The Royal Children’s Hospital’s Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) summarises the research evidence on issues surrounding children’s transition to school, including strategies which aim to make it a smooth and successful process for children and their families. This article is an edited version of the CCCH Policy Brief, No 11, 2008.
Children’s long-term success in school derives from their learning experiences before school, and the ongoing learning environment in the early school years (Dockett & Perry, 2007b; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2004). If schools fail to build on what children have learned prior to school entry, the benefits of earlier positive learning experiences may fade out in time (Feinstein, 2003; Kagan & Neuman, 1998; Kauerz, 2006). A smooth transition between the two settings increases the likelihood of continuous learning and reduces the incidence of fade out.
Currently schools and early years service systems are not well integrated and are therefore unable to provide cohesive support to all children and families during the transition to school (Dockett & Perry, 2007a; Halfon et al, 2004). This puts all children at risk, and is particularly problematic for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Pianta & Rimm-Kaufman, 2006).
Factors affecting successful transition
How easy or difficult children find the transition between early years services and school settings partly depends upon the degree of discontinuity they have to negotiate (Margetts, 2002). Discontinuities include changes in the physical environment of buildings and classrooms, differences in curricula and teaching strategies, differences in the number, gender and role of staff, changes to the peer group, and most significant of all, changes in the relationships between children and the adults responsible for their care and education.
Some discontinuities are expected and generally welcomed by children. Children seek change and challenge and understand that in many ways school will reflect their growing status and independence. However for successful transitions to occur, it is important that discontinuities around learning, relationship-building and support systems are minimised.
One of the major sources of discontinuity is that between the curriculum and teaching approaches used in early years services settings and those used in schools (Margetts, 2002; Pianta & Cox, 2002; Walker, 2007). Whereas programs in early years services use developmentally appropriate play-based learning approaches, traditional school curricula tend to be more structured and teacher-directed. However, as Walker (2007) has pointed out, nothing magical or mysterious happens to children’s brains or learning styles in the six week holiday period between finishing early years education and starting school. There are no grounds therefore for abruptly changing the teaching style and content; rather, there is a strong rationale for seeking greater alignment between early years services and school curricula, with a more gradual introduction to structured learning (Bogard & Takanishi, 2005; Fabian, 2002; Kauerz, 2006).
The sharing of information between early years services and school staff also affects the quality of the transition to school (Dockett & Perry, 2001; Margetts, 2002; Yeboah, 2002). Teachers in early years services and school settings sometimes have difficulty doing this effectively (Cassidy, 2005; Hopps, 2004; Timperley et al, 2003). Some communication practices (eg sending the school a copy of a preschool report) are simply inadequate, and do not provide school teachers with information about the child and family that they find important or useful (Cassidy, 2005). Problems may also arise because the two sets of teachers do not work together, and lack a true understanding and respect for each other’s work (Hopps, 2004). Further, while early years teachers and school teachers may agree about the importance of effective communication, they may have very different expectations of what the other sector should be doing to facilitate the transition of children to school (Timperley et al, 2003). This often reflects a simplistic and dated view of ‘school readiness’ as being a quality in the child. This view assumes that it is the responsibility of early years services to prepare children for school, rather than the collective responsibility of families, early years services, communities, and schools themselves (CCCH, Policy Brief 10, 2008).
How effectively children are supported during the transition to school affects their school adjustment and academic achievement (Boethel, 2004; Fabian, 2007; OECD, 2006; Pianta & Rimm-Kaufman, 2006). The more transition activities that schools conduct, the better children adjust to the school environment (Margetts, 2002, 2007; Schulting et al, 2005). Such activities are particularly beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Schulting et al, 2005), but should be available universally. Successful transition depends in part upon how well the school culture is understood by the parents and family, and how trusting and respectful families are of the school (Clancy et al, 2001). Parents and caregivers whose own experiences of school were poor may have little understanding of or support for the school.
