There is more to school readiness than a child being the right age, knowing some numbers and learning to share. School readiness is about our whole community. This post talks about the what families, early care providers, teachers and schools can do to give children the best possible start to ‘big’ school.
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What is school readiness?
In the 1800s Horace Mann said, and I paraphrase, “Education is the great equalizer, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” He believed that getting everyone into school would mean equal opportunities for all. However, by the mid 1900s it was realised that this wasn’t enough. Children from poorer families were not growing up and having the same rates of employment and income as middle class kids.
There are many reasons for this, of course, but today we’re talking about school readiness. What it is and why it’s so important, not just for individual children and their families, but for society as a whole.
School readiness is controversial
The very term, ‘school readiness’ is controversial. If you use Google Scholar you’ll find nearly 150 different definitions, so how are parents who are wanting to help their child get ready for school supposed to know what will be the most beneficial?
Traditionally, school readiness was simply a matter of chronological age and as long as a child could manage basic expectations for that age group they were considered ready for school. In other words, it all came down to the individual child.
The downside to this approach was that it was too simplistic. It meant that early childhood services and the community did not really have anything to do with preparing a child for school, and it also meant that schools did not have to think about the needs of the children coming in.
These days the term ‘school readiness’ makes you think of a child knowing basic numbers and letters and how to play nicely with others. However, this is also too limited. School readiness is much more than that!
A research definition
The definition I’m using today is broader. Please keep in mind that this is a research-based post, so my comments are based on research papers I’ve been reading, and most are not my own original ideas. You can find the list of papers at the end of this post.
And just to clarify, I’m talking about the first year of formalised school, whatever that is called in your region. I refer to Kindergarten a lot because that’s what it’s called in my state, in other states it’s called Prep, and I know in some countries Kindergarten happens prior to official schooling.
This definition of school readiness is actually an equation.
Ready families + Ready early childhood services + Ready Communities + Ready schools = Ready children.
In other words, children will only be ready for school if their families, day care providers and communities have given them the opportunities they need to be ready. This takes the onus off the child and hands responsibility back to us.
It would be good to add a ready society to that list also, because society as a whole needs to accept the importance of preparing children for school so they’ll put money and programming into supporting it. Research strongly shows that supporting children and their families prior to school entry is much more successful in the long-term, and much cheaper, than trying to intercede when children are older.
A ready family
Over the past 100 years, doing well in school has come to mean an increased likelihood of a good job and a good life. In response to this parents have felt increasingly pressured to teach their children before they start school so they’ll have an edge over other children, or at least to give their own child greater confidence. This led to a perception of academics as being one of the most important criteria for school entry. This has not been helped by the general push down effect of increasing expectations in primary school so that many would say that Kindergarten is now more like First Grade.
So parents are often concerned about academics. However, teachers are more concerned with behavioural skills such as sharing, attentiveness, self-control, persistence and sensitivity to others. They also want children to be healthy, well rested and nourished. Knowing the alphabet and numbers is way down on their list.
Having said that, I know that some teachers expect children to have quite a bit of academic knowledge so there are lots of variances. But I do believe that mostly happens when there is pressure on the teacher from above to push academics from an early age.
So sometimes there is a disconnect between what parents think their children need to be successful, and what teachers would recommend.
There can also be a disconnect between cultures. Schools in the Western world are largely aligned to the white, middle class. Therefore white, middle class children have an automatic advantage since the expectations and unspoken rules are often more familiar to them.
Children living in poorer circumstances, particularly from other ethnic groups or speakers of other languages don’t have to be at a disadvantage, but it is more common than not, and this disadvantage can be cemented in kindergarten and just grow worse every year. This is why family readiness is so important, not just for those children, but for a high functioning society.
What can families do?
Encourage language development
One of the best things to do is to use lots of words, and a big variety of words, with your kids. Have lots of discussions, answer all their questions, read lots of stories, teach rhymes and songs. Point to words and letters whether they’re in a book or on a billboard. This kind of language and literacy learning is super important and starts from birth. Count tins together as you pull them out of your shopping bag and then sort them by size.
