Transition to school has significant implications for the child in a physical, social and academic context (Fabian and Dunlop 2002; Volger, Crivello and Woodhead 2008). With this in mind, I deploy Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective, which approaches child development as set within a system of relationships that are bi-directional in their influences (Ryan 2000), to understand how transitions impact on children. Although evidence indicates that a successful transition can have long-term positive outcomes for children both in their educational success and in terms of social and emotional development (Margetts, 2009; Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services (C4EO), 2010), there has, historically, been little emphasis on transitions in the ECCE sector.
This article presents findings from action research conducted for my master’s thesis, which sought to address the question: “What can I learn from my preschool children to improve my practice of preparing them for primary school?”. The aim here was to improve practice, rather than produce knowledge (Elliot 1999). Adopting the Problem Resolving Action Research (PRAR) model espoused by Piggot-Irvine (2002), the research places the child at the centre, working with them to co-construct how the journey of moving from preschool to primary school has impacted on each child and how this journey can be built upon in order to improve the practice of preparing children for school.
As manager of an early childhood care and education setting, the research was inspired by my setting’s experience of a formal Pilot Síolta Quality Improvement Programme run by the then Irish Preschool and Play Association (now Early Childhood Ireland). Although we received the highest overall score of four, we only received a rating of three for Standard 13: “Transitions”. This prompted significant reflections within the setting on what transitions mean for children and how our practice could be improved. The research consisted of three cycles with the same cohort of seven children participating in each cycle. In the first stage, children were introduced to the notion of making the journey from preschool to primary school, through a multi- method play-based approach. This approach draws on the national curriculum framework, Aistear (NCCA 2009), in which play is promoted as the primary context for learning. It also draws on the work of Brennan (2008) who argues that children use socio-dramatic play as an important mechanism through which they can develop the skills and systems for participation, and thereby for learning. In preparing the children in this way, it was hypothesised that they would be better prepared for their journey to school. The second stage built on and expanded the opportunities for exposure to the primary school environment. The third cycle invited the same cohort of children back to their preschool setting eight weeks after they started school, to participate in a focus group discussion exploring the effectiveness of the preparatory play interventions undertaken in the previous cycles. Methods included interviews with the seven children, an experiential trip to the school, role play activities and focus group discussions.
The journey to school
Initial interviews with the children revealed that half of them did not know where the school was physically or what they might need to bring with them to school. Three children said they needed lunch boxes none mentioned a school uniform. We therefore arranged a walking trip to the school with the help of parents. The children were encouraged to take photos on the way to the school and bring pencils and paper for drawing when we got there. In discussing Vygotsky’s theory, Brostrom (2007) explains that signs and tools have a mediating function: in allowing children to document their experiences through the use of signs (mark making, talking, drawing) it affords them an opportunity to manage and negotiate higher thinking. The photos and drawings were then used to encourage reflection on the experience the following day. This reflection was facilitated through the compilation of a learning story with the children. The children stuck the photographs onto the learning story book and were asked to talk about the experience. Some mentioned that it was a “long way away” (geographically), while others spoke of siblings and friends who had already started school. They talked about how big the school was and the train they heard whizzing by when we were there. We documented the narrative of the children and encouraged them to draw the school or themselves walking to it and added them to the learning story. The story was hung on the wall so that the children could share the adventure with their parents.
After the journey to school, Cycle One of the action research concluded with school uniforms and school bags with lunch boxes, copies and pencil cases introduced into the dress-up area for the children to explore. A full-length mirror was also introduced so that children could see what they looked like when dressed in the uniform. When asked if they wanted a photo taken while wearing the uniform to put in their learning books, most agreed. Some of the boys helped each other close the buttons and put on the ties. One of the girls put the uniform on and kept it on for the entire duration of the session, and repeated this for a number of days. The children appeared proud when they engaged in this activity. According to Brooker (2008) every transition into a new group challenges our sense of identity and successive experiences teach us strategies for coping with the challenge. This moment may have been the moment that the children’s self-image/identity started to shift from that of preschool child to that of school child. It was a powerful moment for the children involved, a positive memory that they can draw on in times of challenge.
Fabian and Dunlop (2007) argue that the greater the cultural gap between pre- and primary school, the greater the challenge for the child in successfully completing the transition. With this in mind, the research sought to provide children with concrete experiences of the school to narrow that gap. Thus, in Cycle Two, a visit to the school library was arranged to coincide with break time in school. Anecdotal evidence from parents in the past indicated that the volume and the noise of break time is a considerable challenge when first starting school. Moreover, currently, the preschool children had unlimited access to outside spaces consisting of grass, muck slopes, wheeled vehicles and more. I wanted them to experience what break time looked like in the school yard. We discussed what it might be like to play in the yard and compared it with what they were currently used to. On reflection, the children were overwhelmed with the experience and multiple visits would help construct a better picture for the children.
