Literature Review: Transition from Early Childhood Education to School
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 Four: Supporting children's transitions: ECE services and Schools
This is the first of two chapters that address the question, how can children be best supported to transition as successfully as possible? This chapter looks at the role of ECE services and schools, while Chapter Five explores factors associated with parents, family and whānau.
The literature from 2004-2009 contains a wealth of advice regarding the ways in which children’s transition to school can be supported. The nature of a ‘successful transition’ has to be taken into account when considering what support to offer, and these two chapters (Four and Five) therefore link closely with the views about success identified in Chapter Two. The findings in this chapter have been considered in relation to the following questions regarding what teachers could do to support children’s transitions:
How can teachers (at an individual level) best support children to transition as successfully as possible from ECE to school?
How can teachers be supported and resourced to support children to transition as successfully as possible from ECE to school?
How can ECE services and schools (at a service level) best work together to support children to transition as successfully as possible from ECE to school? What is required to support this happening?
While the range of advice appears somewhat overwhelming, experienced transition researchers Dockett and Perry advise having a plan and aiming to improve and refine processes, rather than radical change, noting that, “it is better to do some things very well than try to do lots of things and do them badly” (Kirk-Downey & Perry, 2006, p. 48), and having clear guidelines, with indicators to track progress towards goals (Dockett & Perry, 2006). This is explored in more detail in Chapter Six.
Transition and orientation
This chapter focuses on supporting children’s transition to school. Dockett and Perry (2001) make a useful distinction between "orientation-to-school" and "transition-to-school" programmes, and this differentiation comes through in much of the recent advice about supporting transitions.
Orientation programs are designed to help children and parents become familiar with the school setting. They may involve a tour of the school, meeting relevant people in the school, and spending some time in a classroom. Orientation programs are characterized by presentations by the school to the parents and children.
Transition programs may include an orientation time but tend to be longer term and more geared to the individual needs of children and families than orientation programs. Transition programs can be of indeterminate length, depending on a particular child or parent's needs. They recognize that starting school is a time of transition for all involved: children, families, and educators. Transition programs may be planned and implemented by a team of people representing all those involved in the change. (Dockett & Perry, 2001).
Supporting children’s transitions: An ecological model
Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model (described in Chapter Two) provided a useful framework for considering the levels to be targeted for action. The research questions focus on what families and teachers can do to support children’s transitions and it is important to note that these responsibilities also include advocating and supporting wider changes at the exo- and macrosystem levels, which address issues such as family and community support. For example, as discussed in Chapter Three, there is a marked relationship between family income and achievement in school literacy (Penman, 2006), and high socio-eonomic status and the father being in full-time employment was correlated with a range of measures of children’s adjustment to school and academic competence for the 155 children in Margett’s (2007) study. Smart et al. (2008) found that financial disadvantage was detrimental to children’s school progress even if they entered school with reasonable skills. There is much to be considered in order to understand the relationship between these factors. However, it is clear that access to health care, parental income and employment, parental support, early childhood education, community conditions and so on (Graue, 2006), as well as providing safe and supportive neighbourhood environments (Lapointe et al., 2007), are key sites for action. Given its impact on students (Doucet, 2008; Penman, 2006), tackling racism at the community and institutional level is also relevant. As noted in Chapter Two, these important wider contextual features must be addressed in addition to the features of the school environment, in order to foster healthy children with positive approaches to learning and well developed social and cognitive abilities (Graue, 2006).
Working as a society to support quality early childhood provision is also likely to improve school transitions and student outcomes. The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education [EPPE] study in England (Sylva, Melhuish, Sammons, Siraj-Blatchford & Taggart, 2004) noted “that improving staff training and qualification levels may be strategies that can help raise the quality of [early childhood] provision” (p. 31). Access to high-quality early childhood services in turn supported children’s social and emotional development, as well their academic achievement at school. This is discussed further in Chapter Five.
Finally, whilst supporting macro- and exosystem factors that assist children, teachers can also be cognisant of the impact of these factors on the lives of the families and children they work with, and try to minimise negative effect. For example, Fletcher et al. (2009) discuss how for Pasifika parents in their study, working long hours, cultural commitments, and lack of wider family support if the extended family members were not in New Zealand, all impacted on family involvement with school. Such factors should be taken into account for all families when planning transition to school activities, so that they are not disadvantaged.
How can teachers (at an individual level) best support children to transition as successfully as possible from ECE to school?
Responsibility for an effective transition to school lies with all those involved in the process (Dockett & Perry, 2003a). Therefore, although teachers are identified in the research question, many of the points raised are likely to require school-wide support. Teachers may also initiate community-wide approaches. There are numerous examples of such programmes in Australia, and recently New Zealand teachers have been developing similar initiatives (for example the Taumarunui ‘Kick Start to School Day’ held in December 2007, see Peters et al., 2009).
The findings of the review have been organised into factors associated with:
- Working with the child
- Sharing information
- Working with families
- Personal qualities of teachers
Working with early childhood services (or in the case of early childhood teachers working with schools) is also a key theme, but this has been addressed separately in relation to the third research question considered in this chapter.
Working with the child addresses microsystem factors, while working with the family or teachers in the other sector are aspects of the mesosytem. However, in the first section there is overlap between these two levels as much of the advice to teachers regarding practices and interactions with the child in the microsystem involve making links with home and early childhood settings to inform their practice.
Before presenting the findings from the 2004-2009 literature, it is interesting to consider the recommendations offered by Fabian and Dunlop (2006, p. 16) based on their review of literature that (apart from five articles) was published before 2004. These were:
- schools having a named person, or a small team, to take responsibility and a strategic overview of the process;
- schools providing pre-entry visits for children and their parents that involve parents and children learning about learning at school as well as familiarisation with the environment and people;
- schools having systems that allow for high quality communication and close interaction between family, pre-transfer settings and school, where information is both given and received about children’s experiences;
- schools being sensitive to the needs of individuals and particular groups and having strategies in place to support them;
- flexible admission procedures that give children and their parents the opportunity to have a positive start to their first day;
- children starting school with a friend and schools having systems in place to help children make friends; (repeating a year can cause friendship problems at the next transition);
- schools having strategies to help children develop resilience to cope with change and to be active in making the transition work for them;
- curriculum continuity across phases of education, that comes about from establishing the prior learning that has taken place and where children are helped to learn with and from each other; ‘looping’ where pre-school and school staff plan together and work alternate years in each phase;
- schools evaluating induction and the management of transitions and transfers from the perspective of all participants, and that help to question the assumptions of the setting and see life from the child’s perspective; and
- special training for staff working with those children who are starting school.
Although not exactly the same, there is considerable congruence between these points and the themes evident in the recent literature. The following sections outline the current recommendations and also provide insights into their implementation.
1. Working with the child
The literature was analysed for themes relating to supporting children’s transitions. There was a wealth of advice and this review has focused on the most dominant themes that were identified. These were:
- connecting with funds of knowledge that children bring to school from home;
- culturally responsive teaching;
- appropriate assessment practices;
- making links between learning in ECE and school;
- fostering relationships and friendships;
- consider children’s whole experience of school;
- providing opportunities for play; and
- understanding the impact of rules.