Develop fine and gross motor skills
Encourage your child to play outside and use all their big muscles, but also have them paint or draw or make shapes with play dough to strengthen their hand muscles.
Develop emotionally and socially
Have friends over to play and learn to deal with disappointment or arguments in a constructive way. Let children practice following instructions, tidying up after themselves and persevering on a task they find difficult. Encourage kids to be independent, particularly in the bathroom and with putting on socks, shoes and coats. Teach them to write their name and recite their address if possible.
Have ties to your community
Develop positive relationships with early childcare providers or health care workers or the local librarian in order to broaden your child’s experiences with other adults, and expose them to other learning experiences. Join playgroups in your community and check with the local council to see if there are special events or courses your child can attend. Take your child to the park, to the zoo, on public transport and so forth. All these different experiences help a child see the world in new ways and gives them more of a foundation on which to build knowledge.
This is easier if finances are available, but children don’t need expensive toys and games to grow and learn, and poor families can provide tons of stimulation for their little ones.
Be supportive of mums
While it is true that the education level of the mother often indicates a child’s ability with literacy it is also true that over the past 20 years there has been a large increase in families taking more time to read and teach their children. This is true for both educated and non-educated families. Poverty has not stopped this significant increase.
I would like to say at this point that there is a lot of pressure put onto mothers as though their child’s success or lack of success is down to them alone. To me this says we need to be supporting mums as much as possible. If mums can have supportive partners or close friends and family to help during these early years this can significantly improve a child’s experience. Research on anxious mothers shows that their children tend to also be anxious and have difficulty adjusting to school. For disadvantaged children, access to high quality, affordable childcare makes a huge difference in the long term. However, financial issues often mean the children who need care the most are often the least likely to have access to it.
Ready early childhood services
Large numbers of children are able to take advantage of attending preschools or other care facilities and they should play an instrumental part in preparing children for ‘big’ school. Quality early childcare makes a great difference in children’s lives but it’s important that they consider carefully the transition their children need when they enter more formalised education.
What’s the difference between early care and school?
Some children struggle with school because of the differences between the two. For example, childcare tends to be more personal, more relaxed, there’s more play and less sitting, the relationships between staff and the other children may be strong and the expectations not so intense. They also are more likely to make adaptions according to the ethnic groups of their families. It’s important for children to realise there will be differences before going off to school, and what those differences might be, and allow kids to talk about any fears and concerns.
Are your kids ready for school?
If you work in early childcare do you know where your kids will be attending school? Have you talked with your kids about what the expectations might be like in school?
In Australia many schools encourage their incoming students to visit quite a number of times during term 4, often starting out with one hour ‘lessons’ weekly, then building up to half a day which might include visiting the library or taking part in special school events such as book day. However, research was telling me that in the US this was rare. So I did an informal survey with some of my US teacher friends and was surprised to hear that transition events were not common, with some meetings being only for parents, and some where the children only briefly met the teacher the day before starting.
Be the bridge
If this is the case, it’s even more crucial that childcare services do their best to ease student transition by not just preparing them socially and academically but by being a bridge and foreseeing the difficulties the kids and parents may experience.
As an additional note, research shows that children transition into formal schooling more easily if they’ve attended preschool for a year or two prior. However, it also found that children who have had many years in non-parental care find the transition more difficult. It’s something to be aware of and keep in mind.
Libraries, support services, playgroups, health care providers, music classes, activity centres and church groups. All these groups can support parents and children throughout early childhood, but I only have time to mention a few things here.
Firstly, libraries should stock picture books about starting school that can help children understand some aspects of school that they’re unsure of. One researcher examined 13 books specifically related to the first day of Kindergarten and came up with the following 4 recommendations.
- My Kindergarten by Rosemary Wells.
It focuses on a month by month account of a year in Kindergarten but places specific emphasis on the first day.
- Adventure Annie Goes to Kindergarten by Toni Buzzeo.