Children make better progress academically and socially when their families are actively and positively involved in their children’s learning activities at home, in early childhood settings (Weiss et al, 2006) and at school (Caspe et al, 2006/07; Kreider et al, 2007). It is therefore important for schools to build positive relationships with families well before school starts (Dockett & Perry, 2001; Pianta & Cox, 2002), and to maintain these during and after the transition to school (Boethel, 2004; Emig et al, 2001; Gonzalez, 2002; Mangione & Speth, 1998). Special efforts to reach the families of children not attending early childhood services may be needed.
Developing ways of maintaining continuity in relationships across the early years / school divide must be regarded as a major priority.
Strategies for improving transitions
Strategies for improving children’s transition to school have been identified by Bohan-Baker & Little (2004), Dockett & Perry (2001, 2007), Margetts (2007), Pianta & Kraft-Sayre (2003), and Rous & Hallam (2006).
Transition activities should be built into early years services and school teachers’ roles, and can include: home visits before and after children enter school; visits to early years settings and schools; family meetings to discuss teacher expectations; connecting new families with families currently enrolled in the school; dissemination of information to families on the transition to school; and family support groups (Bohan-Baker & Little, 2004). In selecting strategies, it is important to take account of the views of parents and caregivers as well as the children themselves (Dockett & Perry, 2001, 2007).
These transition strategies go beyond those traditional orientation programs that inform families about school programs and familiarise them with the school setting, without necessarily building relationships (Dockett & Perry, 2001; Glazier, 2001).
Greater alignment of early years services and school curricula can be achieved at the classroom level, by introducing more play-based approaches in the early stages of primary school (eg, Walker, 2007; Fabian, 2002), and by developing a common curriculum framework across early years services and the initial primary school years (Neuman, 2001). The South Australian Curriculum Standards and Accountability Framework is an example of this latter process. At the administrative level, greater alignment between the teaching environments and approaches used in early years services and schools can be promoted through the administrative integration of early years services into the education system (Neuman, 2001); this has recently occurred in Victoria with the merging of early childhood and education sectors into a single government department.
Transition strategies may not be enough, and the links between early years services and schools need to be strengthened in more substantive ways (Emig et al, 2001; Gonzalez, 2002; Shore, 1998). In Australia and overseas, a number of models have been trialled to strengthen the link between schools, early years services and local communities. These take different forms, but include co-locating early years services on school grounds (eg De Zen, 2004), developing more effective communication and collaboration strategies across the two sectors (Halfon et al, 2004; OECD, 2006), developing greater alignment between early years services’ and early school years’ curricula and teaching practices (Bogard & Takanishi, 2005; Kauerz, 2006), and providing opportunities for early childhood and school staff to work together on a regular basis (Neuman, 2001; Walker, 2007).
Stronger linkages between services can be achieved by dedicating funding for schools to work with families and early years services before the children reach school (Docket & Perry, 2001), as has been done by the Tasmanian Department of Education through its Launching into Learning program (Larcombe, 2007). The benefits of this model include the capacity for schools to develop prior knowledge about the needs of the particular children who are commencing, put in place a range of appropriate classroom and support strategies to meet their needs, encourage family involvement, and be able to build strong links with other relevant services as required (Ackerman & Barnett, 2005; Adelman & Taylor, 2002; Emig et al, 2001; Gonzalez, 2002). Other models have been developed to create school environments that are more supportive and inclusive of families, provide a wider range of family and community services, and establish stronger links with other relevant child and family services (Zigler et al, 1997). These include extended schools (HM Government, 2007; Wilkin et al, 2003), full service schools (Dryfoos, 2002), and community schools (Blank & Berg, 2006; Blank et al, 2003; Edgar, 2001).
The implications for policy and programs are clear. First, ways to ensure early childhood and school curricula and teaching strategies are brought into greater alignment should be explored. This may include developing common curriculum frameworks, strengthening administrative links, and co-teaching arrangements. Integrated programs that share staff, curricula and premises should be developed and evaluated, and should be supported by policy and funding at all levels of government. Both early years services and schools should also seek to become more family-friendly, creating spaces where families and staff can mingle to effectively support each child’s learning.
