilingual children. Many of the points covered corresponded with issues raised by parents of children with Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Samoan, Turkish and Vietnamese language backgrounds starting non-immersion schooling in Australia (Dockett & Perry, 2005b). These studies find, for example, that second language learning takes time and does not develop in well-defined measureable stages, that children will exhibit long silent periods, and that comprehension precedes and exceeds the ability to produce the language. In addition, in the parents’ eyes a successful transition for the child would include teachers who:

  • are patient when children need things repeated;
  • recognise that children get confused when they can only use English at school;
  • are aware children can be shy in speaking English with unfamiliar adults; and
  • know that children can find it difficult to operate in more than one language, and may need time to understand and respond to teaching and learning experiences in English (Dockett & Perry, 2005b).

Learning to read in a new language is a particular aspect of these children’s experiences, and again there is considerable literature on this topic, which is beyond the scope of this review. For example, Gregory (2008) provided detailed insights into children’s experiences that are likely to be helpful for New Zealand teachers. Similarly Wang, Young and Smith (in press) commented on the value of Chinese reading material being available to support first language development and cultural identity for Chinese students in English-medium schools.

Other issues that potentially impact on the transitions of children whose first language is not the language of instruction relate to assessment. Li, D’Angiulli and Kendall, (2007) noted the problems of assessments of bilingual children carried out in English, which position young children as having poor scores, when in fact they may speak their own language very well. In Australia, Aboriginal parents voiced concern that their children’s use of Aboriginal English rather than Standard English was interpreted as ‘bad’ English rather than a genuine dialect, and the communicative competence of Aboriginal children was overlooked by teachers because they did poorly in standard assessments. This then works against the children developing a positive self-identity as a learner (Dockett et al., 2006).

Finding ways for teachers to gain insights into the children’s abilities seems to be an important feature of transitions for this group. Hartley et al.’s (2009) study provides insights into the ways in which one school effectively utilised the children’s early childhood portfolios to achieve this. It began with one child, Gaurav, who spoke fluent Hindi. He was very outgoing and playful at home, but at kindergarten remained quiet, non-verbal and diffident. His kindergarten portfolio reflected his interests and capabilities and showed how well he had pursued his strengths and interests within the kindergarten programme. When he took his portfolio to school his new entrant teacher recalled:

"I’ve been teaching for 12 years …  and previous to this I hadn’t known about the portfolios ... and then this little boy brought his portfolio in and he was a very quiet boy, ESOL, didn’t speak a word for probably a week or so and then he brought his kindy book (portfolio) in and it was like a new child emerged and it was like this is me and this is who I am and even though I don’t necessarily have the language to tell you I can show you with pictures.... and I would turn around at all times of the day and hear little murmurings and laughing and there would be pockets of children sitting around this little boy with his kindy book."

Soon all the children were being encouraged to bring their portfolios to school and the teacher found this was beneficial not only in helping her to identify the skills and interests of children, but also in supporting their engagement with other children in the class. This was relevant for all children but perhaps invited more interaction from children whose first language was not English than would normally have occurred:

"Again with those ESOL children only having one or two words but being so excited about wanting to talk about something. The fact that they’re having a go at talking to a group or the teacher, whereas they may not have done that for 6 or 7 weeks, they’re doing it within that first week which again gives the teacher a much better picture rather than sitting back waiting or hoping or just observing. It’s another form of assessment as such for us to see what those children know." (Teacher D, Final Interview, p.12)

Dockett and Perry (2005b) found that other issues of concern for parents related more to culture than language. Views about appropriate ways of interacting with adults could be very different at school to at home, and this could impact on the child’s interactions with teachers. Parents were also aware that they may have different expectations of teachers and school than English-speaking parents, and some found the Australian schools hard to understand. They were concerned about their child’s adjustment and ability to ‘fit in’ and many parents tried to assist with this. Sometimes they had similar concerns to English-speaking parents but for different reasons, eg, concern re sharing food for religious reasons. Sangavarapu and Perry (2005) found the 10 Bangladeshi families they interviewed had similar concerns.

Depending on the parents’ language skills, they may be disadvantaged in communicating their concerns to school. Pasifika parents in New Zealand noted that parents are better able to advocate for their children if they can use their first language (Fletcher et al., 2009). However, if a parent is able to communicate with the school, even if this is not their home language, then this can be an asset in supporting their children. One Japanese child in Peters’ (2004) study started school knowing very little English but her mother was able to visit and translate a lot of information about rules and routines.