Connecting with funds of knowledge that children bring to school from home
The key features of a successful transition to school that relate to children’s achievement and sense of belonging in school appears to be fostered when teachers are able to reduce the mismatch between what is valued in school and the child’s funds of knowledge from home and early childhood. Recent research and discussion has explored the ways in which schools can be more inclusive of the range of experiences that children bring. As noted in Chapter Two, Thomson (2002) proposed that children come to school with virtual school bags filled with knowledge, experiences and dispositions. Although in some contexts school only draws on the contents of selected bags, “those whose resources match those required in the game of education” (Thomson & Hall, 2008, p. 89), ideally schools will recognise and celebrate the learning and experiences that all children bring to school (Thomson, 2002), and build on these as a starting point for curriculum development (Broström, 2005; Timperley, McNaughton, Howie & Robinson, 2003). This helps to develop confidence (Gregory, 2005) and overcome the problems of school being disheartening if children discover what they know, think and find important is not necessarily on the agenda of their teacher (Brooker, 2008).
Thomson (2002) suggested that it was insufficient to open the backpacks in order to help learn what is mandated – rather the object was to also change what counts as important knowledge so that more inclusive models of knowing are recognised and taught to all. Teachers in Kamler and Comber’s (2005) Australian study became ethnographers of communities to learn about cultural resources. This helped teachers re-assess their students’ potential and design pedagogies to connect them to the literacy curriculum.
This seems important because where children’s learning is not identified and built on, lack of challenge can lead to negative perceptions of school (Gallagher, 2005). It appears that more research would be helpful to explore the ways in which New Zealand teachers can learn about and connect with funds of knowledge from home, although findings from two recent New Zealand studies (Hartley et al., 2009; Ramsey, Sturm, Breen, Lee & Carr, 2007) provide some insights. These are discussed in the section on sharing information.
Culturally responsive teaching
Making schools more inclusive of different ways of knowing and building on children’s funds of knowledge was identified in the literature as important for all children. However, teachers working hard to understand children’s cultures, where these were different to their own, was such a dominant theme that this has been addressed separately here. Where schools are predominantly monocultural, many perspectives are unknowingly silenced (Fleer, 2004) and this can present problems for children whose cultural capital does not match that which is recognised and valued at school (Thomson, 2002). Chapter Two identified recognition and acknowledgement of the child’s culture as an important feature of a successful transition, and it follows that strategies to support this will be important. Reviewing literature from 1990 to 2004, Petriwskyj et al. (2005) concluded that:
Expectations of homogeneity in school entrants may be yielding to a recognition of the reality of diversity in young children, families and communities, as well as presenting the potential for diversity to be positive in teaching and learning contexts. A consequence of realizing diversity, linked to the unlikely reality of having a group of homogeneous learners ready for entry to school, brings broader constructions of transition to school into focus. Flexibility in services and curriculum, and coherence between learner characteristics, cultural contexts and educational provisions offer opportunities to enrich the educational experience of all children while enhancing outcomes for children with developmental, social or cultural differences. (p. 65)
Instead of aiming to assimilate children into Western ways, “post-colonial [early childhood] programs may be poised to take a lead role in preserving indigenous culture” (Prochner, 2004, p. 14), and increasingly research has shown that fostering and respecting children’s culture is important at school too. Penman (2006), writing about the Australian context, suggests there is a moral obligation to teach indigenous students in ways that respect their culture in addition to the value in terms of student outcomes.
However, not everyone agrees. In New Zealand, Robinson and Timperley (2004) noted an underlying assumption in the views of researchers and Pasifika teachers that improving achievement is likely to occur through, “teachers giving greater recognition to Pasifika children’s culture, improving the interface and understandings between home and school, increasing bilingual provision and resources and giving more positive publicity to the achievement of those who have succeeded”, but the authors indicated that there has been little research to systematically evaluate this (p. xvi). Nevertheless, this view continues to be articulated by those who do not share the dominant culture of many schools. For example, Fletcher et al. (2009) note the importance of Pasifika values, languages and cultural knowledge being an implicit part of teaching and learning practices, suggesting that teachers should be sensitive to Pasfika students’ approaches to learning and provide learning environments that are comfortable for their cultural expectations.
Research with Māori students offers similar suggestions. McGee et al.’s (2002) review found building relationships and having high expectations of Māori students were important, as was having a positive attitude and valuing the experiences they bring to the classroom. Culturally inclusive environments are important in fostering Māori achievement (Macfarlane, 2004, 2007; Macfarlane et al., 2007). Rau and Ritchie (2009) similarly note that Māori children should be given the opportunity to thrive in culturally responsive environments. Although drawn from research with older students or ECE settings, these strategies seem equally relevant to improving the transition to school and are supported by transition to school research overseas. For example, Dockett et al. (2006) found that supporting successful transitions to school for Aboriginal children may include Aboriginal culture being visible and valued in schools, and children being aware of and proud of the Aboriginal identity. These features, and the active engagement of Aboriginal children in their learning, tended to be characteristics of schools where Aboriginal children, “are achieving to their potential” (Dockett, et al., 2006, p. 2).
However, there is diversity within cultures that should also be acknowledged. Writing about Aboriginal children, Fleer (2004) reminds teachers that while they need to acknowledge each child’s Aboriginality, they also need to see each child’s individuality, and respond accordingly. “In planning for individuals it is important to work closely with families, as they provide the greatest insight into the individual and her/his special needs and strengths” (Colbung and Glover 1996, cited in Fleer, 2004, p. 63).
For all cultures, teacher awareness of different cultural approaches to learning is helpful. For example, whether it is socially acceptable for children to speak up or ask questions in their communities, or whether watching and listening is more valued (Li et al., 2007; Penman, 2006). Doucet (2008) cites literature suggesting that the “problem” of low achievement is not with children themselves, but with the inflexibility of curricula that do not allow for variations in learning styles and abilities (p. 111). This may require new forms of assessment, rather than utilising Western frameworks, which may not be appropriate for all children.
Appropriate assessment practices
Closely linked to understanding children’s culture is the appropriate assessment of children on or near school entry. A body of literature from the USA and Australia discusses and critiques tools such as the Early Development Index (EDI), which is used to screen children on entry to school (Forget-Dubois et al., 2007; Guhn, Janus & Hertzman, 2007; Keating, 2007; Li et al., 2007). Although New Zealand does not use such a tool, B4 School Checks and new entrant assessment in literacy and numeracy do take place, so some of the critiques of assessment practices are relevant to consider when looking at ways to support children’s transitions.
Children’s reputations as learners may be formed on the basis of testing on a narrow range of skills (Peters, 2004). This has been revealed to show more about the child’s familiarity with the teacher language used in such testing (Brooker, 2008) and their experience of the school context (Timperley & Robinson, 2002), than their actual cognitive ability. For example, Timperley and Robinson (2002) described early childhood teachers’ concern when they found that school teachers assessed children as unable to achieve things which their early childhood teachers knew they had been able to do. A child’s lack of success was viewed by the school teachers as located within the child, and schools didn’t appear to be aware that the atmosphere of school and the ways things were assessed impacted on what the children did. As one kindergarten teacher explained:
Brooker (2008) suggests that, “the question to be asked is not, ‘do they know it or don’t they?’ but ‘are they happy to apply their knowledge in this setting?’ a very different matter” (p. 8).
Li et al. (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 addition, tests which value particular cultural ways of responding and valued knowledge may mistakenly interpret other cultural approaches as evidence of poor language and overlook strengths and knowledge that children from a different culture may excel in. Teachers need to be careful not to misinterpret children’s abilities or actions (Thomson, Pope & Holland, 2006).
For all children, understanding what is required in assessments may impact on their performance. A clear illustration of this is a child in Brooker’s (2008) study who, when asked to “sort” unfamiliar farmyard animals into fields, assembled a cat, a farmer, a chicken and some sheep, describing them as having been put together “because they are friends”. The teacher classified her as unable to sort, and on the basis of this narrow definition of sorting the child, “was presumed to have limited understanding of mathematics” (p. 137). However, Brooker (2008) discusses how what the child lacked was an understanding of what school teachers required of her. She was able to sort objects in her own context but the task with unfamiliar farm animals was not interpreted as “put all the same ones together”.