Ackerman, DJ and Barnett, WS (2005) Prepared for Kindergarten: What Does ‘Readiness’ Mean? NIEER Policy Report (March 2005) National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Adelman, H and Taylor, L (2002) New directions for school and community initiatives to address barriers to learning: two examples of concept papers to inform and guide policy makers. Centre for Mental Health in Schools, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California.
Blank, MJ, Melaville, A and Shah, BP (2003) Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools. Coalition for Community Schools, Washington, DC.
Blank, M and Berg A (2006) All together now: Sharing responsibility for the whole child. Commission on the Whole Child, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia.
Boethel, M (2004) Readiness: School, family, and community connections. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, Austin, Texas.
Bogard, K and Takanishi, R (2005) ‘PK-3: An aligned and coordinated approach to education for children 3 to 8 years old.’ Social Policy Report, XIX (III) Society for Research in Child Development, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Bohan-Baker, M and Little, PMD (2004) The Transition to Kindergarten: A Review of Current Research and Promising Practices to Involve Families. Harvard Family Research Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Caspe, M, Lopez, ME and Wolos, C (2006/07) Family involvement in elementary school. Harvard Family Research Project Report No 2 (Winter 06/07) Harvard Family Research Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Cassidy, M (2005) ‘"They do it anyway”: a study of Primary 1 teachers' perceptions of children's transition into primary education.’ Early Years, 25 (2), 143-153.
CCCH (Centre for Community Child Health) (2008) Rethinking school readiness. CCCH Policy Brief 10. Centre for Community Child Health, Melbourne, Victoria.
Clancy, S, Simpson, L and Howard, P (2001) ‘Mutual trust and respect’. In S Dockett and B Perry (Eds) Beginning School Together: Sharing Strengths. Australian Early Childhood Association, Watson, ACT.
De Zen, L (2004) ‘A sense of belonging: Community spaces building family strengths.’ Every Child, 10 (2), 10.
Dockett, S and Perry, B (2001) ‘Starting school: effective transitions’. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 3 (2), 1-14.
Dockett, S and Perry, B (2007a) ‘Children's transition to school: Changing expectations.’ In A-W Dunlop and H Fabian (2007) Informing Transitions in the Early Years, UK: Open University Press, Maidenhead, Berkshire.
Dockett, S and Perry, B (2007b) Transitions to School: Perceptions, expectations and experiences. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, NSW.
Dryfoos, JG (2002) ‘Full-serviced schools: creating new institutions’. Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (5), 393-399.
Edgar, D (2001) The Patchwork Nation: Re-thinking government – re- building community. Harper Collins, Sydney, NSW.
Emig, C, Moore, A and Scarupa, H J (2001) ‘School readiness: Helping communities get children ready for school and schools ready for children’. Child Trends Research Brief, October, Child Trends, Washington, DC.
Fabian, H (2002) Contextualised learning for 5-8 year olds. Learning and Teaching Scotland, Dundee, Scotland.
Fabian, H (2007) ‘Informing transitions’. In A-W Dunlop and H Fabian (2007) Informing Transitions in the Early Years, Open University Press, Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK.
Feinstein, L (2003) ‘Inequality in the early cognitive development of British children in the 1970 cohort’. Economica, 70 (Issue 297), 73-97.
Glazier, J (2001) ‘Orientation or transition?’ In S Dockett and B Perry (Eds) Beginning School Together: Sharing Strengths. Australian Early Childhood Association, Watson, ACT.
Gonzalez, R (2002) Ready schools: Practices to support the development and educational success of young children. UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families, and Communities, Los Angeles, California.
Halfon, N, Uyeda, K, Inkelas, M and Rice, T (2004) ‘Building Bridges: A Comprehensive System for Healthy Development and School Readiness’. In N Halfon, T Rice and M Inkelas (Eds) Building State Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems Series, No 1. National Center for Infant and Early Childhood Health Policy, Los Angeles, California.
HM Government (2007) Extended Schools: Building on Experience. DCSF Publications, Annesley, Nottingham.
Hopps, K (2004) ‘Teacher communication across the preschool-school boundary’. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 29 (1), 8-13.
