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Rethinking the transition to school


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.


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Subject Headings

Transitions in schooling
Early childhood education
Primary education