Instead of focusing on a shy child who is a little nervous, this book’s main character makes everything an adventure and she needs reminding that there are rules. The teacher in the book is also male which is a nice change.
- The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing.
This book shows kids from all over the community getting ready for school, and in the end it’s the kids who reassure their crying parents that they’ll be fine!
- Kindergarten Rocks! by Katie Davis.
In this book, Dex is not worried about Kinder but his stuffed dog is. So Dex’s older sister helps them see that Kinder is a great place with lots of fun things to do and a nice teacher.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that a child’s new school will be precisely like those depicted, but it’s a start.
Free NSW education department resources
There’s a short video I love on an Australian education department website called My Day at Kindergarten. It’s Kinder kids talking about what it’s like in Kindergarten. It’s Australian and therefore they’re wearing uniforms and have to wear hats in the playground but you might find it useful as a resource link for incoming parents to see even if you’re outside Australia. That page also has free getting ready for school booklets, activities and checklists.
The site School A-Z is also excellent!
I also want to mention the benefits that music classes can have when preparing kids for school. In fact the first interview I did for this podcast was with Allison Cameron, a researcher who is developing community-based music classes for underprivileged children during term 4 to help prepare them for school. The format is so simple, anyone can take it on. Any community playgroup or parent group could implement these principles and give kids a tremendous head start with only an hour a week. To listen to this interview and find Allison’s free resource sheets head over to episode 4.
Visiting schools during term 4
Children transition much more effectively into schools if they’ve had a minimum of 5 school visits before entry. A good rule of thumb is to bring incoming children in to school for 1 to 2 hours a week during term 4, or longer if they’re disadvantaged, to experience what it’s like, to engage with teachers and to do lots of fun activities. If parents can participate in short sessions with their kids this has even greater positive effects, particularly if those parents have helicopter tendencies! If a number of your kids are coming from a specific local preschool, invite one of those teachers along too, to build a bridge between early care and school.
At-risk children and families need more
The lower the socio-economic group, the more transition activities they need. And with 45% of America’s children living in low-income homes this is significant. Unfortunately, statistically speaking, there are actually fewer transition activities provided for poorer families than for the middle classes. There are certainly exceptions to this but the reality is that many children and their families have no idea what their school, classroom or teacher will be like until they arrive for their first day, or perhaps for a ‘meet the teacher’ moment the day before.
This is problematic because if we can make the transition smoother and reduce the culture shock of our most at-risk kids and their families, it can make a huge difference to their long-term success. While children can rise up and overcome difficult circumstances, research shows that for many, starting school with language or behavioural challenges can be like a crack that just grows and grows every year. From the level of the whole society, this is not a good scenario.
Develop relationships BEFORE school starts
Schools need to understand that their responsibility doesn’t start when the children hit the front door. It begins before that. Yes, it does take time and money, resources most schools are short of, but it is a valuable strategy.
In asking US teachers about transitions quite a few told me that often very few families turn up for transition events, even short ones. It makes me think about the expectations of wider society and how that affects our schools. Moving into ‘big’ school is considered a milestone in most societies. But because we’ve all gone through it there is a desensitisation of the stress involved. We know it’s stressful and a bit scary but it’s like a right of passage, just something you have to get through. This may work out for many children who have been attending preschools and come from white, middle class families, but what about the rest?
Do families not attend because they’re at work? Is it because they don’t see any point or any advantage to attending? Do schools do all they can to emphasize the importance of transition and do they go out of their way to make transition events meaningful and helpful? Perhaps parents only attend for their first child, and don’t bother for the others. Research shows that parents who have their first child entering school really have no idea what to expect or how to prepare their child even though the majority want to take an active part and worry about how their child will go.