In a related issue, Corsaro, Molinari and Rosier (2002) described tasks where young children were to achieve the ‘right’ answer, even though this was ambiguous even to the adult researcher, or where answers were deemed incorrect if not given in full sentences, even though they were appropriate responses to a question. Such practices seem to set children up to be confused and hesitant about responding in such situations and work against developing active learners. In contrast, in an intervention by Phillips et al. (2004), teachers were encouraged to ensure mutual understanding and to use conflict and ambiguity as a basis for children learning to be more expert.
A number of writers recommend the development of culturally appropriate assessment to adequately identify the capabilities of children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (eg, Harris, 2008; Li et al., 2007). It has been noted that many of the developmental frameworks that children are assessed against are based on Western models, which may not reflect other ways of thinking. This is particularly evident in literacy (Harris, 2008; Carr & Peters, 2008) and numeracy (Peters, 2005), two learning areas which are given significance in the early years of school (Ministry of Education, 2007a). It is important to remember that such progressions, “are not discovered; they are constructed. They are constructed from beliefs and ideologies and particular approaches to learning – as well as from research” (Carr & Peters, 2008, p. 1). Harris (2008) has researched different cultural ways of assessing aspects of literacy, story-writing and story-telling. Her research points out that Western modes of assessing stories use particular criteria, which may not be appropriate for stories from non-Western frameworks (Māori or Pasifika for instance). Very different evaluations of the same story were evident depending on whether Western or Māori criteria were used (Harris, 2008). This suggests that not only should culture be recognised and acknowledged, but also incorporated into the assessment practices that help to establish children’s identity as a learner. Rameka (2009) has also been exploring ways of developing kaupapa Māori assessment. This appears to be an important area for further research.
Penman (2006) discusses low academic outcomes for many Aboriginal students and notes that the documentation of poor attendance, poor retention, and lower levels of literacy and numeracy all reflect judgments made from a non-Indigenous perspective. “Poor outcomes from a non-Indigenous perspective could be seen from another perspective as a failure of the school system or as a rejection by the students themselves of that school system” (p. 52).
Assessment practices that make the learning visible and acknowledge the context, become more permeable and open to discussion and contributions by child and family as well as the teacher (Cowie & Carr, 2004). Several school teachers have been exploring such formats (see for example Carr et al., 2008).
Making links between learning in ECE and school
Connecting with the funds of knowledge that children bring to school involves links between learning in early childhood education as school as well as between home and school. Although, as noted in Chapter Two, research with children suggests that they expect some changes when they get to school, and look forward to new achievements (Brooker, 2008; Einarsdóttir, 2007), making connections between learning in the two settings can impact on a sense of belonging as well as on learning. For example, describing an alphabet activity that the children had been involved in at kindergarten, one school teacher noted the children’s excitement when this was introduced in the new entrant class, “the first time they see us do it they’re so excited that they’ve seen it before” (Hartley et al., 2009). Teachers have also been exploring connections between dispositions in early childhood and key competencies at school (Belcher, 2006; Carr & Peters, 2005; Carr et al., 2008; Hartley et al., 2009; Peters, 2005; Winter, 2005). This means children find similar approaches to learning are valued in the two contexts, even though some of the content may be different. Children begin to see opportunities for applying their knowledge and skills in the new setting, adding to their perception of themselves as capable and confident learners. This is illustrated in the example of a child in Hartley et al.’s study (2009) who, when offered help during an activity on a school visit, responded confidently to her teacher, “I don’t need any help, thank you”, and as the entrant teacher noted, “she didn’t”.
A number of New Zealand authors have also explored the links between Te Whāriki and the learning areas of the school curriculum. Mawson (2003) focused on technological practice in early childhood education and school, and saw technology education as a possible bridge between learning in each sector. He recommended focusing on literacy and numeracy in the mornings at school, and basing the afternoon programme on Te Whāriki for the first six months of school. Case studies of teachers in practice (eg, Carr & Peters, 2005; Carr et al., 2008) show other examples of integration and interweaving.
Belcher (2006) recommended that teachers of new entrant children read and reflect on the content and pedagogy of Te Whāriki in order to understand its links with the key competences at school. This followed her research on perspectives on numeracy, which found that the Early Numeracy Project (ENP) appeared to limit “the range of meaningful numeracy in the new entrant classroom”. She also suggested that the Numeracy Development Project should “provide further information on the pedagogy of numeracy knowledge which could bridge early childhood and primary school numeracy learning” (p. iv).
While schools are increasingly encouraged to draw on Te Whāriki, it is acknowledged that childhood centres can provide, “a range of language, literacy and numeracy activities, thereby creating channels for the development of those skills and understandings that increase engagement in classroom activities” (Timperley et al., 2003, p. 38). For example, Mangere Bridge Kindergarten’s Centre of Innovation research explored learning connections through a rich multiliteracies approach in early childhood that involved children in a range of literacies including script-writing and movie-making. “Where print literacies privileged some learners over others, multimodal literacies enable a more open architecture in which to learn and the conversion of the passive print classroom audience into active cultural participants” (Healy, 2008, cited in Hartley et al., 2009). The teachers came to think of this as valuable in its own right, but also serving as priming events.
Priming events can serve as continuities or discontinuities in transition experiences, something that is illustrated in two case studies discussed by Corsaro et al. (2002). For example, while some activities in one pre-school were intended to prepare children for the passive listening and responding of school classroom, they led to anxiety in the children and a focus on perfection that was not necessarily helpful for learning.
Fostering relationships and friendships
Much of the research literature supports the development of positive relationships between the child, parents and educators as a key feature of the transition to school (Brooker 2008; Dockett & Perry, 2006; Dockett, Perry, Campbell, Hard, Kearney & Taffe, 2007; Ladd, 2006; Peters, 2003a, 2004; Margetts, 2003b). In fact, Pianta et al. (1999) described transitions as a “process of relationship formation” (cited in Brooker, 2008, p. 151). Sometimes these relationships are easily forged, at other times they are fraught with difficulty. The relationships may be most important when they are most difficult to construct or sustain (Brooker, 2008).
For children, their friendships with others have been shown to be central to their experience of school (Belcher, 2006; Dockett & Perry, 2006; Margetts, 2007, 2008; O’Kane, 2007; Peters, 2004; 2003a). Teachers can be proactive in supporting the development of children’s friendships, by providing opportunities in early childhood services for children going to the same school to develop familiar playmates (Margetts, 2007) and assisting families with children going to the same school to connect with each other (Dockett & Perry, 2006; Peters, 2004). Once at school, teachers can provide support in the way they group children, create opportunities for families to meet and form relationships, and provide time and activities to assist children in developing and maintaining friendships (Dockett & Perry, 2007). Teachers should also be alert to the subtle ways in which they influence how a child is perceived by peers (Peters, 2003a; Rietveld, 2008), and avoid positioning children in the classroom in ways that are detrimental to the development of friendships. For example, Rietveld (2008) described how a teacher may position a child as not being an integral member of the class, whilst according a superior position to other children, and she contrasts this with evidence of a more inclusive approach. Cultural issues are likely to be relevant here too. Children from different cultures may have different styles of interaction (Corsaro et al., 2002) and when these differ from the teacher’s, teachers should take care to support children’s multicultural interactions and not position difference as a deficit in the child.
