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Make it better for young ones

The transition from play to formal lessons can be traumatic but there are ways to ease the anxiety

Time was when all that parents and their young children had to really worry about was those first scary days at school - once when they started primary and then again seven years later when they transferred to big school.

Now it seems these anxiety-ridden moments come along every couple of years - nursery to school, foundation to key stage 1, KS1 to 2 and on up.

How will my child cope with the new regime with less play, more structure; less choice, more direction? Every parent who has had to walk away from a sobbing child must have shared the thought, "There must be an easier way".

And despite the reassurances like "he'll soon settle down" and "she just reacted to your anxiety", recent research has shown that it is not just parents who worry about the move. For some five-year-olds, moving up from the play-based foundation stage to Year 1 with its new emphasis on subjects and formal learning can be a very upsetting time that can affect their education for years.

"I have heard parents talk of children refusing to come to school, a return of bedwetting or the need of comfort toys and blankets. It can be a really distressing time," says Gail Bedford, head of Mount Pleasant primary school in Dudley.

Many of those children who comfortably settled down after such anxieties when they first started in a nursery or reception class, find the complete shift of regime when they enter Y1 brings back all their fears.

"The real problem lies with all the curriculum and government initiatives since the Education Reform Act of 1988. Now we have a foundation stage and a national curriculum that just do not dovetail. Children move from a child-centred agenda to a system dictated by the needs of key stage 1 tests," says Mrs Bedford.

"The stress levels of children, parents and staff can get really high, particularly when dealing with summer-born children who are expected to skip a stage of development that older children in the cohort have experienced."

Mrs Bedford is leading a working party within the innovation unit of the Department for Education and Skills to find effective ways to tackle these problems.

Her school has become a focal point for hundreds of teachers across the country who trek to her door to see for themselves what can be done.

From nursery up to Year 6, Mount Pleasant does not operate as other schools do. It eschews formal classrooms for "learning spaces" for each year of 50 pupils, who are taught by a professional team of three - two teachers and a learning assistant.

This team system made it possible to introduce flexibility to Y1 two years ago, when two-thirds of the cohort were very young summer-born children.

The school decided to extend the foundation environment into the Y1 learning space by putting most of the desks and chairs into storage and creating an area that the children would recognise and be comfortable in.

"By January we were able to start moving the desks back in as we could feel the difference in the children. They were ready to move on. And by the end of the year the room looked vastly different," says Mrs Bedford.

The following year the cohort was more advanced, and were ready for their tables and chairs by October.

"You have to look at the needs of the cohort and each individual. The important point is keeping the child at the centre of learning.

"The four teams working across foundation and KS1 work together to plan, deliver and assess the curriculum. They are quality practitioners who know thoroughly both the foundation and KS1 profile assessment."

Parents appear to be fully behind the unconventional regime at Mount Pleasant and are encouraged to play their part. They are expected to accompany their child for at least one session a term while they are in the infants.

"Parents see at first hand that their child is making progress and how that is being achieved. We talk in terms of developmental milestones - just as they don't expect all children to be toilet-trained at exactly the same time, nor should they expect them to be at the same place educationally," says Mrs Bedford.

"We have very positive feedback after the visits. The perception of the parents changed, they saw that we were encouraging and motivating the child, but at their own stage of development so that they stay engaged."

Mount Pleasant has the advantage of not only having an on-site nursery but also a children's centre for parents and children as young as six months, and can offer a cohesive programme of transition at every stage.

So if children there are unsettled by the change to KS1, what of those who have to make the change twice, once from nursery to reception and then again to Y1 in consecutive Septembers?

Anne Davies is head of College Gardens nursery in Walthamstow, east London, a standalone setting which passes children on to primary schools halfway through the foundation stage.

"We work closely with our feeder primaries and help to make the transition as easy as possible," she says. "Reception teachers come and see the children here and we take children there two or three times before they transfer.

"We also fill in the foundation stage profile as far as we can so that the new school has something to start with," As Ms Davies has no control over the environment her children move into, she works closely with them to try and prepare them.

"I have found that those whose personal and emotional development is good can adapt more readily to what the system requires. So we work hard to bring up their levels of confidence and social skills so that they cope with the quite different experiences."

This must be a cue for all parents dreading that first day and expecting tears at the first sign of formal lessons: the desks, the whiteboard, the vanished sand-pit and the closed-off playground.

All the evidence points to one key factor: children whose parents are most involved in their school life survive these transitions with no lasting damage. So parents should not just wring their hands. Teachers should encourage them to get in there, make sure they know how their school is helping to settle their children in and work in partnership.

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