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April 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 7

The Transition to School: What's Important?

The Starting School Research Project in Australia collected data from children, parents, and teachers to find out what they consider important as students start school—and how transition programs can help.

The Transition to School: What's Important? - thumbnail
Transition to school is an important time for children, families, and school communities. Research suggests that children who make a smooth transition and experience early school success tend to maintain higher levels of social competence and academic achievement (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Early, Pianta, & Cox, 1999; Luster & McAdoo, 1996; Shepard & Smith, 1989).
  • Knowledge—ideas, facts, or concepts that children know (for example, the ability to identify numbers and letters).
  • Social adjustment to the school context—for example, knowing how to interact with a large group of children, or responding appropriately to the teacher.
  • Skills—for example, tying shoelaces and holding a pencil appropriately.
  • Disposition—attitudes toward school.
  • Rules—the expectations of behavior and action.
  • Physical attributes or characteristics—for example, age and general health.
  • Family issues—family interactions with the school and changes to family life brought about by children starting school.
  • Education environment—what happens at school.
In the interviews, we specifically asked adults to “list the first five things you think of” when they considered the preparation of children for school, and we asked children to “tell us what is important when you start school.”
The responses indicate some differences among children, teachers, and parents in their views about what matters as children start school. Figure 1 reports the percentage of responses from 1,298 parents, 1,264 teachers, and 321 children. Both teachers and parents mentioned children's social adjustment more than any other category. Children also mentioned adjustment, but what mattered most to children fell under the categories of rules and disposition.

Figure 1. Important Factors in the Transition to School


Children: Importance of Rules and Disposition

Both children about to start school and those who had recently started school could recite a long list of rules, including “Don't run in the classroom”; “Don't climb trees”; “You can't tease anyone”; “You have to do what the teacher says”; “When you go outside, you have to wear a hat”; “Put the rubbish in the bin so the school doesn't look like a dump.”
Children's responses also focused on disposition: their feelings about school, usually in the context of the importance of having friends at school. Children who liked being at school and who felt good about school usually reported having friends. In contrast, children who said they didn't want to be at school often said that they had no friends.Interviewer: Are there some kids who don't have friends?Connor: Yes.Interviewer: What happens to them?Heidi: They get really sad.Interviewer: Do you help them?Heidi: Yes. You can't leave anyone alone with no friends.

Adults: Importance of Adjustment

Responses from parents and teachers indicated that they considered adjustment important as children started school. When teachers talked about adjustment, they described situations in which children needed to work as part of a large group without relying on the teacher's attention to guide their behavior. Teachers also stressed the importance of children being able to take direction from adults outside the family.
When parents described adjustment, they emphasized children's ability to separate from them. Parents hoped that their child would not “stick out” from the group—that he or she would fit in. Many parents expressed concern about whether the teacher would like their child and worried about the consequences of a negative relationship between child and teacher.
Although children didn't mention these aspects of adjustment, their focus on rules may have been aimed at achieving the same end. That is, children sought to fit in by working out the rules and using these as a guide for their behavior.
Many parents also referred to the environment of the school, expressing concern about whether the school was the right one for their child. They frequently mentioned the safety of the school environment. For example, preschool settings often have security fences and childproof locks on gates, whereas schools have low fences, open gates, and fewer teachers to supervise children. Parents worried that their children could leave the school grounds unnoticed. Parents also worried about children eating and drinking adequately throughout the day, and about hygiene, particularly that children might not wash their hands after toileting or before eating.
Parents judged their child's transition to school as successful if the child expressed positive attitudes toward school. Teachers, too, were keen to have students who were excited about going to school. One teacher commented, “When children are willing to have a go, you can teach them just about anything!”

Skills and Knowledge Considered Less Important

One striking finding of our study was the relative lack of emphasis on skills and knowledge as important factors in readiness for school. Although teachers mentioned skills more than the other groups did, they rated these as much less important than adjustment. Children reported knowledge as more important than parents or teachers did. In several of their comments, children indicated that they needed to know certain things before they could go to school. The following conversation with Alison illustrates this belief and reflects the children's common recognition that going to school was a major change that meant they were growing up.Interviewer: Do you need to know anything before you go to school?Alison: Trying to draw properly. Learn how to go to school.Interviewer: How do you do that?Alison: You play school with your brother. You have to practice. You have to get out of [being a] baby, then you get out of [going to] preschool, and then you go to big school.

Effective Transition Programs

  • Establish positive relationships among the children, parents, and educators.
  • Facilitate each child's development as a capable learner.
  • Develop long-term, individualized “transition-to-school” programs, not just short-term orientation sessions.
  • Have dedicated adequate funding and resources.
  • Involve a range of stakeholders.
  • Are well planned and evaluated.
  • Are flexible and responsive.
  • Are based on mutual trust and respect.
  • Rely on reciprocal communication among participants.
  • Take into account the context of the community and its individual families and children (Dockett & Perry, 2001).
Several communities around New South Wales, Australia, have been developing and implementing transition to school programs on the basis of these guidelines. The Starting School Research Project supported these communities through regular input at meetings, access to resources, and information sharing. Some examples follow.