Teachers can also take steps to support children’s confidence and communication, along with social skills such as listening to others, cooperation, taking responsibility for their actions, and avoiding hurting others (Berne, 2003; Margetts, 2003b; O’Kane, 2007) which may enhance their social acceptance. Teachers in Moore’s (2001) New Zealand study used a range of strategies to support children’s friendships such as teaching games children could play together, establishing a meeting place during playground breaks so children didn’t lose each other, helping children find someone to play with and reading books about friendships. The Health and Physical Education learning area in the New Zealand school curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007a) contains goals regarding relationships with other people and contribution to healthy communities and environments, that are directly relevant, and could be a feature of the new entrant programme.
However, it is important to remember that social skills are not just features of a child but also influenced by context. This was evident in the experiences of the boys in Rietveld’s (2008) study where children showed different social skills in different contexts. Even an intensive 13-week intervention programme, designed to enhance children’s social and emotional development in order to prepare them for the school playground, led to the conclusion that lunchtime routines should be addressed as well because, despite the programme, lunchtimes proved upsetting for some children (Smith, 2002). Ensuring environments are supportive and nurturing are therefore likely to be a key feature to implement (Carr & Peters, 2005; Simpson & Callaghan, 2005) alongside any efforts to support children’s development of particular skills to enhance friendships. In addition, early childhood portfolios may provide a resource that supports positive interactions to happen in the school classroom (Hartley et al., 2009), and having resources available to play with may facilitate entry into social groups, especially for children who do not share the dominant language of the school setting (Peters, 2004).
Buddies and tuakana teina relationships
Teachers can also develop programmes that ultilise the support of older children to assist children starting school. Tamarua (2006) noted that support from older family members such as a sibling or cousin can be helpful. “Extended whānau who manaaki or take care of another member of the same family or same identity” may be particularly familiar for Māori children (Tamarua, 2006, p. 87). Elsewhere, buddy programmes have been arranged where older school children care for and support children during their transition. At Mangere Bridge Kindergarten, Year 5 buddies from the local school work with the children at kindergarten and later take the child and family on a tour of their school. Once the child starts school, the older partner becomes a ‘read to’ buddy and looks out for the new entrant in the playground. The programme has made a big difference to overcoming some children’s initial feelings of reluctance about starting school (Hartley et al., 2009). Buddies also feature in a number of Australia transition programmes (eg, Dockett & Perry, 2005a; Mayo, 2005). Appropriate training of the big buddies may be an important feature of such a programme (Dockett & Perry, 2005a).
In New Zealand, where children join new entrant classes throughout the year, slightly older children in the class may enjoy supporting new arrivals. Observations in Peters’ (2004) study showed how effective some five-year-olds could be in scaffolding each other’s learning and adaptation to the classroom. However, such support was not evenly distributed, and some children received very little peer assistance, or even experienced gate-keeping peers who made it difficult for then to engage in learning activities.
Peer support, when it happens, can be beneficial to both parties. Two of the mothers of the four Māori children in Tamarua’s (2006) study noted that when their children took on the role of supporting other younger ones this helped the slightly older child to settle into the classroom. It may be helpful for teachers to observe when this is happening naturally and perhaps take steps to foster a supportive culture, although taking care to ensure that children are not positioned as always needing help, or always helping, but instead enjoy reciprocal opportunities (Rietveld, 2008).
Consider children’s whole experience of school
Closely related to the issue of friendships is the importance of teachers recognising that the child’s whole experience of school is an important aspect of transition. The playground is a common cause of concern for children on entry to school (Brooker, 2008; O’Kane, 2007, Peters, 2004; Smith, 2002). Lunchtimes may be particularly difficult for new children (Peters, 2004). Comments from parents and children give a flavour of some of the children’s concerns about lunchtimes (Peters, 2004, pp. 360-362):
"He said to me 'I like Mrs Knight and my classroom but I don't like lunchtimes'… He knew this boy from kindy. … The boy would run off and leave him. One time the duty teacher found him crying and he said 'I want my mummy, when does lunchtime finish?' And that really tugs. And in the end he actually hated lunchtimes." (Mother 9)
"He had one day when he didn't want to go to school and I asked him why and he said 'Because nobody plays with me at lunchtime'." (Mother 11)
"I think she found lunchtimes at school really hard, and I think she still does [after several weeks]. I think her only concerns were the lunchtime thing, I think, just the playing. I think she handled everything in the classroom all right." (Mother 12)
"Lonely … Bored, 'cos you have got no idea what to do." (Child S)
"I couldn't find any of my friends so I sat under a tree and cried where no one could see me." (Child 12)
"The big kids sometimes bully the little kids, and I thought it was going to happen to me. … And people throw other people's shoes down the gully." (Child N)
Some schools are exploring providing more resources for children to play with during breaks as these both support children’s interactions and overcome the problems associated with not having anyone to play with.
Toilets may be another issue. In Peters’ (2004) study only three children experienced concern about using the school toilets, but this was significant for the children involved. Robinson, Timperley and Bullard (2000) found that when children experience toilet accidents during their early weeks at school, teachers may believe that this is due to the children not being sufficiently socialised into toileting routines, without realising that it could be as simple as the children not knowing the location of the toilets.
An important aspect in supporting children’s transitions is therefore to identify children’s concerns and address them (Brooker, 2008; Margetts, 2006; Peters, 2004; Potter & Briggs, 2003).
Providing opportunities for play
Some aspects of play can act as valuable priming events for school (Hartley et al., 2009), and Broström (2005) wrote about the possibilities of play to be a transitory activity, which helps the children involved to be active, rather than passive learners. Fabian and Dunlop (2005) devoted a whole chapter to exploring how play can support transitions, including addressing social and cognitive challenges. Play has also been used to familiarise children with aspects of their new role. Mayo (2005) described how providing resources such as school uniforms, school bags and pretend lunches for dramatic play allowed children to explore their feelings about the change of role from kindergarten child to school child, and support them in coping with this. Dockett and Perry (2006) also recommend providing props for socio-dramatic play about school, and for teachers to prompt ‘what if games’ to work through possible problems and strategies.
Play at school has been found to be especially valuable for bilingual children who used home language in their socio-dramatic play, gradually inserting English words and experimenting with language. Through such play and ‘playful talk’ the extraordinary flexibility of some emergent bilingual children was evident (Gregory, 2005). Similarly, Lange and Thomson (2006) cited a range of literature supporting the value of creative and narrative play in enhancing vocabulary and problem solving ability in children with special needs.
Real experiences are also important for fostering understanding and meaning (Fletcher et al., 2009; Gregory, 2005). For example, Fletcher et al. (2009) describe how reading is more than just decoding words. Some Pasifika students struggled to understand the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts, and a literacy programme may benefit from practical activities to address this (such as exploring the word soil by planting something together) in addition to drawing more on aspects that are familiar (Fletcher, et al., 2009).
Understanding the impact of rules
Where children’s views have been gathered, they frequently identify rules as a key aspect of starting school and are focused on all the new rules that need to be learnt to manage the school environment (Dockett & Perry, 2003a, 2007; Margetts, 2008; O’Kane, 2007). Rules can be helpful as they provide children with explicit guidance about ‘doing school’ which can assist in establishing a sense of belonging. Margetts (2008) found children seemed to accept them as part of a rite of passage. However, teachers should be aware that pressure to conform doesn’t become too concerning. Belcher (2006) describes how one child’s anxiety about doing the ‘wrong thing’ impacted on his engagement, perhaps harming his identity in this context. Similarly, case studies in Peters (2004) showed how fear of doing the wrong thing could lead some children to do nothing in situations where the demands weren’t clear, or they feared failure, when in fact playful exploration may have been more beneficial for their learning (Peters, 2004). Potter and Briggs’ (2003) interviews with 100 children in their first year of school found that being told off by teachers, especially in a loud voice, was a common concern (42%).