In Australia, Margetts’ (2007) study of 155 children starting school, included 6 children from families where English was not spoken. Although the number involved was small, Margetts noted that these children were potentially at a disadvantage because speaking English at home was correlated with a number of factors that supported children’s transition to school, such as participation in three or more school visits and informal family functions, and starting school with a familiar playmate or best friend in the same class. Speaking English at home was also related to cooperation and academic competence, leading to the conclusion that “if children have difficulty understanding the language of instruction as they commence schooling, they are more likely to have difficulty following directions, expressing what they know, and staying focused” (p. 46). The 10 Bangladeshi parents whose children entered schools in Australia, whose views were gathered in Sangavarapu and Perry’s (2005) study, also worried about children's “limited or lack of proficiency in English conversational skills and its concomitant impact on their social or emotional adjustments, learning at school and relationships with teachers and peers” (pp. 47-48).

While it is important to be mindful of these potential problems, there are likely to be some subtleties in how language issues affect transition. Detailed observations of New Zealand children’s experiences indicated that while both language and culture provide additional ‘layers’ or factors to consider when understanding children’s transitions, these cannot be viewed in isolation. For example, it was useful to look also at socio-economic status. Even when English was not their home language, some families had the knowledge, skills and ways of behaving, which confer status and privilege in society. Perhaps more importantly, this capital was in forms that were visible to the school (parental occupations, a degree of confidence in communicating with teachers, children’s accomplishment of skills the teachers valued), and could support the child’s successful transition, even though language issues provided some challenges (Peters, 2004).

For children who are linguistically diverse, issues of language, culture and socio-economic status are interrelated factors in their transition to school. In addition to the more general transition issues, such as belonging and friendships, questions arise as to whether, ideally, instruction would be in their home language, or if English is the language of instruction, how this can best be developed and whether first language support is available. Whatever the language of instruction, it is important that teachers find ways to identify the children’s strengths and support their learning so that engagement in learning and a positive identity as a learner can be developed. Family fluency and confidence in the language of the school appear to affect whether the parents/caregivers participate in transition activities, are able to assist the child by explaining things, and in the nature of the family-school relationships that form. Cultural as well as language factors are also relevant considerations. Overall, there are potential issues of concern in relation to all the features of a successful transition for this group, and research suggests that many parents are aware of, and concerned about, the potential vulnerability of their children if the school context is not supportive. There is a shortage of recent research to show how such transitions are actually experienced in New Zealand but it seems clear that “linguistically and culturally diverse children can find themselves in a vulnerable situation where school contexts are not tailored to meet their specific needs” (Sanagavarapu & Perry, 2005, p. 49).

Children with special educational needs

As for the other groups discussed in this chapter, there is considerable diversity within this category. Firstly the nature of the special need will be an important consideration. As one parent’s account of her child’s transition explained, starting school is not likely to be a high priority for parents if they are not sure their child will survive (Wilson-Burns, 2009). Further, not only are there a wide range of special needs but also, two children with the same condition may function quite differently. The nature of the setting will also be important, including whether they are resourced so that environmental factors (such as access) do not lead to disadvantages or restrictions. A recent study of 3,104 children from the USA found that:

the ease of transition, according to parents and teachers, varied by child characteristics, such as severity of impairment, academic ability, and social skills. Parent report of perceived ease of transition also varied by race/ethnicity and family income. Parent and teacher report of ease of transition varied depending on 1) whether the school initiated actions to facilitate the transition process and 2) how much support was provided to teachers. Finally, the data on transitions to kindergarten indicate that teachers of children with disabilities used a variety of strategies to facilitate this transition; the number of strategies differed depending on whether the teacher was a regular or special education teacher. (Carlson et al., 2009, p. 41)

When children have special needs, the transition may be particularly stressful for parents and extra support may be required (Rous, Teeters Meyers & Buras Striklin, 2007). Early research on the impact of special education policy in New Zealand noted the poor liaison between early childhood education and primary for children with special educational needs (Carroll-Lind & Cullen, 2001). In recent years there have been steps to address this. The Ministry of Education (2005) has set out clear guidelines for the parents of children with special needs when their children start school. It describes the roles for families, school and early intervention teams. Parent stories (eg, New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, n.d.) explain how helpful the additional support from Group Special Education (GSE) can be as their children make the transition to school.