Kagan, SL and Neuman, MJ (1998) Lessons from three decades of transition research. The Elementary School Journal, 98 (4), 365-379.
Kauerz, K (2006) Ladders of Learning: Fighting Fade-Out by Advancing PK-3 Alignment. NAF Issue Brief No 2 (January 2006). New America Foundation: Early Education Initiative, Washington, DC.
Kreider, H, Caspe, M, Kennedy, S and Weiss, H (2007) ‘Family Involvement in Middle and High School Students' Education’, Family Involvement Makes a Difference Number 3, Spring 2007 Harvard Family Research Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Larcombe, C (2007) ‘Launching into Learning Reflections’, Gowrie Australia, Summer, pp 4-6.
Mangione, PL and Speth, T (1998) ‘The transition to elementary school: A framework for creating early childhood continuity through home, school, and community partnerships’. The Elementary School Journal, 98 (4) 381-397.
Margetts, K (2002) ‘Transition to school — Complexity and diversity’. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 10 (2), 103–114.
Margetts, K (2007a) ‘Preparing children for school--benefits and privileges’, Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 32 (2), 43-50.
Margetts, K (2007b) ‘Understanding and supporting children’. In A-W Dunlop and H Fabian (2007) Informing Transitions in the Early Years, Open University Press, Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK.
Neuman, M (2001) ‘Hand in hand: Improving the links between ECEC and schools in OECD countries’. In SB Kamerman (2001), Early Childhood Education and Care: International Perspectives. Institute for Child and Family Policy, Columbia University, New York.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2004) ‘Are child developmental outcomes related to before- and after-school care arrangements? Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care’. Child Development, 75, 280–295.
OECD (2006) Starting Strong II: Early Childhood Education and Care. Organisation for Economic Development, Paris, France.
Pianta, R and Cox, M (2002) ‘Transition to kindergarten’. Early Childhood Research and Policy Briefs, 2 (2 / Winter), National Center for Early Development & Learning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Pianta, RC and Kraft-Sayre, M (2003) Successful Kindergarten Transition: Your Guide to Connecting Children, Families, and Schools. Paul H Brookes, Baltimore, Maryland.
Pianta, RC and Rimm-Kaufman, S (2006) ‘The social ecology of the transition to school: Classrooms, families, and children.’ Ch 24 in K McCartney and D Phillips (Eds), Blackwell Handbook of Early Childhood Development, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK.
Rous, BS and Hallam, RA (2006) Tools for Transition in Early Childhood: A Step-by-Step Guide for Agencies, Teachers, and Families. Paul H Brookes, Baltimore, Maryland.
Schulting, AB, Malone, PS and Dodge, KA (2005) ‘The effect of school-based kindergarten transition policies and practices on child academic outcomes’. Developmental Psychology, 41 (6), 860-871.
Shore, R (1998) Ready schools: A report of the Goal 1 Ready Schools Resource Group. Washington, DC: The National Education Goals Panel.
Timperley, H, McNaughton, S, Howie, L and Robinson, V (2003) ‘Transitioning children from early childhood education to school: teacher beliefs and transition practices’. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 28 (2), 32-38.
Walker, K (2007) ‘Play Matters: Engaging Children in Learning’. In The Australian Developmental Curriculum - A play and project based philosophy. Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell, Victoria.
Weiss, H, Caspe, M and Lopez, ME (2006) Family involvement in early childhood education. Harvard Family Research Project Report No 1 (Spring 2006) Harvard Family Research Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Wilkin, A, Kinder, K, White, R, Atkinson, M and Doherty, P (2003) Towards the Development of Extended Schools. DfES Research Report No 408, Department for Education and Science, London, UK.
Yeboah, DA (2002) ‘Enhancing transition from early childhood phase to primary education: Evidence from the research literature’. Early Years: Journal of International Research and Development, 22 (1), 51-68.
Zigler, E F, Finn-Stevenson, M, & Stern, B M (1997) ‘Supporting children and families in the schools: The school of the 21st century’. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67, 396–407.