2. Sharing information
While this review has discussed the benefits of changing what is valued at school to be more inclusive for a diverse range of pupils, it seems inevitable that children will still have to learn to ‘do school’ and their transitions supported through assisting with this. Earlier research has shown that children who required the most help actually received the least support (Brooker, 2002), and so teachers need to be aware of this and take steps to ensure that children are not disadvantaged by lack of information and assistance. At the same time, schools should be proactive in learning about children and their families. Carlise (2008) described this as both providing a map (information about school) and opening the child’s ‘suitcase’ of funds of knowledge (to gain information about the child). Together these helped to build a bridge from home to school and support full participation in the class. Perhaps because of the historical dominance of the notion of children fitting in to school, and that the consideration of schools adapting to children is more recent, the literature currently has more suggestions about the former.
Providing information and familiarisation activities
There are a wide range of strategies evident in the research literature that support children and their families in gaining information, learning to ‘do school’ and supporting a sense of belonging in the new context. These include:
- welcome DVDs;
- books about their school;
- general picture books about starting school;
- social stories;
- school display board;
- transition pamphlets;
- community day;
- websites; and
- parent expo.
In the USA, Schulting, Malone and Dodge (2005) found that parental involvement in a range of transition practices organised by the schools (home visits by teachers, family visits to school, orientation session, etc.) had a modest positive effect on students’ academic achievement and on parent-initiated school involvement during the kindergarten year, even when SES and other demographic factors related to these outcomes were controlled for.
Pianta (2004) suggested that communication should start in the year before the child starts school and continue through the first year. Fabian and Dunlop (2006) noted that if too much information is given very rapidly, or the terminology is unfamiliar, this may alienate parents. At the same time too little information might lead to anxiety. Information that is accessible in both quality and quantity is more likely to be helpful. Parents in Peters’ (2004) study said that timing was important too. For them a tour of the school and an informative morning tea session was provided during their child’s first term. The parents commented that if that had been provided before their child started school it would have alleviated a lot of their concerns and provide an opportunity to have their questions answered. Pianta’s (2004) large-scale research across the USA agrees, concluding that in the contexts he studied, many meetings, letters and other practices to connect homes and schools and provide information were “too late, too impersonal, and too cursory to have much of an effect” (p. 6).
While teachers in both early childhood and school settings can support children’s transition to school by providing both children and their families with relevant information, Chapter Five will show that this may not be the same for all families. For example when children and their families have language backgrounds other than English, parents have highlighted the importance of having access to people who speak their home language, and that the information they require may not be the same as required by English speaking parents (Dockett & Perry, 2005b).
When children have special educational needs, additional information may be required. In New Zealand, Jamieson (2008) found lack of understanding about different funding models for children with moderate needs, even amongst professionals, was a source of concern. For families there are many issues to address in relation to their children with special needs starting school. Case studies (eg, New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, n.d.) illustrate the challenges parents face and how responsive schools can alleviate fears in the way they address and answer the questions parents have.
Having opportunities to visit the school prior to starting is widely documented as a helpful strategy (eg, Dockett & Perry, 2004b; Fabian, 2002; Hartley et al., 2009; Margetts, 2003a; Peters, 2004). Children who have experienced the school through repeated contact of visits are more likely to hold realistic expectations about school (Dockett & Perry, 2004b).
No evidence was found of any information regarding the exact nature or ideal number of visits. In fact, flexible and relevant transition experiences are recommended by Margetts (2007). Planning and evaluating visits is important. Peters (2004) found that while some school visits were well planned and both informative and reassuring for children, others that were more ad hoc sometimes led to children developing fears and concerns, so that after the visits the children involved were more reluctant to go to school than they had been before.
The opportunity for parents to visit as well as children is important. Where parents were prevented from visiting the school they felt disempowered and unable to help their child as the following examples (from Peters, 2004) illustrate:
"At [another school] they encouraged parents to come and spend one morning and one afternoon and one other period during the day at the school with your child for three hours so that the child knows what to expect, this is the morning routine and this is the afternoon routine and this is how things work. It was really good because it made me aware of what they were doing. Here [Kowhai school] I came and said to the secretary, 'Oh [child’s name] will be starting next term, should I schedule these half day visits?' and she said 'Oh no, they just come with Azure Kindergarten one day'. I thought that was a little bit poor. I felt very uninformed with that, even though I have a daughter here. And I wasn't there when they came with the kindy. They didn't let us know that that was the day they were coming to school, so I didn't get to see how she related in that…. I found that really hard here [Kowhai] because you know what little children are like, they don't volunteer a lot of information, to know what she's doing in the daytime…" (Mother 20)
"I would have liked to have gone into the classroom and actually, physically, seen where it was, and who was in his classroom, just so I could key him up a bit more, because he was asking questions about the classroom and I had no idea.... I didn't have any idea of what he'd do with his bag or if they sat at desks or tables or anything." (Case Study Mother 3.2)
Fabian (2002) also suggested that ‘virtual visits’ might be included, where websites or CD-ROMs could allow children and their families to take virtual tours of school and ‘meet’ the teachers prior to visiting.
Similar to Fabian’s (2002) idea of a virtual online tour, children at Mangere Bridge School made a DVD about their school, which was then shared with new children and families. The DVD documented features of the school context and key members of staff. It was filmed and narrated by children. The feedback from those families that utilised the DVD as a preparation tool for school was positive. Families felt they had more idea of who was who at school, and more familiarity with the school environment. Children were able to identify their teacher and know the teacher’s name and their classroom number more confidently after viewing the DVD. It did require updating though, to keep track of staff changes (Hartley et al., 2009).
Books about their school
A number of studies have found that books about school are useful ways of helping children become familiar with the school environment. Often these are made from photographs taken of the school environment and staff. They have been developed by kindergarten teachers (Hartley et al., 2009; Lee, 2005) and school children (who made books for new entrants to show the things that they felt were important to know when you start) (Dockett & Perry, 2005c). In Hartley et al.’s (2009) study personalised books were made for children, developed from photographs taken during a visit. Various areas of the school were documented: the playground, the toilets, the office, the staff room and the classroom, and a short written commentary provided on each. The kindergarten children and their families expressed their delight at receiving this record of the visit, and parents said they found it useful for discussing the imminent start to school for their children.
Although these books have usually been written for children, Lee’s (2005) research found that they also seemed to help parents become more informed about school.
General picture books about starting school
There are a wide range of picture books with stories that consider aspects of starting school. Dockett, Whitton and Perry (2003) analysed the messages in 70 picture books and found that they addressed many concerns raised by children, parents and educators. However, adults’ concerns predominated, and the images portrayed tended to be stereotypical. It appears that picture books might be a useful basis for discussing school, but that teachers should evaluate their appropriateness when making a selection.
Although not a research article, Briody and McGarry (2005) described how ‘social stories’ (short stories following a particular structure, and illustrated with photographs of the child) can be created for children to assist them in their transition by offering information about what will happen and when it will happen. They become visual scripts and can help children organise and interpret daily events such as entering the classroom. Although they were originally designed to support the social and emotional adjustment of children with autism spectrum disorders (Briody & McGarry, 2005) they could be tried with any child who was finding a transition difficult.
School display board
Hartley et al. (2009) developed a school board in their kindergarten. Each side of this moveable display board showed one of the two major schools their children went on to, and included pictures of the entrance to the schools, the Principal, Deputy, office staff, junior school teachers and the school uniform. Under the photographs of the classroom teachers, the kindergarten children placed their photographs when they commenced their pre-entry visits to school. They then had a ready reference to who their teacher would be and the other children from kindergarten who would be in their new entrant class with them. The board became the focal point of conversation for children with their families, their peers and their kindergarten teachers.