Working with Remote Communities

Cobar is a small, rural town supporting a mining and farming community. The town has two primary schools, two preschools, and a mobile preschool that visits isolated families to run a preschool session once every two weeks. During these sessions, local educators discovered that parents were eager to discuss their children's move to school. Questions included “How do I know my child is ready for school?” and “What should I do to prepare my child for school?” These parents and children often had little interaction with other families and no way to compare their children's development with that of others.
In response, a group of early childhood educators and parents, supported by our research team, developed a brochure called “Starting School with a Smile” for distribution within the community that highlighted what parents and children could do together to prepare for school. For example, parents and children might talk to each other about why children go to school; talk with adults and children who already go to school; get involved in sporting clubs; interact with other children in a variety of settings, such as the local library; and visit the school together.
Representatives from every early childhood service participated, discussing issues with children and parents and taking photos. The brochure project clearly responded to a need within the community by enabling early childhood professionals, parents, and children to work together. Through its text and pictures, the brochure shows children as competent learners and parents as interested and valued partners in education.

Communicating Across the Early Childhood Sector

Many of the groups developing transition programs based on the guidelines mentioned difficulties in getting together with their colleagues. One community focused its transition project on promoting communication between staff in preschool and school settings, with the aim of developing positive relationships to support children and families as children started school. The management committee at one preschool allocated release time for one of its teachers to set the program in place. Several preschools invited families to give permission for the preschool staff to contact the school that their child would attend and the child's likely kindergarten teacher. Parents were invited to be a part of any discussions between school and preschool staff about their child. (Legally, these discussions could not occur without parental permission.) The preschools invited teachers from the schools to a series of afternoon teas and developed a comprehensive contact list.
The continued interaction helped teachers in different settings get to know and trust one another. After several meetings, discussions focused on what sorts of information teachers in schools would find most useful and what information children, parents, and preschool teachers wanted to share. From this, they developed a series of written questionnaires so that parents, teachers, or children could record relevant information and pass it on to the child's new teacher. For example, one form asked parents what they wanted to tell new teachers about their child. Another form asked each child to tell something about himself or herself.
This program focused on developing a sense of trust and respect and offering many stakeholders opportunities to make valuable contributions. The relationships have continued to be a powerful force in promoting high-quality early childhood services and connecting these services to schools.

Children's Voices in the Transition to School

In many instances, children experience transition programs but have little say in shaping them. The Starting School Research Project has promoted children's involvement in transition programs in many ways.
For example, toward the end of their kindergarten year, we invited students from several schools to talk about what was important in their school, what they would tell someone who was about to start school, and what they wish they had known about school when they started. We then gave groups of students a digital camera and asked them to walk around the school with us, taking photos to support their discussion. The students took many photos of school toilets, out-of-bounds areas, and areas that had specific access rules, such as the teachers' staff room, the sick bay, and the library. Often, students stressed the importance of the rules associated with these places so that “you don't get into trouble.” They also took many photos of classrooms, desks, and play areas so that other children “will know what it is like.”
We compiled the photos and text into a book and made it available on the classroom computer. In some schools, children shared this book and discussed their experience with children who were about to start school.
The program involved children as competent, capable participants in transition programs and developed relationships between children in kindergarten and those about to start school.

Different Contexts, Varied Programs

These examples reflect a few of the many transition programs that various communities have developed. Transition programs should look different in different contexts because children, families, and communities have different strengths and needs.
Through the Starting School Research Project, we have learned a great deal from those involved in transition and have been able to develop and support innovative and exciting programs. The project's guidelines provide a framework for the development and evaluation of programs across a range of contexts. Our continuing work highlights the significance of the transition process and the importance of helping to foster a positive start to school.

Alexander, K. L., & Entwisle, D. R. (1988). Achievement in the first two years of school: Patterns and processes. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 53(2, Serial No. 218).

Dockett, S., & Perry, B. (2001). Starting school: Effective transitions. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 3(2). [Online]. Available:http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v3n2/dockett.html

Dockett, S., & Perry, B. (2002). Who's ready for what? Young children starting school. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 3(1), 67–89.

Early, D. M., Pianta, R. C., & Cox, M. J. (1999). Kindergarten teachers and classrooms: A transition context. Early Education and Development, 10(1), 25–46.

Luster, T., & McAdoo, H. (1996). Family and child influences on educational attainment: A secondary analysis of the High Scope/Perry Preschool data. Developmental Psychology, 32, 26–39.

Shepard, L. A., & Smith, M. L. (1989). Flunking grades: Research and policies on retention. New York: Falmer.

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