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How to respond when parents fear the transition to school

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It’s a familiar question for preschool teachers – Will my child be able to manage starting school next year?

Earlier this year a research study found that NSW has the highest rate of children being ‘held back’ from starting school – 31% compared to 14% nationally. How can educators respond to the widespread concern of parents who wonder whether their child is ready yet?

The study by a team of six researchers examined whether delaying starting school had any developmental benefits and found that children who started school later performed better in every developmental domain of the Australian Early Development Census, which was the source of the data sets examined.

Amplify spoke with a leading authority on transition from early childhood education to school, Emeritus Professor Sue Dockett, about how early childhood educators should view these research findings and how to deal with parents’ anxieties about their children transitioning to school.

“The first thing to know is that this research is based on examining large sets of population data – which is useful for community level planning, but it’s not useful for looking at individual children and assessing if they’re too young to start school,” says Professor Dockett. “NSW has the perfect context for people to be able to choose later school entry because it has the latest cut-off date –  the end of July. It’s not surprising that older children know more when they go to school – in the life of a 5-year-old six months is a long time.”

As Professor Dockett points out, the data shows that those children whose parents choose to delay starting school are more likely to have birthdays closer to July, and are often in affluent areas, where parents can afford another year of early childhood education (in combination with preschool).

In relation to higher numbers of boys being ‘held back’, Professor Dockett suggests that there’s a danger in applying general trends to individual children.

“We’ve got to be really careful about assuming that just because a child is male, lives in a rural area, perhaps doesn’t have English as a first language, that they’re automatically going to have problems when they start school.”

I think the decision needs to be more than about age,” says Professor Dockett. “You’ve got to look at knowing the individual child, knowing the school they’re likely to go to, knowing what the family expectations and commitments are.”

So, what should educators do if a parent voices concerns about their child’s ability to transition to school, especially if they’re one of the youngest in their cohort?

Professor Dockett advises the educator to use this as an opportunity to have a genuine conversation – based on the parent’s and the early childhood educator’s knowledge of the child.

“Don’t just assume that an extra year in play-based early learning at preschool won’t hurt. You need to ask, ‘how will an extra year doing the same thing help?’ Particularly if all of the child’s friends will start school, how will you explain that to the child? What message is it giving about their competence and confidence? Also what is the child saying about starting school? You’ve got to take into account what they’re expecting.”

She encourages educators to inquire why the parents want to hold the child back— is it about wanting the child to get a head start and get ahead of their peers, because that washes out after a couple of years.

You need to ask, ‘how will an extra year doing the same thing help?’ Particularly if all of the child’s friends will start school, how will you explain that to the child? What message is it giving about their competence and confidence?

Or is it that there’s a particular concern or area that needs work — self confidence,  or their language? Is there something that’s going to make starting school difficult for them?

If there’s not, Professor Dockett suggests to look at how starting school might help them instead.

Another way to deal with these concerns is for early education professionals to be informed about the school curriculum and form connections with local schools.

They can explain that children aren’t expected to know how to write or count to twenty before they start the first year of school.

“Teachers in school are not too worried about the knowledge levels children come in with, they’re actually much more worried about their social attributes and about their dispositions,” says Professor Dockett. “They are more interested in things like persistence levels — how do they show that they can persist in a task, how do they show that they’re interested and confident and curious?

“For example you can say, ‘She can’t write her name yet, but look at the way she’s concentrating on identifying words around the room or looking for the starting letter of her name.

“In a best case scenario there’s a great level of cooperation between early childhood and early school educators. I’m a fan of all levels of educators working together – sharing practice, building understanding to form a shared idea of who the children are are and what they’re good at.”

Further reading

You might like this CELA training session

Transition to schoolGoing to Big School Next Year – Helping Families and Children Prepare – NESA Registered PD
Early years educators understand the changes children face when moving to school – what more can we do to ensure each child (and their family) is truly ready to transition?
This session will explore how we can prepare children and families to embrace the transition and to have a clear picture of what to expect at big school and work together to create achievable long term goals.

About Professor Sue Dockett

Sue Dockett is Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood Education, having recently retired from Charles Sturt University in Albury. Over more than 30 years she has been actively involved in early childhood education as a teacher, academic and researcher. Much of Sue’s current research agenda is focused on educational transitions; in particular, transitions to school and the expectations, experiences and perceptions of all involved.
Professor Dockett was involved in writing and reviewing the NSW Guidelines for Effective Transition to School Programs, and is co-author of a more recent publication – Continuity of Learning – A resource to support the effective transition to school and school-aged care.


One thought on “How to respond when parents fear the transition to school

  1. This is a generally sensible article. However, when the social and emotional skills, self regulation and executive skills, markedly improve between 4 and 5, why is anyone surprised that parents want their child to be older when they start school? Parents should not feel that they have to gamble on their new school being ready for their child, because many schools still are not. Preschool teachers, on the whole, take the responsibility of advice to parents on this topic very seriously; parents do not make this decision lightly; and children staying on at preschool for a second year should not just be doing the same thing over again. Socially, children are flexible, they will make friends within a new cohort, especially when those children may be more similar to them than the ones they are with at present. The effects of being older can wear off, but the effects of feeling lost and failing amidst the busyness and explicit academic expectations of a Foundation class do not. Just ask the adults who started to feel like a failure in Prep / Kindergarten, and don’t want that for their child. Every child and family needs support to work out what is best for that child.

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