Another strategy is the use of information pamphlets. Hartley et al. (2009) developed transition pamphlets that provided information, with photographs, in ‘bite sized’ portions, rather than handing parents several typewritten pages. There were two pamphlets: “Nearly Five” and “First Days at School”, and these were made available at different times. “Nearly Five” detailed the kindergarten practices around the child’s last day at kindergarten, and the parents’ responsibilities to do with enrolling their child at school. “First Days at School” was written differently for each local school, and provided a brief synopsis about the procedure for the first days at school, including any expectation of parent involvement and a general timetable of the classroom programme.
In some areas of Australia, information pamphlets have been developed in the families’ home languages, for example, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Samoan, Turkish and Vietnamese (Dockett & Perry, 2003a).
Both families and teachers can gain information related to starting school from relevant websites. One example is the Illawarra Families NSW Transition to School website: http://www.transitiontoschool.com.au/index.html. This has general information, pages for children, teachers and parents along with examples of a range of transition programmes operating in the area. In New Zealand the Team Up website had a range of pages that contain valuable information about starting school: http://www.teamup.co.nz/1.
Although their research is not yet published, a group of Taumaranui teachers instigated a ‘Kick Start to School Day’ as part of a series of transition activities developed by early childhood and primary school teachers in the community (Peters et al., 2009). Inspiration was drawn from the Wollongong starting school picnic (Kirk-Downey & Perry, 2006) and adapted for the New Zealand context. At the ‘Kick Start to School Day’ parents were encouraged to enrol their children for early childhood services and school, and all four-year-olds received a kete filled with resources to support starting school. This included Ready to Read books from the Ministry of Education, Team Up pamphlets, scissors, crayons, glue sticks, sellotape, rubbers, rulers, stickers and paper.
One way of parent’s families gaining some initial insights into starting school was a parent expo held as part of Parkhill, Cushing and Read’s (2005) research. Questionnaires completed by parents who attended noted that their understanding of transition issues had improved by having the opportunity to meet with the school staff who attended.
Learning about children and their families
The strategies listed above focus largely on families and children gaining information about school. However, supporting children’s transitions involves a more reciprocal sharing of information, allowing teachers to gain insights from families and the children that will help them to support individual children. Home visits may be part of this process (Fabian, 2002; New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, n.d.).
Once at school, strategies trialled in early childhood, such as loaning children cameras to document activities they are involved in at home and in the community (Ramsey et al., 2007) may help foster an understanding of the child’s background.
Another practical strategy to assist teachers in connecting with funds of knowledge from home and early childhood is to utilise the early childhood portfolio in the new entrant classroom. Hartley et al. (2009) found that there were advantages for school teachers, as the portfolios helped to teachers to find out about children’s earlier learning and interests:
The portfolios also appeared to support the children’s sense of belonging and engagement in the new context:
"I guess it’s like us starting a new job and moving to a new country, everything is new but if they come with this little treasure, that’s something that’s theirs, something they can talk about, something they share and particularly for children who are really shy or having English as a second language, they don’t even need to talk, they can just sit and show and share and often you see that happening and you realise they are really valuable and really powerful. They have helped settle quite a few children over the past years that I’m absolutely sure would have taken a lot longer to settle had they not had those, so it’s just keeping those up and talking to the parents about the value of having those and that it will help their child settle and helps how they work." (Teacher D, Final Interview)
"I’ve noticed that even the most shy of children when they’ve got their portfolio with them they just seem to have this sense of confidence, it’s that ownership over something and the fact that the other children in the class are acknowledging their prior learning and lots of rich experiences for the kids in that the children here remember friends from the kindergarten, they remember the teachers, they see Carol or Pat or Stephanie [the kindergarten teachers and administrator] in the picture 'oh there’s Stephanie'." (Teacher C, Final Interview)
However, as Hartley et al.’s (2009) report explains, families may be reluctant to allow their child’s treasured portfolio to spend time at school unless a back-up copy is available. They also wanted to feel that the teacher valued the portfolios.
Jones (2006) also described the benefits of the early childhood portfolio at school, as it allowed the child’s routines, knowledge, skills and previous learning experiences to be shared with the new entrant teacher. Broström (2005) offered a similar approach to connecting with the child’s background. This involved children bringing photographs, drawings and favourite stories to school, which were welcomed, displayed and discussed in the classroom.
Talking to children
Because children’s perspectives may be very different to those of the adults involved it is important to understand transitions from the child’s perspective. Some issues may be fairly unique to a particular child. As noted earlier, in one study, only three children experienced concern about using the school toilets, but this was significant for the children involved. In addition, an aspect that one child dislikes about school maybe something that another really enjoys (Peters, 2004).
Research with children has shown that they are able to articulate their concerns about school, and what they feel other children need to know about school (Belcher, 2006; Dockett & Perry, 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004c; Einarsdóttir, 2007; Fabian & Dunlop, 2006; Margetts, 2006; O’Kane, 2007; Potter & Briggs, 2003). They also have suggestions about what schools can do to help children who are starting school (Margetts, 2006). Teachers could undertake their own investigations into children’s concerns and explore ways of addressing these in their own contexts. Various strategies have been used to support children sharing their views, including children taking photographs (Dockett & Perry, 2003a), drawing (Dockett & Perry, 2004a) and taking part in discussion groups (O’Kane, 2007) which might prove helpful.
3. Working with families
The benefits of a home-school partnership are well documented (Brooker, 2008; Bohan-Baker & Little, 2004; Dockett et al., 2007; Fletcher et al., 2009; King & Boardman, 2006). Fletcher et al. (2009) consider that developing home-school partnerships, “is the most powerful way for schools to understand and meet the needs of diverse students” (p. 26). However, these are not always easy to achieve. For example, Gallagher (2005) found that parents/caregivers in her study hoped for strong, reciprocal relationships with their child’s teacher, but experienced distrust and negative responses from some teachers. Over time, these parents of gifted students turned away from schools and looked elsewhere for support, often enrolling their children in gifted programmes.
Mutual respect and acknowledgement of each other’s knowledge seem to be important (Gallagher, 2006). Better home-school communication is likely to foster understanding on both sides and strengthen respectful relationships (Brooker, 2002) and finding both time and place for dialogue is key (Gallagher, 2006; Peters, 2004). Peters (2004) found that many parents indicated how much they would have appreciated an opportunity to talk to their child’s teacher. Although teachers felt that they operated an ‘open door’ policy, not all parents experienced it as such, and it appeared that communication could be enhanced by creating ‘official’ time and space for this to happen with all parents/caregivers.
Report formats can also be adapted to share the information parents are most interested in. In a small study exploring reports based largely on the key competencies, Wilson (2005) found that these reflected the parents’ crucial concerns regarding whether their child was happy at school and had friends to play with. As discussed earlier, assessments can invite family contributions and involvement.
Another way of supporting home-school partnerships is for teachers to evaluate their own ideas about parental involvement. Typically, parents and families who do not participate in schools are deemed not to care about their children’s education, when the reality may be very different (Doucet, 2008; Peters, 2004). However, parent work hours may make it difficult for parents to participate in school activities (Fletcher et al., 2009) and flexible approaches may be needed. A parent’s reasons for staying away may be even more complex. One mother described how she felt that teachers would look down on her and this would disadvantage her children so she kept away from school in the hopes this would enhance her children’s chances of doing well (Peters, 2004). The solutions for building trust in cases like this would have to be developed with care. As well as assisting family involvement in school, it is recommended that teachers should also value unnoticed work of parents (Doucet, 2008). This invisible support can be as important as the on-site support parents provide (Brooker, 2002). At the same time, schools should take care not to disadvantage children whose families, for whatever reason, do not participate in their child’s education or develop a relationship with the teachers.
