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

Executive Summary

The Literature Review: Transition from Early Childhood Education to School was commissioned by the Ministry of Education. 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 to transition as successfully as possible.

The selection of literature drew primarily on work published between 2004 to mid 2009, with particular attention to New Zealand literature, and research in “broadly similar” countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Systematic searches of library and web databases were supplemented by drawing on personal networks to find relevant information. The selection of overseas literature on transitions was based on work that appeared most relevant to the research questions. Consideration of international literature has to take account of the different starting ages, enrolment practices and ethnic composition of school entrants compared to New Zealand.

Overall, the research ranged from very small case studies to large-scale longitudinal studies. Some theoretical literature was included to deepen the critical analysis. Quality assurance was addressed through careful searching and analysis and by a review of a draft document by local and international experts in the field.

Important issues

The review systematically examined the evidence regarding transition to school. In doing so it recognised the complexity in the multiple factors that influence each child’s learning and transition experiences, and the diversity that exists within groups as well as between groups of children. It also acknowledged that transitions are not an event but a process. Analysis of success is most usefully looked at over time, considering long-term learning trajectories rather than focusing solely on initial skills and adjustments.

When examining what success looks like, different theoretical views shape what is valued, and there are also different perspectives to consider. Starting school involves not just the child but also a range of other participants, including families and teachers in ECE and school. Determining success must therefore take into account the different perspectives involved. 

Key findings

A successful transition to school

Although children make many transitions in their lives, the move to school has important implications for their learning and is therefore worthy of particular attention. Research shows that no matter how academically capable a child is, unhappiness over lack of friends, problems in the playground or toilets, a poor relationship with the teacher, inappropriate challenges, low expectations and so on, have negative consequences for their learning. The themes regarding successful transitions are interrelated and create the context for positive learning trajectories.

Overall, one of the key findings is that successful transitions depend on the nature of the relationships between all involved. For children, their friendships, peer relationships and the relationship with their teacher appear central. Respectful, reciprocal relationships between the adults involved are also key factors in a successful transition. This is important for all children but seems to be especially influential for the success of Māori children. Relationships permeate the other key themes for success that were identified in the literature, such as a sense of belonging and wellbeing at school, engagement in learning, learning dispositions and identity as a learner. Children, whose teachers take time to get to know them, affirm their culture, recognise and build on their prior learning, and see promise rather than deficits, reflect many of the features of a successful transition that will support their learning.


Characteristics that play a part in how well children transition to school

This review of recent research on children starting school highlighted that the part played in this transition by any characteristic of the child and family will always depend on the nature of the context they enter. 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. This allows adjustments to be made to the contexts and strategies implemented to support more positive experiences. For example, children who do not share the language or dominant culture of the school may be particularly vulnerable if the school contexts are not tailored to support them. However, this is not inevitable. The literature included examples of ways in which schools could be culturally responsive and support the learning of all children.

For Māori children and Pasifika children, positive, responsive relationships between children, teachers and families, and culturally responsive teaching and assessment are strong themes in ensuring success. Māori and Pasifika researchers are providing important insights into the experiences of these two groups, although more research is required, especially regarding children’s and families’ experiences of transition to school.

The situation for children from low socio-economic backgrounds is complex. Research suggests that children in this group are at risk of making less successful transitions than their more advantaged peers. The research reviewed, however, gives few clear indicators regarding exactly how coming from a lower socio-economic household plays a role in a child’s transition to school. It can be inferred from other research findings that these may, in part, be due to low teacher expectations, lack of recognition or connection with the funds of knowledge they bring, problems with home-school relationships and so on. Parental employment, neighbourhood support and resources also correlate with children’s experiences on entry to school, and are therefore worthy of consideration.

The limited research literature regarding transition to school for children with special needs suggested generally positive findings, although there was little data on children and their families’ actual transition experiences. The New Zealand research on this topic focused largely on adult perspectives and emphasized the importance of respectful and reciprocal relationships between all involved.