Salter and Redman (2006, 2007) provided findings on a pilot project where Early Intervention and School Focus GSE teams collaborated to provide seamless support for children who had received early intervention but did not qualify for Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Scheme (ORRS) funding. They found that the extra support helped children to settle into school as their needs were identified and met. It was noted that school staff took responsibility for the children much earlier and expressed less anxiety about the children joining their school. Parents and children felt more welcome and supported. The 2006 article described a 2007 project following this pilot but the findings from this were not yet published. Faloon (n.d.) also described positive outcomes of a project for children who had not attended early childhood education and presented at school with moderate learning and behaviour needs. The children received 10 weeks of support from Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) clusters working collaboratively with psychologists in GSE. Although few details of the research were given in the article, the support apparently helped the children to participate in class and strengthened the relationships between schools, families and special education staff. All three projects are based on surveys of adult perspectives. The findings relate to research in the USA, which also indicated that a supportive infrastructure is necessary for such collaborations to be effective (Rous et al., 2007).

Bourne (2007) gave a brief account of one child with special needs, Aroha, moving from early childhood education to school, and the partnership between the different professionals involved. This article gave an insight into the complexity of the relationships involved and the author noted the value of forming collaborative and reciprocal partnerships. Strategies to support Aroha’s transition took a broad focus and included discussions and activities with the child, the new entrant teacher visiting and observing her at kindergarten and looking at her kindergarten portfolio, and the parents involving Aroha in community sports to foster friendships with children who would attend the same school. Planning ahead and having policies and strategies in place to support children and families were noted as key ways to reduce stress for children and parents during the transition to school.

Rietveld’s (2003, 2008) research provided detailed insights into the transition to school for four boys with Down syndrome and two ‘typically developing’ boys. The findings indicate the ways in which inclusion and exclusion play out in the classroom, the subtleties of language involved, and the key role played by the teacher in determining how children were perceived and responded to by peers. Where there was a focus on academic outcomes, but no consideration of relationships, it was difficult for a child to become a valued member of the class. The data provided valuable insights into the ways in which the classroom culture can become more inclusive and responsive to diversity.

The following examples of inclusive approaches are from one child’s story:

The teacher and teacher aide recognised and interrupted demeaning or illusory inclusion, e.g. excessive hugging, picking up. The staff scaffolded children to re-frame any problems they interpreted within a deficit framework to one that focused on the context. They helped children develop strategies whereby Ian could be included. For instance, when Ian’s peers complained to the teacher about him putting too many cars on a cooperatively-built block structure, which subsequently broke, she said, ‘If there’s a problem, tell Ian what it is. Tell Ian if there’s too many cars, it’ll break. Tell him where he can put the cars and blocks.’

The teacher also openly interpreted the likely intent of any unconventional behaviour (a potential site for exclusion) in a positive and valuing manner. For instance, when Ian moved some little chairs from the desks over to his mother and sister during a pre-entry visit when the class was involved in a mat activity, and a child called out to the teacher, ‘Look what Ian’s doing’, she responded calmly and positively by interpreting the likely intent of Ian’s behaviour: ‘Yes, Ian’s mum can now sit on a chair.’ Peers were later observed interpreting the likely intent of Ian’s behaviour themselves.

The teacher and teacher-aide included activities that highlighted Ian’s competencies and interests in a way that made the overall class culture more inclusive for a greater number of children…. The staff also facilitated Ian’s inclusion within peer group norms, which at times differed from adult and classroom norms. (Rietveld, 2008, pp. 5-6)

A paper by Schischka (2005) described her proposed PhD study to look at the relationships children with special needs have with people at home, and how these might impact on relationships with teachers, teacher aides and peers in the first year of school. However, no results have been published yet (personal communication, Janice Schischka).

The limited picture for New Zealand children with special educational needs was dominated by research which emphasized the importance of respectful and reciprocal relationships in order to foster successful transitions. The subtleties of inclusion and exclusion as experienced by both ‘typically developing’ boys and boys with Down Syndrome highlighted the complexity involved. The picture from the available literature was generally positive and documented successful approaches, although as for the other groups, there was limited data on children and their family’s actual transition experiences. New Zealand literature on this topic has focused largely on adult perspectives and the positive outcomes of adults working together to support the transition of children with special needs (Bourne, 2007; Faloon, n.d.; Salter & Redman, 2006, 2007). From the children’s perspective, Bourne’s (2007) article provides only a brief teacher’s account of one child’s transition, and Rietveld’s (2003, 2008) data are from her 2002 PhD and therefore collected well before 2004. There appears to be very little New Zealand research from 2004-2009 which gives insights into how the characteristics of children with special needs, their families, early childhood services and the schools they join might impact on their transition to school.

