Starting school is a big step and there are many ways parents and carers can support children to have a happy and satisfying transition to the adventure of the early school years.
Families need to focus on practical matters such as new routines, clothing, shoes and school lunches, school contacts and policies. But there are also important issues around wellbeing, such as new friendships with other children, relationships with new teachers, how children are feeling about starting school, what they are expecting, and how they’ll respond to this new setting.
Council held a transition to school parent forum in September to help families with children who are getting ready for preschool and kindergarten in 2020. The forum is the first of a new quarterly series for preschool (and pre-preschool) parents.
Organised in collaboration with the ACT Education Directorate and a range of early education stakeholders, the event brought together educators, parents and researchers to increase awareness of the importance of educational transitions and provide strategies and tips for smoothing the way. Council was keen to promote discussion about transitions and help families build useful contacts and access resources that highlight the support available.
Lead speaker at the forum, Dr Kathryn Hopps, Adjunct Research Fellow at Charles Sturt University and ‘Be You’ consultant with Early Childhood Australia, has researched transition to school widely and has a child of her own starting school next year. She outlined the four key research areas relating to educational transitions as opportunities, entitlements, aspirations and expectations of families, children and educators.
In relation to entitlements Kathryn noted that families are “entitled to be confident that their children will have access to education that promotes equity and excellence, that attends to the wellbeing of children, and that families are entitled to be respected as partners in their child’s education.”
Kathryn presented five tips, developed from research and summarised here.
Visit the school with your child
In the weeks and months leading up to starting school, look for opportunities for visits. Ask your school if there’s a formal orientation and transition program. Other opportunities include school open days, information nights, or events such as fetes and fairs. Check for information on the school’s website, event calendar, newsletter or Facebook page or call the school directly.
If event timing is a problem, families can seek an individual appointment with the school to have a chat and take a tour. Schools are open to a child needing extra transition help as well.
Research shows that visiting is important for becoming familiar with and building connections to your school, and other parents and children.
“It’s not just the physical — going to the school and learning where the toilets are — it’s also about the people, knowing who’s at school and building connections and relationships,” Dr Hopps told the forum. “Having positive social relationships is a protective factor for children starting school.”
Read to your child everyday
Reading to your child is important not only for developing language and literacy skills but also ‘the disposition to read’ — the desire to want to read and to enjoy reading and see a purpose in reading. According to Dr Hopps, “when we read to our children regularly we also form a really important connection with them over books, so that time and connection supports their wellbeing in working towards starting school.”
Ask at your local library for books about starting school or see the transition resources on our website (www.actparents.org.au/early-learning). These books are a great way to start a conversation about starting school before you do school visits or transition programs start.
Connect with parents of other children
Schools often provide opportunities to meet other school families and new enrolments. Some organise playdates or you may be able to organise this with other parents, either through the school or through the school’s parent association.
According to Dr Hopps, positive social relationships support and buffer against challenges that children might have at school. “When children feel they know someone, and the school knows who they are — that’s a really powerful protective factor.”
Social connections are important for parents too. “Knowing other families that are going to the same school is important for our wellbeing and when we provide opportunities for our children to meet and get to know other children going to school we’re supporting their social skills.”
“In our research children tell us consistently there’s two really important things about starting school and one is friends and the other one’s school rules. So, if you’re looking to build a conversation with your child in those first few weeks, ask them about the rules and what they are or ask them about their friends.”
Talk positively about starting school
It’s important for parents to share the things they enjoyed about school with their children. Focusing on our own good experiences and telling our stories helps to create positive expectations of school.
“Children will pick up on our feelings and emotions around starting school and it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous or even devastated about a child going off to school. Some parents don’t feel confident as parents and it’s important to acknowledge this and to talk honestly with others about it. Keeping those emotions in check when we’re talking about school around children is important also,” Dr Hopps said.
Self-care for parents
In order to support your child, take some time out for yourself. You’re starting school as a parent and that’s a shift in identity as you’re become a parent of a school child.
Kathryn commented that “for many families there’s changes in routines, changes to a lot of things and there can be challenges for families as children start school, so it’s important that we do take the time for self-care… because we know that our wellbeing as parents in families is very tightly connected to the wellbeing of our children and if we’re happy and healthy that impacts on young children as they start school as well.”
The forum’s other speakers included the ACT Education Directorate’s Michele Foley, who shared tips on parent engagement, and Linda Francis, who talked about the best way to communicate with your school. Elizabeth Lea talked about accessing transition support for children with developmental delay or disability. ●