The importance of effective transitions for children from low socioeconomic status communities

Kagan (2010) likens early childhood transitions to something that is “as common as air and as complex as the molecules that compose it” (p.3). This is an apt description of the transition to school, a move that nearly all children encounter, yet one that brings considerable changes in value systems, demands, practical concerns, group dynamics, and cultural traditions (Fabian and Dunlop, 2002). Negotiating these changes is challenging and carries high stakes, as children who struggle to adjust well to school are more likely to experience poorer outcomes (Ladd and Price, 1987; Kagan and Neuman, 1998). This is especially true for children from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, who frequently start school behind their peers, without the socioemotional, cognitive and behavioural skills needed to navigate school successfully (Doyle, McEntee and McNamara, 2012).

Accordingly, children from low SES backgrounds are often the focus of interventions that seek to improve school readiness and promote positive transition experiences. Developing effective and efficient supports, however, requires an understanding that spans the full complexity of these transitions. Valuable research has been undertaken to this end, for example on how parents, education systems, and communities can work together to promote positive transitions to school (see e.g., reviews by Public Health England 2014; Woodhead and Moss, 2007). Yet this work relies almost exclusively on parents’ and teachers’ perspectives and where children have been consulted, this tends to involve middle or mixed SES samples. As documented in the inaugural digest issue (Bourke and Kinlen, 2014), the absence of the perspectives of children from low SES backgrounds means that the policy and practice landscape for transitions is built on only a partial understanding of what these experiences mean for children (O’Farrelly, Booth, O’Rourke and Doyle, 2014). This gap is notable not least because it is at odds with national policy frameworks which privilege both children’s participation rights and the importance of early interventions that promote positive transitions (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2013, 2014).

The children’s thoughts about school study

The Children’s Thoughts about School Study (CTSS) sought to address this gap by consulting forty-two junior infant children from DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools, approximately seven months into the new school year. The study had two goals. The first aim was to provide a better understanding of the transition and early school experiences of children from low SES backgrounds. The second aim was to use this knowledge to contextualise the goals and effectiveness of an early intervention programme, Preparing for Life (PFL). PFL was a longitudinal randomised controlled trial of an intensive home visiting programme that sought to improve children’s school readiness by working with families from pregnancy until children started school. The PFL evaluation enrolled 233 pregnant women from North Dublin communities regarded as low socioeconomic status and that have above national average rates of unemployment, school dropout, lone parent households, and public housing. Families were randomised to receive either the home visiting programme and low level supports (intervention group) or low level supports only (control group) (for more information on the PFL evaluation and outcome results see CTSS purposefully sampled children in the PFL catchment communities whose families had received (1) the PFL home visiting programme and low level supports, (2) PFL low level supports only, or (3) no intervention.

Children were recruited over two years. All families of junior infants children in two catchment schools were approached in March 2014 and the sample was further supplemented in March 2015 through targeted recruitment of children who were known to have participated in the PFL programme. Parents of junior infants children were given an information pack including an illustrated booklet designed for the children themselves. Children whose parents had provided consent for their participation were then invited by the researcher to participate in a one-to-one interview, using the booklet as a tool to support the assent process. During interviews children were shown pictures of nine school-day scenarios (such as arriving at school, listening to the teacher, and going into the yard) and were asked how the children in the pictures felt as per the Pictorial Measure of School Stress and Wellbeing (PMSSW; Murray and Harrison, 2005). The children were also asked whether they liked school and looked forward to going to school (School Liking and Avoidance Questionnaire; Ladd and Price, 1987) and to draw a picture of themselves in school and tell the researcher about their drawing. Finally, an anthropomorphised character “Riley Rabbit” was used to ask children semi-structured questions about adjusting to school such as “what will Riley need to know about school?; what will Riley’s first day of school be like?”. Interviews were analysed using the principles of thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006), involving both inductive and deductive approaches.