According to Margetts (2006), becoming a school child involves interpreting information and constructing understandings about school and the role of the students. The success of this, Margetts proposes, is the mediation on many fronts, including child, family, school and community. Thus, finally, as part of the experiential intervention, the school’s lollypop lady was invited to visit the setting to share her story of what she does with the school children. She spoke of crossing the road safely and allowed the children to role play and take turns with the high visibility jacket and lollypop stick. This was further explored in their mark-making and craft activities over the next few days and weeks.
The lived experience
The third and final cycle of the research consisted of a focus group discussion with children as well as informal conversations with their parents. According to Harris, Goodhall and Power (2009) the evidence is clear that parents who engage with and support their children’s learning have a substantial, positive impact on their child’s achievement. In order to include the children’s families, I spoke to the parents about the research and helped to reinforce this with a publication from Early Childhood Ireland called “Going to Big School”. Finally, I continued to engage and liaise with the children’s parents in the first weeks of starting school.
From the discussions with parents, it appeared that the majority of the children settled well, with the exception of one child. A girl I here name Alannah found yard time very difficult, resulting in prolonged crying on separation from the parent for a couple of weeks. The situation as relayed by the parent was one of a child very traumatised by the yard experience. I thus asked Alannah to draw a picture of what it was like to start school, and of the yard, and to bring the drawing along for the focus group. The drawings Alannah made contrasted with her mother’s descriptions. They were not dark and disorganised, but were full of bright colours with the sun shining. When asked about the experience there was little to indicate trauma or distress: “if you start school you might cry a little bit but you will get better the next day cause you’re allowed cry for a little bit and if you get better like me I did that but, em…, if you do that then well then you will calm down in a few minutes”. Other contributions are outlined in the table below.
One could argue that the role play experiences from playschool, coupled with her resilient disposition, helped Alannah and the other children cope with this change. I also suggested a yard buddy to her mother, an additional intervention which Alannah found beneficial in reducing the anxiety. On reflection, if I had not had the opportunity to engage with Alannah’s mother in the early days of school and thus suggest the yard buddy, Alannah might have had a different experience. This reflects the observation that events in the child’s microsystem are affected by patterns of activities, roles and relationships experienced in another (Peters 2010).
Changes in practice
In light of this research, the following strategies are recommended to ease the transition of children from preschool to big school. It is envisaged that the implementation of these strategies will give children a more comprehensive experience of what to expect during the transition to primary school.
Brennan, C (2008) ‘Partners in Play: How children organise their participation in socio-dramatic play’. Available from http://arrow.dit.ie/cgi/viewcontent. cgi?article=1010&context=appadoc [Accessed on 22/12/13].
Brooker, L. (2008) Supporting Transitions in the Early Years England: Open University Press.
Dunlop, Fabian, Aline-Wendy Hilary, 2006. Informing Transitions In The Early Years. 1st ed. UK: McGraw-Hill Education
Harris, A and Goodall, J (2007) Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement: Do Parents Know They Matter? Research Report Commissioned by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Warwick: University of Warwick.
Margetts, K. (2006). “Teachers should explain what they mean”: What new children need to know about starting school. Summary of paper presented at the EECERA 16th Annual Conference Reykjavik, Iceland.
Peters, S. (2010) ‘Literature Review: Transition from Early Childhood Education to School Report to the Ministry of Education’. Available from http://lnxweb1.manukau.ac.nz/ data/assets/ pdf_file/0008/85841/956_ECELitReview.pdf [Accessed on 15/-3/2014].
Volger, P. Crivello, G. and Woodhead, M (2008) ‘Early childhood transitions research: A review of concepts, theory, and practice’. Available from http://www.bernardvanleer.org/Early_childhood_ transitions_research_A_review_of_concepts_ theory_and_practice [Accessed on 13/06/2013].
Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services (C4EO). (2010). Ensuring that all children and young people make sustained progress and remain fully engaged through all transitions between key stages. Retrieved November 2013, from http:// archive.c4eo.org.uk/pdfs/3/Schools%20and%20 Communities%20KR%20P2.pdf
John Ryan. 2009. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. [ONLINE] Available at: http://dropoutprevention. org/wpcontent/uploads/2015/07/paquetteryanwebquest_20091110.pdf. [Accessed 1 February 2016].
Elliot, J (1991) Action Research for Educational Change. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Piggot-Irvine, E (2002) ‘Rhetoric and practice in action research’. Education-line. Available from: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ documents/00002471.htm [23/01/2014].
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (2009) Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Dublin: NCCA
Emma Reilly originally trained as a children’s nurse then changed career pathways to take herto her current position as an early childhood specialist with Early Childhood Ireland. She has over 25 years’ experience in working with children having also ran her own early years service for 13 years. Emma has a BA in Early Childhood Teaching and Learning as well as recently completing Marte Meo colleague training. She recently presented at ECCERA with colleagues on a piece of research titled ‘Professional Pathways- Up Skilling the Early Years workforce’. Emma is currently working on various training and continuous professional learning programmes tailored for educators working in the early childhood sector