Children living in lower socio-economic households

There is a wealth of literature exploring the relationship between socio-economic status and educational achievement, which although relevant, is beyond the scope of this review. For the purposes of considering how living in lower socio-economic households may be related to how well children transition, Smart, Sanson, Baxter, Edwards and Hayes’ (2008) Australian report on Home-to-school transitions for financially disadvantaged children includes some valuable insights, even though the approach taken of measuring children’s ‘readiness’ is critiqued elsewhere (eg, Pianta, 2004). Their overall conclusions showed that:

Children from financially disadvantaged families are at greater risk of poor school readiness, due to the much higher rates of risk factors evident among this group and the accumulation of risks experienced… and the experience of FD [financial difficulties] compounded the probability of poor school progress, especially if it was experienced at both 4–5 and 6–7 years. (Smart et al., 2006, p. xi)

The findings were based on a large cohort (over 4000) of children who were part of a Growing up in Australia project. The report goes on to explore some of the reasons why children from lower socio-economic households may be disadvantaged at school. They discuss the interrelation of two models, one based on parental/caregiver stress in families that experience financial difficulties. Parental stress can impact on parenting by draining parents’ psychological and emotional resources, which in turn can disrupt parent–child interactions and parenting styles. The second model considers the relationship between income and the resources a family may be able to invest in a child, such as advantageous environments and material resources, such as the number of books in a home. They noted that the two are interlinked and difficult to tease apart for analysis. For example, “low levels of reading to a child, and allowing high amounts of TV viewing, can…be interpreted as a response to family stress or a sign of low investment” (p. 46).

Smart et al. (2008) also found that the relationship between family income and achievement was more complex than these two explanatory models suggest. Not all children from financially disadvantaged homes started school with low skills, as measured on the social/emotional and cognitive tests that were used. However, among children who showed, “adequate school readiness at 4–5 years, more children from financially disadvantaged families exhibited later school achievement, engagement or adjustment problems than did children from better-off families” (p. 37). This suggests that there may be school and/or other factors underpinning such findings. A qualitative study may help to shed light on the reasons behind Smart et al.’s (2008) results.

Neighbourhood environment has also been found to be a relevant consideration. Various features of neighbourhood disadvantage, as opposed to analysis based on individual family socio-economic status (SES), were correlated with poorer outcomes on a range of ‘readiness’ assessments for over 53,000 children in a Canadian study (Lapointe et al., 2007).

On a much smaller scale, Margetts (2007) explored the relationships and contributions of transition activities and other background factors to 155 children's adjustment.

Father level of employment (unemployed, part-time, fulltime) in the year children commenced schooling predicted and added to the variance in measures of adjustment. Having a father in full-time employment was statistically and significantly related to higher scores of self-control, summed social skills and academic competence, and to lower scores for externalising behaviour, hyperactivity and summed problem behaviours. Children with fathers who were unemployed were at higher risk of difficulties in these areas.... Higher socioeconomic status/father in full-time employment contributed significantly to higher academic competence. (pp. 48-49)

However, only five of the sample had fathers who were unemployed and the reasons for the correlations are also potentially complex. For example, it was noted that none of the children with unemployed fathers commenced school with a best friend in the same class and were less likely to have a familiar playmate in the same class. Given the relationship between friends and successful transitions there may be several factors at work in relation to the correlations that were found.

A further point to consider in relation to children from low socio-economic households is that if the quality of the parents’ relationships with teachers, school staff, and the child’s schooling is an important indicator of a successful transition (Pianta, 2004, p. 6), then parents who were not successful at school themselves may be disadvantaged in developing these relationships. Children from middle-class homes in Stephen and Cope’s (2003) Scottish study had families who were proactive in negotiating their relationships with schools. In contrast, Dockett et al. (2006) describe Aboriginal parents’ concerns regarding the unfamiliarity of school, power issues such as teachers talking down to parents (perceived or real), and poor memories of their own schooling, which can work against developing home-school relationships. However, while the article notes that many Aboriginal people experience chronic disadvantage (something documented in detail by Penman, 2006) the SES of the actual participants was not provided. In New Zealand, teachers and parents in Fletcher et al.’s (2009) study noted that some Pasifika parents of the children attending the schools in their research were on low wages. This could mean that both parents were working, sometimes in more than one job, which made participation in school activities difficult. However, this low participation in school activities could also be due to the parents feeling unwelcome or uncomfortable at school. Where teachers in disadvantaged communities find that families are reluctant to engage in school activities, it is possible that both cultural and economic factors may be at work.