The feelings and experiences of families who have children with special needs starting school may be worthy of particular teacher consideration. Teacher enthusiasm and confidence regarding the child with special needs joining their class was important to parents (New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, n.d.; Wilson-Burns, 2009). Applying for ORRS funding led some parents to revisit the grief cycle, as they had to document all the ways in which their child was performing below other children (New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, n.d.). It may be helpful for teachers to be aware of potential sources of increased emotion for parents. Another mother’s account noted how important it was to her that she was allowed to act like all the other parents, for example dropping off and leaving her child at school gave a brief sense of normality (Wilson-Burns, 2009).
Listening to parents’ stories is an important step in gaining understanding to developing meaningful relationships (Doucet, 2008). Parents who do not share the dominant culture of the school may have particular concerns not shared by other families (Dockett & Perry, 2005b; Peters, 2004; Sangavarapu & Perry, 2005). Language may be a barrier when parents do not share the same language as the teacher. For example, parents may feel more able to advocate for their children using their first language (Fletcher et al., 2009). Obviously, access to those who can translate and support home school communication may not be available in some areas, but where possible this could be put into place. For example, Pasifika liaison officers to support school’s communication with Pasific Island families (Fletcher et al., 2009).
As with other aspects of transition, it is important to check that policies are working. The school at the centre of Peters’ (2004) study had developed a number of methods for sharing information with families. However, the fact that many parents did not actually receive the information shows that distribution polices need to be monitored.
Doucet (2008), Gregory (2005) and McTurk, Nutton, Lea, Robinson and Carapetis (2008) all suggest more attention should be paid to the role of the extended family in supporting children’s learning and that home-school links should not just include the parents.
4. Personal qualities of teachers
There are clearly a huge number of strategies that early childhood and school teachers could implement to support children’s transition to school. However, the strategies alone will not effect change unless teachers are willing to be proactive in exploring barriers to successful transitions, rather than accepting the status quo when things aren’t working. This applies to pedagogy too. Chapman et al. (2004) critiqued reading interventions that offered more of the same when children weren’t successful, rather than trying a different approach. Teachers are likely to be successful in supporting transitions if they adapt their practices in response to difficulties that children experience, instead of locating problems, when they occur, in the child (Stephen & Cope, 2003).
A positive teacher attitude is likely to be a vital aspect of this process (Ministry of Education, 2008a). A review of practices by Bohan-Baker and Little (2004) concluded that the degree to which families are involved in their child’s educational experiences appears to be based on the attitudes of teachers toward that involvement. In turn, teachers’ attitudes and behaviors can be strongly influenced by the attitudes of their supervisors. Teacher attitudes can be especially important when children have special educational needs. Parents rated the attitude of the teacher as the most important factor in their child’s transition (Kemp, 2003), and appreciate teacher enthusiasm and confidence (Wilson-Burns, 2009).
How can teachers be supported and resourced to support children to transition as successfully as possible from ECE to school?
This chapter began by recognising that whilst there are many strategies for action, responsibility for an effective transition to school lies with all those involved in the process (Dockett & Perry, 2003a). Keeping this wider responsibility in mind, this review has also identified a number of ways in which individual teachers could be supported and resourced in order to support children’s transition to school. These include:
- time and support to become ethnographers of culture;
- small class size;
- a flexible curriculum;
- training and professional development;
- acknowledge the special role of the new entrant teacher; and
- resourcing for transition activities.
Time and support to become ethnographers of culture
Teacher knowledge and respect for other cultures and ability to recognise and foster children’s culture through pedagogies and approaches in the classroom has been a dominant theme in this review. However, developing these cultural understandings is not easy. Fleer (2004) noted that for many western teachers, effective linkages cannot take place and appropriate mediation cannot occur since Indigenous cultures are not well understood by non-Indigenous teachers. To overcome this teachers have to work hard to find out about the ideals, values and assumptions of the families in their community. Therefore, time and support for teachers to become ethnographers of communities to learn about cultural resources (as in Kamler and Comber’s (2005) study) will be important.
Time to implement the results of this teacher learning is also important. Noting that even when teachers were aware of the challenges children faced, they may not have time to address them in a busy classroom, Thomson (2002) recommended that teachers’ working conditions, “must be such that they are able to find, use and value each child’s particular configurations of knowledges, narratives and interests” (p. 8).
Small class size
Literacy research on entry to school has shown that small class size is associated with gains in literacy achievement at the beginning school level, both in the USA (Magnuson, Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2007a) and in New Zealand (Phillips et al., 2004). Magnuson et al.’s (2007a) longitudinal study found that children who entered school behind their peers in aspects of literacy were able to catch up quickly in small classes with high-quality instruction, while initial disparities persisted for children experiencing large classes and lower levels of reading instruction.
On its own a small class does not guarantee a high-quality learning experience, as the ethos is also important (Stephen & Cope, 2003). This was evident in Hattie’s (2009) synthesis of a range of studies. Hattie noted that reducing class size will not lead to changes unless the teachers also change the way that they teach to optimise the opportunities presented by having fewer students. Hattie’s findings may also be affected by the range of ages involved. Blatchford (2009) notes that evidence supports the use of small classes immediately after entry to school and Carr et al. (2009) found that some of the most deeply engaging episodes in school classrooms occurred in small classes where the teacher was able to achieve intersubjectivity (shared meaning and understanding) with the group and to personalise a task. At the new entrant level a smaller class is likely to support teachers in getting to know children and enabling them to take a proactive role in scaffolding children’s thinking and supporting their transition to school. Observing the same teachers over a year showed that they were more able to do these things when the class sizes were smaller, although individual teachers varied in the degree to which they found a large class challenging (Peters, 2004).
A flexible curriculum
Changes to the school curriculum during the period covered by this review mean that New Zealand teachers now have a school curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007a), which sets a clear direction for teaching and learning, but allows teachers considerable flexibility when determining the detail. This allows teachers to connect with the funds of knowledge from home and ensure that children experience school contexts and learning activities where their values, languages and cultural knowledge are an implicit part of teaching and learning practices. This may be particularly important in raising achievement for students who have not in their past had their culture recognised at school (as documented by Dockett et al., 2006; Fletcher et al., 2009; Macfarlane, 2007), but there are benefits for all students (Li et al., 2007).
This valuable curriculum resource contrasts with more negative experiences overseas, where, for example, Thomson and Hall (2008) note the negative impact of the English National Curriculum on teachers’ opportunities to support children from diverse backgrounds, and Gregory (2005), also in England, found the curriculum led to more instruction by teachers rather than teachers having time to listen to children and bridge understanding. It potentially avoids the situation described frequently elsewhere (and at earlier times in New Zealand) where curriculum demands meant that children were pressured to meet narrow targets (Wesley & Buysse, 2003), lesson formats did not provide time for the teacher to carefully observe and talk with children about their play with a view to scaffolding their learning (Belcher, 2006), and teachers felt constrained by expectations that did not reflect the learning process (Burley & Wehipeihana, 2005).
Training and professional development
Given the many suggestions for teachers outlined in this review, teachers are likely to benefit from training and professional development in some key areas. For example, in America, Doucet (2008) notes teacher education students receive little preparation to build mutually respectful relationships with a wide range of families. Given the importance of family involvement, it seems that teachers would be assisted if they received support with this aspect of their role. It would be relevant to research whether New Zealand teachers feel adequately prepared in this respect, as small scale studies (eg, Gallagher, 2005; Peters, 2004) indicate this could be helpful.
