Helping children transition from ECE to primary school

Members of the Institute of Educational and Developmental Psychology share their perspective on what children really need to know as they move from early childhood to primary school.

One of the biggest jobs a parent has is to prepare their preschooler for the transition to school. Modern parents undertake this task as they manage work, the physical needs of the family, and running a home, as well as making time for friends and other activities. One of our most famous parents is currently undertaking this task as she also holds down the role of Prime Minister!

A web search for what teachers expect children to be able to do when they start school yields a rather overwhelming list. According to what we found, children starting school should be able to go to the toilet independently, wash their hands, eat lunch, open packets and containers, take their shoes on and off, dress themselves for activities like swimming, put belongings away, manage relationships, join in games, write or recognise their name, know the alphabet, count at least to 10, recognise colours and shapes, use a glue stick and scissors, complete a simple jigsaw puzzle, colour in, and use a paint brush. Most parents will be needing a lie down after reading that list!

We thought we’d share the perspective of educational psychologists about preparing a pre-schooler to start school and how families can support the transition process.

First, remember: All children are different

Firstly, we’d like to reassure parents that children are all different and that the above list is rather aspirational. Not all children will be able to do all these tasks. Some will, some won’t, and some will be able to do some of the tasks. Fortunately, schools in New Zealand are inclusive, and teachers are eager to teach children based on their next learning steps.

Play is important

To prepare children for school, the rich learning that occurs during children’s play cannot be underestimated. Play provides children with opportunities to develop a range of skills such as fine and gross motor, speech and language, and social skills. Play activities also promote social competence and emotional wellbeing, which provide a strong foundation for cognitive development and success at school. So we recommend that you capitalise on your child’s natural wonder and curiosity. Let them take the lead and use these experiences as opportunities to engage in rich conversations to support the acquisition of oral language skills, to help children learn to focus and pay attention, and to model how to engage in reciprocal social interactions.

There are many everyday examples of children learning through play such as digging in the sandpit or creating sandcastles at the beach, water play in the bath with kitchen utensils and bubbles, and exploring the pots and pans in the cupboards. Walking, running, exploring outdoor play equipment, and climbing trees all help to develop the gross motor muscles and skills which must be in place before children can sit on chairs or on the floor for extended periods of time or be able to hold a pencil to write. Families play a powerful role in these play experiences. This can range from observing the child to ensure safety, to interacting with the child by demonstrating or talking about what the child is doing to enrich the play experience. These early positive learning experiences help children to develop a positive self-concept as a learner so they are ready to embrace new learning opportunities when they begin school.

Read to your children

There are many opportunities for families to support children’s literacy learning. One of the most powerful ways that families can support a child’s early literacy development is by reading to them. When children are read to, they are exposed to vocabulary, language, and story structure. Furthermore, they have opportunities to observe reading behaviours, such as turning pages from left to right, and develop book knowledge, for example understanding that a book has a cover page and a title. Nursery rhymes, children’s poems, and songs are additional ways to support children’s literacy. There is a wealth of research indicating that rhymes support the development of phonological awareness, one of the strongest indicators of reading success. Engaging in fun and simple activities such as these are powerful ways to support children’s language skills.

Learning to manage transitions

Managing transitions takes a lot of energy for the adults and children involved. The number of changes that happen to us at any one time can impact on how stressful an event is, even if these are positive changes. Going to school usually means there are several changes for a child and their family: A change in meal times, clothing, friendships, and time together. If possible, try to keep other changes to a minimum while your child transitions to school. Just like an adult adjusting to a new job, it can take a few months before your child will have really settled at school, and they are likely to come home very tired each day.

Prepare for change ahead of time

One good way of easing the stress of transition is to find out as much as you can about the transition process. Most early childhood centres have processes in place to help children and families learn about going to school. This may include centre trips to local schools to provide an opportunity to become familiar with the environment, staff, and other children. Try to be part of these activities as much as possible. Taking some photos of the school or going for an extra visit on the weekend to walk around and play on the playground can help to familiarise your child with the layout of the school.

Before your child turns five, the centre will talk to you about your child’s transition, so it is a good idea to choose the school as early as possible. If you feel that your child needs extra support to transition, let the centre and school know. Many schools allow extra school visits to help children become familiar with the school setting and routines. Also, the school may have a ready-made story or information with photos that you can talk to your child about at home. If your child receives additional support, such as speech language therapy, then talk to your case worker about how the transition to school will be managed.

Dealing with little worrywarts

Sometimes, despite carefully thinking about and planning for a smooth transition to school, your child will feel worried about going to school. A good way to support your child is to remind them about other successful transitions they may have already experienced. For example, they may spend time with caregivers other than family members. Remind your child that although they may have been a bit worried about their new caregiver, they now enjoy spending time with them. Acknowledge and validate their feelings. Also, you might like to share with them that for adults change can also be unsettling. Point out that there are good things about change and provide them with examples from their own life and your experiences of successfully managing new situations.

As educational psychologists, we work to apply research and best practices to the situations that children and their family commonly encounter to support positive experiences. We hope you will find these ideas helpful to support your child make a great start to their schooling years.

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