Do not underestimate the stress on kids
I think one of the reasons some societies don’t take it more seriously is because they believe it’s just a one-off event that might be stressful for a day or two, or a week or two but after that it’s fine. And for 50% of children their transition is relatively straightforward. But for many others transitioning goes on right throughout that first year and beyond, with a survey of US Kinder teachers suggesting that 1 in 3 children experience a moderately difficult transition and 1 in 7 experience a difficult transition. This may cause some children to delay entry for a year, or to be retained in Kinder an extra year.
Do your families belong?
I like one definition that says full transition has occurred when a child and family feel a sense of belonging and adjustment in the school setting. For families from different cultures or lower socio-economic groups this can be an extremely long process, especially if they feel they are being judged for the way they parent their children or if their child is getting in trouble for behavioural issues.
How are your classes split?
Let’s think about on what basis classes are being split, because we’ve all had school years where one class accidentally ended up with a large number of kids with behavioural issues or learning difficulties. Since it’s the first official year of school is the only information available gender and ethnicity? Are we splitting classes based on this alone?
This is where schools really need to be intentional about developing relationships with early childcare providers and parents, and to have time to watch the way incoming children relate to each other and manage in the classroom. In Australia many children will go to their new school quite a few times before entry. One of my administrator friends told me they use this opportunity to observe and mark off a checklist regarding, for example, their level of fine motor skills, emotional regulation skills and how they interact with others. This is specifically in order to be able to make more informed decisions when splitting the children into classes and it sounds like an excellent idea to me! They also made a book with photos of the school and its different areas that they send out to children in the mail so that it’s special. It’s a great way of increasing a family’s familiarity with the school as well as being an opportunity to mention routines and expectations in a friendly way.
Getting information from early carers
In my home state of New South Wales there is a Transition to School Statement, which encourages early childhood centres, in cooperation with families, to pass information about a child to their new school. It includes a child’s interests, strengths and preferred ways of learning, their level of independence, how they build relationships and how they regulate their emotions among other things. There is even space for the child to draw a picture while they are asked questions about what they think they might like about school, and what they would like their new teacher to know about them. It is filled out by educators, parents and the child and is only sent on with parental permission. Clearly, this is a great help to administrators and teachers who are responsible for splitting classes as well as being aware of support a child might need before they actually arrive.
Listen to parents
As teachers and administrators we often feel that parents avoid telling us in advance if their children struggle, but research suggests that concerns parents have for their kids often come to pass. If we make opportunities to develop relationships with parents and children before school starts we can anticipate some of these problems and be better prepared. This not only makes the first term of school easier for the teacher, it also helps parents feel encouraged that their child’s teacher is specifically preparing to help their child have a more positive experience. This can go a long way in helping a family feel a positive attachment to their new school.
Visit student homes
Transition research in the US has shown that, in lower socio-economic areas, a few home visits by their teacher prior to school starting makes an enormous difference, as opposed to sending home general information in the mail or asking families to come to school. Actually speaking face to face about what school will be like, answering questions about expectations and how they can help prepare their child, giving them some pencils and fun activity sheets or books makes an impact. As does being able to correct misconceptions. Of course, this is time consuming and logistically difficult but it’s something to think about if it means a better relationship with families and a less stressful transition for children.
What does this mean for teachers?
It’s one thing if your school has an intentional plan for helping families through the transition into Kinder. But what if it doesn’t? What if, as one teacher told me, they get their class lists on Friday before the kids arrive on Tuesday. What if your school has a policy that you have to test your kids in the first week so that you know their first few days are going to be pretty dreadful?
Send an email
Well, even if it’s a last minute thing you can certainly send an email introducing yourself and welcoming the family to the school and to your classroom. It’s a good idea to briefly mention classroom procedures and some of the fun activities you’ll be doing in the first few weeks. Include a photo, too! If there are assessments that need to be done, explain them simply and emphasize that this is just so you’ll know how to best to start helping their child.
Send an e-card
You could also send an e-card addressed specifically to the child that simply says welcome to your new class! Can’t wait to meet you! (or can’t wait to see you again!)