Data generated from the CTSS interview were used to inform a series of outputs (detailed below) addressing the study’s two goals. First a bottom up approach was employed (focusing on those children whose families received no intervention) to generate a general picture of the school experiences of children from low SES backgrounds. Subsequently, data were added from the children whose families had received either low level supports or the home visiting intervention. The expanded framework was then reviewed using the lens of the five school readiness domains (see below) that formed the primary outcome of the PFL evaluation.

Understanding the early school experiences of children from low ses backgrounds

In the paper “Little bit afraid ‘til I found how it was”, O’Rourke, O’Farrelly, Booth, and Doyle (under review) document how children’s initial uncertainty at school commencement gave way to detailed and rich understandings of the internal workings of school. Children emphasised tension between their competencies and evolving skills, and the importance of peer and family relationships to support their school wellbeing. Separately, in “Look I have my ears open”, Tatlow-Golden, O’Farrelly, Booth and Doyle, (2016a) used the interviews to specifically examine factors that enable and constrain the resilience of children from low SES backgrounds at school entry. Positive factors included resource provision, school activities and routines, play, and relationships with the teacher. Negative factors included bullying, difficulties engaging with peers, and using the toilet. The descriptions of toileting were particularly vivid, thus a dedicated output focused in on children’s responses to this PMSSW scenario. In “Bursting and other experiences” Tatlow-Golden, O’Farrelly, Booth and Doyle (2016b) document that most children had negative, or mixed responses to the toileting scenario, such as fear of not identifying the right toilet, fear of being alone, lack of privacy, and potential bullying. These findings of children’s early school toileting experiences are significant as delayed toilet use can have lasting consequences for children’s urinary and bowel health (e.g., von Gontard, Niemczyk, Wagner and Equit, 2016).

To contextualise the goal and outcome results of the PFL intervention and evaluation, the frame of the five outcome domains of school readiness (cognitive development, language development, social and emotional development, attitudes to learning, physical well-being and motor development) was employed to determine their relevance to all three groups of children. In the final report of the PFL evaluation, Doyle and the PFL evaluation team (2016) detail how children’s rich and nuanced accounts offered insight into what school readiness means to children on the classroom floor. In terms of cognitive development, children valued opportunities for learning through play, as well as skill in spatial reasoning - especially related to block play, and numeracy. Children enjoyed and sought mastery in language development and literacy and access to books, they were proud of their reading and letter/sound recognition, yet found these aspects of school challenging. They held remarkably positive views of school, conveyed strong appetites for and approaches to learning, and were rich in imagination. For many children, physical wellbeing and motor development equated with having the physical independence to handle daily routines and toileting; having the strength and coordination to avoid falling in the yard and play sports and games; and having the fine motor skills to draw, trace, and write. Importantly, several children also valued access to healthy meals and food. For many children, socioemotional development related to the skills needed to navigate some sadness, anxiety, and loneliness, and avoid social exclusion, peer aggression, and bullying.

Learning offered by the CTSS

Collectively these outputs draw out new insights into the lived transition experiences of children from low SES backgrounds. Although children describe these moves as challenging they also relish the opportunities that school offers. Welcomed aspects of school include opportunities to play, predictable access to outdoor space, and access to toys, books, and food. Mastery and agency is important to children as they start their school careers, and they especially seek support in academics (i.e. language, literacy, and numeracy), toileting, motor skills, and the social skills needed to make and maintain friendships and avoid bullying. These findings suggest that children themselves endorse the goals of interventions such as PFL in providing them with the skills they need for school. Moreover, children offer important food for thought for how these programmes might be potentiated by educational strategies that support healthy eating, bladder and bowel health, motor development, and healthy peer relationships.


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Author Information

Dr Christine O’Farrelly is a research associate at the Centre for Mental Health, Imperial College London.

Ailbhe Booth is a PhD candidate at the UCD School of Psychology and Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin.

Dr Mimi Tatlow Golden is a Newman Research Fellow at the School of Medicine and Medical Science, University College Dublin.

Dr Orla Doyle is a lecturer and research fellow at the UCD School of Economics UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin, Ireland.