How to smooth the transition from preschool to early years

We need to maximise the opportunities for children to get used to their new surroundings before they start school, so that they thrive from the moment they arrive, writes early years expert Tim Barber
19th May 2017, 12:00am
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How to smooth the transition from preschool to early years

As the bell rings to signal the start of a new school year, the Reception class children skip merrily into the room enthused about what lies ahead on their first day at “big school”. I wave goodbye to the parents with a reassuring smile, but I know what happens next - every Year R teacher knows. Unbeknown to the children, parents are huddled together outside the school gates, feeling emotional and reminiscing about where the last four years have gone.

It’s not always the case but this morning’s events are a bigger shock to the system for the parents than for the happy children, who are already engrossed in their play.

As a result of a carefully planned transition process, which began early in the summer term, the children have already formed strong attachments with adults and are fully familiar with fundamental routines and the learning environment. And that’s not just important for that first day of a new phase of their life - if we get the transition from preschool to Reception right, we pave the way for accelerated learning and achievement and lay firm foundation stones for the rest of the children’s time in school.

So how do we ensure that a successful preschool to Reception transition?

Recognise that it is a long process

Transition should be viewed as a gradual “process” and not an “event”. It is important that children feel safe and secure and that parents’ concerns and anxieties are listened to and addressed. Children require a solid foundation for learning and development from which they can grow in confidence and independence.

Reception staff are responsible for working closely with parents, children and their feeder preschool settings to ensure that every child’s transition into school is as seamless as possible. This process also enables teachers to gain a variety of information about children’s strengths, areas for development and interests, which can be used effectively to make baseline judgements and inform planning.

This process has to start early. It should have started, really, by the time you are reading this article.

Build relationships with parents

When teachers work in partnership with parents, the impact on children’s learning and development is significant.

Holding a series of information meetings in the summer term enables parents to become familiar with key information such as staff names and responsibilities, school routines, the curriculum and, most importantly, how young children learn best through play because of high levels of motivation and interest.

These meetings should also be used to explore what is meant by the term “school readiness”. Parents should be able to use these meetings to gather a range of tips and advice about preparing their child for school. For example, how to develop a child’s ability to follow simple instructions.

It is important to remember that parents are children’s first educators, so teachers must develop high-quality relationships with them, as well as with the little ones. You should offer a flexible induction process, which accommodates the needs of individual children and their parents.

Dedicate time and resources to building key person relationships

Assigning every child a key person when they start school is a statutory responsibility. It enables each child to build a personal, emotional and trusting relationship with an adult in school. The familiar adult, usually a teacher or teaching assistant, acts as a surrogate parent for the child when they are at school. When a child forms a strong attachment with a single member of staff, they feel safe, secure and confident. This process also enables the key person to gain a more accurate and reliable assessment of a child’s attainment levels. It is good practice for the key person to first meet the child “on their turf” by making a visit to their preschool. This is a safe and secure environment in which the child is already comfortable.

Request transition information that is about more than just the child’s attainment

Remember to ask preschool practitioners to share children’s paper-based and electronic learning journals and tracking. Information on a child’s interests and dislikes are really useful pointers for building strong relationships when the children arrive in Reception.

To supplement the information gathered on preschool visits, it is useful for clusters of local schools and preschools to gather together to hold transition events, often set up in the style of speed dating. Schools with a large number of feeder settings are able to spend a few minutes with a practitioner from every preschool, gaining key information and strategies to support individual children. It is imperative to set up additional meetings for children with special educational needs and disability to discuss specific needs.

Arrange whole family visits to the school

Inviting children and their families into school for a series of “stay and play” sessions in the summer term, usually once a week, enables them to become more familiar with key staff, gain a feel for the learning environment and begin to form relationships with other children.

The sessions should be play-based and should allow teachers plenty of time to talk with children and parents. It’s important for children to have the time to discover where they can hang their coat, where they will eat at lunchtime and where they can locate the toilets.

Teachers use “songs and rhymes” sessions to continue to build relationships with children and their parents. These sessions also develop phonological awareness, a fundamental pre-reading skill. At each session, I introduce a different nursery rhyme to the children, which I ask them to practise with their families over the summer holiday. I distribute a booklet to parents that accompanies the session.

Hand out an ‘all about me’ booklet

“All about me” booklets are a simple yet highly effective transition tool that children cherish. The booklet includes photos of key adults in school alongside comments about their hobbies and interests. The child is also able to view photos of where they can hang their coat, store their lunch box, have a snack and go to the toilet. Photos help to reduce anxieties that children may have about settling into the new environment.

Parents are encouraged to share these booklets regularly with children over the course of the summer holiday.

Don’t leave the summer holidays empty

The six-week summer holiday is a long period of time for children to go without interacting with those who will be in their class in the autumn term. Organising a “big play date” in the local park in the middle of August provides children and adults with the opportunity to mingle with one another and continues the momentum of transition.

Use home visits to maximum effect

“I still remember the day you came to visit my house. I stuck a red balloon on the front door so you would know which house was mine!” Year 6 leaver Sam told me last term.

Home visits play a fundamental role in building relationships with parents and inducting children seamlessly into school. Issuing a balloon to every child, and asking them to display this on the day of the visit, is not only fun, but it also helps the key person to locate the address quickly.

I find that parents feel more confident about home visits once I have reassured them on the purpose; to find out key information about their child’s strengths, areas for development and current interests. I’m a teacher - I don’t wish to investigate the cleanliness of their house, and it is important that parents know that. They can sometimes think that you are on a snooping visit.

That said, home visits do give the key person an insight into the whole child and family set-up. Parents usually take the opportunity to ask questions that they may not have felt confident about asking in front of a big group.

Put everything you learn into practice from day one

So, the big day has finally arrived. You should have spent a significant amount of time over the summer holiday developing the learning environment to meet the needs of the cohort. The information you have gathered, informed from baseline judgements of the children’s skills and interests, will ensure that the children find the play-based learning environment irresistible.

I like to place photos of children’s pets in frames in the role-play area and picture postcards of places the children have visited during the holiday on the interactive whiteboard. I dress my writing provision in the guise of the most popular show for the age group, currently Paw Patrol.

Today, everything is in place and the children enter the environment with a smile, enthused to begin their learning. I know it is going to be another excellent year.

Tim Barber is an early-years specialist for a local authority and former assistant head at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School and Preschool

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