Related to this, awareness of how to gain information about children’s background and culture, and how to use this effectively in the classroom, will help support teachers in some of the key aspects this review has identified regarding ways of supporting children’s transitions. This may include learning specific information about children’s language and culture (Podmore, Sauvao & Mapa, 2001), along with more exposure to parents’ actual stories (Doucet, 2008).
Another area where it has been identified that New Zealand teachers required more professional development was in educating gifted children (Gallagher, 2005). The section on children moving from immersion early childhood services to non-immersion schools also indicated that teacher awareness of working with bilingual and multi-lingual children is another aspect that could be developed through training and professional development.
Given the complexity outlined in this review, professional development regarding supporting children’s transitions would also be valuable. Cross-sector professional development may be particularly powerful for this topic. This could include developing knowledge of the curriculum and pedagogy in the other sector, something that will be discussed further in the section looking at ECE services and schools working together. Understanding more about key competencies and learning dispositions is likely to be important in developing the connections outlined in the school curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007a) between Te Whāriki and the key competencies at school.
Acknowledge the special role of the new entrant teacher
Teachers at the new entrant level have an important role in establishing a sense of wellbeing and belonging for children and families. Peters (2004) found that this was enhanced by teachers being available at the start of the day to welcome children and parents to the classroom, and having time to ensure that children have found their lunch and a place to eat at lunchtime. Teachers at this level also have other liaison activities, such as contact with the local early childhood services. Hence, freeing new entrant teachers from other school responsibilities, such as crossing and lunchtime duties, and allowing time for liaison and communication with families and ECE services, could be another way of supporting them in their role.
Resourcing for transition activities
Dockett and Perry (2006) identify dedicated funding and resources as key to an effective transition programme, and suggest these should be recognised as part of the core business of schools. This applies to small initiatives as well as larger programmes. A number of schools and early childhood centres in New Zealand have explored ways of supporting transitions. Not all of these are formally documented but they include a dedicated transition worker to liaise with families and ECE services, release time for teachers to visit the other sector’s setting, programmes on-site for pre-school children, ‘fish and chip’ nights where new families are welcomed to the school and have the opportunity to mix informally with each other and with staff, making DVDs, books, pamphlets, etc., providing a kete of resources for children to gain familiarity with books, pencils, scissors, and so on. Dedicated funding and ongoing resourcing are important if such projects are to be maintained. There are also establishment costs where new entrant classrooms have been resourced to allow more responsive and culturally appropriate programmes.
Funding for other services will also assist teachers. Salter and Redman (2006, 2007) found that GSE support for children who did not receive ORRS funding assisted the children involved to make a successful transition. The GSE support aided the development of relationships between home and school, and school staff reported feeling less anxious about children with special needs joining their class because children’s needs were identified and arrangements made to accommodate them.
How can ECE services and schools (at a service level) best work together to support children to transition as successfully as possible from ECE to school? What is required to support this happening?
Of the 390 submissions received on the Strategic Plan for early Childhood, 37% mentioned the importance of a good liaison between early childhood education and school (Ministry of Education, 2007c). However, research immediately prior to 2004 in 20 schools and 27 early childhood services in some of Auckland’s poorest suburbs painted a disturbing picture of the relationship between early childhood services and schools (Timperley & Robinson, 2002; Timperley et al., 2003). Despite a commitment to collaborate, teachers from the two sectors (ECE and school) had very different expectations of each other and most were dissatisfied with the current arrangements. A recommendation from the study was that ECE-school teacher relationships need to be more focused on how well they achieve the task of a satisfactory transition that creates sufficient continuity across the two settings for children to recognise their knowledge and skills (Timperley et al., 2003).
Recently Hartley et al. (2009) found that where goodwill and interest exist, joint projects that were mutually interesting were a valuable way of fostering relationships, not just between teachers in school and early childhood, but between other members of the school and early childhood communities too. A framework for analysis was developed which considered who the tasks were of interest to and the relationships between different groups. Their report documented the range of projects which included a Welcome DVD, school buddies, phonics DVD and activities, school display board in kindergarten, early childhood and primary school cluster groups.
Effective professional relationships between early childhood and school teachers involved mutual respect and a balance of power. After working together for several years Hartley et al. (2009) noted the following in relation to their cross-sector relationships:
- misunderstandings could arise which could lead to individuals feeling frustrated and that their voices were not heard or valued;
- someone has to take the initiative and make the first contact;
- teachers hoped for an equal partnership and two-way discussions; and
- teachers hoped for opportunities to have input and to take turns to host meetings and raise their concerns.
These school teachers had worked through these issues and articulated a very different partnership to the teachers in Robinson et al.’s (2000) study, which had found that some early childhood educators felt dominated by the school sector and did not voice their concerns and opinions. Instead, school teachers in Hartley et al.’s (2009, pp. 51-52) study commented:
"I don’t want to see this as a school thing thinking up things... and telling the kindy. I think the conversations need to keep happening between the kindy teachers and the school teachers. This is going really well, what else could we do? How else could this progress? "(Teacher E, Final Interview)
"I thought ‘this is good because I’m learning and we’re not coming here [to visit the kindergarten] to tell’. Yes we’re opening up a partnership or a dialogue so I think it’s going to get stronger." (Teacher C, Final Interview)
As well as respectful, reciprocal relationships, to enhance continuity between early childhood education and school, teachers in both sectors need to have knowledge of the curriculum and pedagogy of both ECE and school (Broström, 2002; Einarsdóttir, 2006; Hartley et al., 2009; Ministry of Education, 2002b; Peters, 2005). A number of cross-sector early years groups in New Zealand have found value in sharing practices and discussing issues (Hartley et al., 2009; Wright & Molloy, 2005). These discussions may help to clarify the language used in each sector and to develop some shared understandings, given that the same words may describe rather different concepts in each sector, or different words may actually mean the same thing (Fabian & Dunlop, 2006; Wright & Molloy, 2005). Visiting each other’s settings may be helpful. School teachers in Hartley et al.’s (2009) study were surprised by the capabilities they observed children display in the kindergarten programme and this helped them to connect with the learning documented in the children’s portfolios:
However, visits alone, without goodwill and understanding may not foster effective cross-sector relationships. Timperley et al. (2003) found that cross-sector visits failed to resolve differences in expectation because teachers from the two sectors were concerned about different things. Time, ongoing shared discussions and a study tour to explore transition practices have been another way in which cross-sector relationships have been enhanced and led to a range of initiatives to support transition (work in progress as part of the Haere Whakamua EHSAS project).
As with other aspects of transition, teacher qualities are important in supporting cross-sector collaboration. Hartley et al.’s (2009) study found that flexibility, commitment and a ‘can do’ attitude were important in developing cross-sector relationships. Their data illustrated that relationships take time and persistence to develop, and have to be renegotiated through staff changes and as projects develop. From time to time, teachers in both sectors may feel discouraged, but the positive benefits for all the transition participants (children, teachers and families) indicated the value of developing these connections.
For most children, early childhood services, schools and home form the three main overlapping contexts at the time of their transition to school. This chapter has provided detailed information on the range of ways in which early childhood and primary school teachers, their wider educational settings, and the community, can support the transition to school of children and their families. The review has documented different sites for actions and the supports that may be required to assist teachers in their task. The next chapter takes a close look at the role of parents, family and whānau and how they can also support children’s transition to school.
- At the time of publication these web pages can now be found at http://www.minedu.govt.nz/Parents.aspx.
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