Supporting children’s transition to school: messages for ECE and school teachers

The literature included many ways in which teachers in both sectors can support children’s transition to school. It reminds teachers that while orientation programmes help children to become familiar with school, transition programmes take a much broader focus and should be planned and evaluated by all involved. It is important that these are developed and evaluated in local contexts, as there are no simple recipes. When ideas that had been successful in one context were implemented more widely, new issues and considerations sometimes arose that needed to be identified and addressed.

With these cautions in mind, the literature nevertheless had a number of strategies that teachers could implement. These include working with the child, sharing information, and working with families. The personal qualities of teachers have a vital impact on their relationships with children and families and in their willingness to be proactive in exploring barriers to successful transitions. Some of the specific strategies within these themes include:

  • connecting with funds of knowledge that children bring to school from home;
  • culturally responsive teaching;
  • appropriate assessment practices that recognise the situated nature of learning and the cultural construction of assessment practices;
  • making links between children’s learning in ECE and school;
  • fostering children’s relationships and friendships and creating contexts which reduce the negative consequences of not having friends;
  • considering children’s whole experience of school, including lunchtimes and using the toilets;
  • providing opportunities for play that enables children to explore experiences, develop language and foster understanding and meaning;
  • understanding the impact of rules and the way these can support belonging but can also constrain children’s behaviour and create anxiety;
  • providing information and familiarisation activities for children and families;
  • learning about children and their families; and
  • developing home-school partnerships.


To implement the strategies above, and to work with others involved to review their effectiveness, teachers will be assisted by having time and support to find out about children’s home culture, as well as small class sizes, a flexible curriculum, training and professional development (including cross-sector professional development), and acknowledgement of the special role of the new entrant teacher. Dedicated ongoing resourcing for transition activities is important if they are to be maintained.


Supporting children’s transition to school: messages for families

Although there is quite a lot of advice literature for parents and families, the review focused on research literature when exploring the messages for families. Given the literature that shows the value of high-quality early childhood education, this is clearly something which families might like to consider. However, very few studies looked directly at the starting school experiences of children who have not attended ECE services.

Fostering their children’s friendships with other children is an important step that families can take to support children’s transition to school. Networking with other parents and caregivers can be helpful too. Rich learning experiences are also important and do not have to cost money. What parents do to support their children’s learning and learning dispositions has been shown to be more important than parent/caregiver occupation, education or income. Supporting children’s learning dispositions are likely to be particularly relevant for long-term success.

As children approach school entry, families can ensure children have lots of opportunities to find out about school before they start, and to get to know other children who plan to go to, or are attending, their child’s school. Once children are at school, families who get involved and advocate for their children are likely to assist their transitions. Having positive expectations, ensuring children have health checks, and developing suitable routines were also mentioned in the literature.

Gaps in the literature and directions for future research

Although a wealth of literature was reviewed, there is limited New Zealand information in relation to many of the questions of interest raised for this review. It appears that more New Zealand research is urgently needed for all of the groups discussed in Chapter Three (Māori children, Pasifika children, children who are linguistically diverse, children with special educational needs, and children living in lower socio-economic households). Further research into the nuances of classroom life during transitions could usefully explore aspects of language and practice that shape how children are positioned as learners, as well as the wider influences on their experiences. Very few research designs address multiple perspectives, and some of the voices of children and families that perhaps most need to be heard, especially to shed light on how less favourable transitions can be improved, are underrepresented in research findings. New approaches to research may be required to gain access to these perspectives.

This review captures a moment in time, and in 2009 little transition to school research has been reported since the 2007 curriculum school curriculum, with its alignment to the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki. With a focus on learning dispositions and key competencies, many teachers are trialling new pedagogies and more holistic assessment practices. Anecdotal evidence suggests that across the country a number of early childhood services and schools are working together to support transitions. More research into these initiatives will be important in guiding future directions.

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