Schulting, Malone and Dodge (2005) found that in their USA study, impoverished parents demonstrated very low levels of school involvement overall. Transition practices were related to a slight increase in their involvement at school, perhaps by increasing parents’ comfort at school or their knowledge of opportunities to become involved. Nevertheless, the researchers concluded that the current transition practices offered in the schools concerned, “did not adequately address the needs of this high-risk population or reduce the substantial barriers to their involvement” (p. 870). It seems that research into what would be effective is needed.

Barnett and Taylor’s (2009) article provides a detailed review of parental involvement and intergenerational academic socialisation. Their study explored the general positivity or negativity of 78 mothers’ school recollections, and assessed their activities pertaining to their children's transition to school, including the frequency of academic activities and social discussions. Parental recollections of school and current parent and family factors, such as income and self-perceptions, were also considered. The findings from a diverse community in America disrupted some common assumptions about parental involvement. Mothers who reported lower monthly incomes also reported engaging in more academic transition activities than those on higher incomes, and recollections of their own relationships with teachers did not predict engagement in academic activities with their children. However, there was some suggestion of an intergenerational trend as “mothers who recalled the school involvement of their parents more positively reported engaging in more academic transition activities with their own children, even after controlling for income, and current self-esteem and self-efficacy” (p. 146).

Margetts (2007) also analysed the relationship between parental employment and family income with the child’s involvement in preparatory activities. However, the pattern of findings was complex. For example, a higher percentage of children in families where the father was employed full-time participated in school visits/orientation sessions than did children with fathers who were unemployed. However, this trend was reversed for attendance at open days and informal family functions. Like Barnett and Taylor (2009), Margetts found that families with the lowest household income tended to participate in more familiarisation activities.

Overall, it appears that children from lower socio-economic homes are at risk of making less successful transitions than their peers, given that income and/or socio-economic status has been correlated with a range of negative measures. The evidence points to the need to address the disadvantage that these children face. However, the research that was reviewed provides few clear indicators regarding exactly how coming from a lower socio-economic household plays a role in a child’s transition to school. Lower skills on entry and problems with home-school partnerships were identified as potential factors, although the studies showed that children in this group were still found more likely to be at risk of a less successful transition than their more economically advantaged peers, even when they started school with comparable skills or had parents who were actively involved in activities to support them. Based on the kinds of assessments being used, it might be inferred that the children who had low initial scores were at risk of poorer transitions because of low teacher expectations and lack of recognition of, or connection to, the funds of knowledge that they bring; but equally, other factors could be at work, including those at the neighbourhood or societal level. It appears that the reasons for problems, when they occur, are complex.

Which groups of children are at risk of making poorer or less successful transitions?

Almost any child is at risk of making a poor or less successful transition if their individual characteristics are incompatible with features of the environment they encounter. For example, in Scotland, it is suggested that owing to the behaviours typically favoured in the classrooms there, “any child who prefers to work alone, is reluctant to speak in a group, who needs adult reassurance about his or her work or who speaks little to his or her teacher is at a disadvantage and can be considered a ‘problem’ by the teacher” (Stephen & Cope, 2003, p. 271). Wider social and cultural factors also influence these experiences (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

This chapter has looked only at very broad characteristics such as ethnicity and language. Within these groupings there will be a raft of individual differences of child and family that play their part in the interactions with the features of the environments they encounter. Keeping this complexity in mind, all of the groups considered in the present chapter are potentially at risk of making a less than successful transition in relation to one or more of the following areas (outlined in Chapter Two):

  • belonging, wellbeing and feeling ‘suitable’ at school;
  • recognition and acknowledgement of culture;
  • respectful, reciprocal relationships;
  • engagement in learning;
  • learning dispositions and identity as a learner;
  • positive teacher expectations; and
  • building on funds of knowledge from early childhood education and home.

Theoretically, more successful transitions will occur where these features are promoted and supported. However, there is a shortage of research on each of the characteristics being considered, let alone exploration of the complexity within the groups or the settings they enter, which makes conclusions in relation to these specific features somewhat tenuous.