Send a social story
Leslie, from KindergartenWorks.com, creates social stories around classroom procedures, such as going to the bathroom. She takes photos of herself and writes a little story that helps little ones understand. And being visual it’s great for non-English speakers. She uses them on the first day but there’s no reason why you can’t make some of your own and send them digitally to new families so parents can read them with their children before hand. Be brave, and be prepared to take funny photos of yourself, it will reduce the stress a child feels if they can see their teacher knows how to be funny sometimes.
Make a phone call
This can be quite difficult, especially if you’re worried about language concerns, but a quick call to say hello and that you’re looking forward to meeting their child tells a parent that communication is important to you. It will hopefully make them feel that you are a warm and approachable teacher who will be keen to keep them informed about how their child is going.
How parents, especially mothers, feel about their child’s new school and teacher is a strong influence on how a child feels. So if we can help a mum feel more positive, then the child will pick up on that.
Organise older buddies
These children can support and help younger ones as they enter school, whether it’s for special visits in term 4, or in the first few weeks of school.
If your school does not have an effective transition policy, perhaps you can try and raise the idea of being a little more proactive, or work with your Kinder colleagues to come up with some welcoming ideas that you can do across the year level but that don’t tread on administrators’ toes.
Value and respect your children
Above all, children need to feel valued, respected and competent, psychologically safe as well as physically safe. They need to fit in and they need to feel that their cultural background has value and worth. Acknowledging this even before they enter your classroom gets everyone off to a great start!
I’d love for teachers or parents listening to this podcast to comment on transition activities they’ve been part of that have been effective. You can write a comment at the end of this post.
We’ve talked about school readiness from the perspective of families and educators but what do children worry about? I was very interested to read one Australian study that looked into this.
What worries our kids?
It lists 5 main concerns noted by young children:
- How to make new friends.
- The alphabet, letter sounds, numbers and how to write letters.
- Understanding school rules.
- How to be nice, help and include others.
- What to do if someone hurts you. Children were quite concerned about the playground since it tends to be bigger than what they’re used to and there’s less supervision.
I don’t know about you, but to me these are valid concerns that we can certainly address. For eg, if you’re writing to, or talking to children, address these issues specifically, particularly the issue of bullying as it is something that is not usually mentioned until children have started attending. (Not that you want it to sound as though it’s a possibility!)
If you are in early care and you feel your children are too young to learn letters, perhaps you might consider introducing it gently into your play-based curriculum. It doesn’t have to be formal. But if knowing a little about letters and numbers makes young children feel more confident as they head off to school, then it’s something concrete we can do for them.
So to finish off I’ll restate the school readiness equation.
Ready families +
Ready early childhood services +
Ready Communities +
= Ready children.
If you’ve enjoyed this episode it would help if you went to iTunes to submit a rating and review. I read some really positive comments last week from people that are finding the podcast super helpful so please keep those coming.
Thank you for joining me to learn a little more about early childhood research, and I wish you happy teaching and learning.
McIntyre, L.L, Eckert, T.L., Fiese, B.H., DiGennaro, F.D & Wildenger, L.K. (2007). Transition to Kindergarten: Family experiences and involvement. Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol 35, No.1. DOI:10.1007/s10643-007-0175-6
Milburn, C. (2012). Preparing Kindergarten children for school. Found online at Essential Kids.
Miller, Kyle (2014). The transition to Kindergarten: How Families from lower-income backgrounds experienced the first year. Early Childhood Education Journal DOI:10.1007/s10643-014-0650-9
Phillips, E.C. & Sturm, B.W. (2013). Do picture books about starting Kindergarten portray the Kindergarten experience in developmentally appropriate ways? Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol 42, pp.465-475. DOI:10.1007/s10643-012-0560-7
Centre for Community Child Health. (2008). Policy Brief: Rethinking school readiness. Accessed from HERE.
Schaub, M. (2015). Is there a home advantage in school readiness for young children? Trends in parent engagement in cognitive activities with young children, 1991-2001. Journal of Early Childhood Research, Vol 13, No. 1 pp.47-63. DOI: 10.1177/1476718X12468122
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