Also, although the findings have been summarised in relation to the broad categories in the research question, these groups are not discrete. A child could potentially have all of these characteristics and the inter-relationship should be taken into account. For example, Carlson et al. (2009) found that parent reports of ease of transition for children with special needs varied by race/ethnicity and family income.

Overall, it appears that more New Zealand research is urgently needed for all of the groups discussed in this chapter in order to understand their transition to school and the ways in which successful or unsuccessful transitions develop, the factors involved, and the perspectives of the different participants. The shortage of research for some of these groups is perhaps not surprising. Some of the stories that potentially most need to be told, in order to shed light on why some children make the least successful transitions, require participation in research by families who may be least inclined, or able, to take part. Dockett et al. (in press) are currently attempting to reach out to families with ‘complex support needs’ who are often hard to engage in research. This Australian study aims to explore the transition experiences of the families and children over a transition period of between 6-18 months. Preliminary insights (Dockett & Perry, 2008a) suggested the findings, when they are available, are likely to be a valuable addition to the literature, especially in relation to children from lower socio-economic families and children with special educational needs.

Characteristics of the ECE service(s) children have attended

Research Question Two included a sub-question regarding the part played by the ECE service(s) the children have attended. No New Zealand research was found for the period 2004-2009 that looked specifically at the characteristics of the early childhood service attended and how these play a part in the transition to school. The Competent Children study found that some features of early childhood provision were still associated with performance on a range of measures at age 14 but these children had started school well before the period covered by this review (Rivers, 2006; Wylie & Hipkins, 2006; Wylie, Hodgen, Ferral & Thompson, 2006). Nevertheless, it was interesting to note that the findings from this study showed:

early childhood education staff’s interaction with children—their guidance to children in the use of activities, and joining children in their play, which would include aspects of language use and awareness of individual strengths and needs—is the most enduring aspect, particularly for mathematics and reading comprehension. The length of early childhood education experience appears to benefit attitudinal competencies; as did attending a service for children from mainly middle-class families. The use of open-ended questions, as well as the service being “print-saturated” appeared to benefit reading comprehension. (Wylie & Hipkins, 2006, p. 2)

While not a feature of the recent New Zealand literature, this kind of analysis is included in some studies in the USA (eg, National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Winsler et al., 2008) and the UK (Taggart et al., 2006). Taggart et al. (2006) found that some forms of early childhood provision in England were correlated with a movement out of aspects of their ‘at risk’ category, but these correlations show the relationship rather than an explanation for it. Attendance at all forms of early childhood education was associated with being less likely to be identified as having special needs on entry to school. Having examined many studies, the National Literacy Panel (2008) in the USA concluded that:

there is great interest in the impact of instructional programs on the learning of different racial, ethnic, linguistic, and economic groups of children. The data on preschool and kindergarten programs simply were not adequate to permit this kind of analysis. Future research will need to explore this issue more directly. (p. 200)

However, Chapter Five will show that attendance at quality early childhood services (without specifying the exact type) is widely reported to support all children’s transition to school and Hartley et al. (2009) demonstrated what could be achieved when early childhood teachers took a proactive role (in partnership with school teachers) to support transitions within their community.

Under what circumstances do the best or better transitions occur?

Chapter Two has already provided insights into the ways in which better or poorer transitions may occur, and this chapter has expanded on that picture by exploring the literature relating to different groups of children. However, as each of the sections in this chapter have shown, there is a need for more New Zealand research on each of these groups in order to address all the questions of interest for this chapter.

With regard to when better or poorer transitions occur, the theoretical framework outlined in Chapter Two helps to explain how the characteristics of the child, the characteristics of their family and whānau, the characteristics of the ECE service they attended, and the characteristics of the school they transition to, interact with each other during the transition to school. Children’s culture, socio-economic status, special educational needs, and language background are all features that form part of the characteristics that they bring to school. These, along with other personal features, interact with features of the environment that invite, permit, or inhibit engagement (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1997). The school contexts that the children meet may provide environments that are especially favourable or unfavourable to the development of individuals with particular personal characteristics (Bronfenbrenner, 1992). This complexity means there are no easy answers. For example, Peters (2004) found that transition practices that suited one group of participants were sometimes viewed as problematic by others, and children who started the same class, on the same day, had different experiences at school. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which schools can support children’s transitions and aim to create favourable niches for a diverse range of pupils. At the same time, responsibility for successful transitions does not rest with the school alone. Early childhood services and families, along with the wider levels of Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979), are also influential. These aspects will be discussed further in Chapters Four and Five.

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