Leaving preschool behind and entering Reception is a big step for children, but schools can do much to ensure their new arrivals’ experiences are positive ones, says Anna Ephgrave…
When four-year-olds set off for their first day at ‘big school’, they should be full of positive emotions – excitement, confidence and happiness. This happens if they know exactly where they are going, who will be there, what they will be able to do when they get there and how long they will be staying there. A successful transition means children settle quickly into school, learning and developing from day one. Practitioners welcome a class of children (who they already know very well) and these children are settled, confident and ready to learn.
In the worst case of transition, 30 children turn up at 9am on the first day of term, to a school they have never visited, met by staff they don’t know and where their parents are not allowed to stay with them. ‘Barbaric’ is the word that comes to mind, but unfortunately it does still happen. Transition will be successful if:
● practitioners know each child, including their interests and needs;
● the school is able to meet these interests and needs;
● practitioners have formed a relationship with each family;
● children know, and like, the practitioners;
● children are familiar and happy with their new school environment, its routines and expectations;
● children have met and made friends with some of the other children who will be in their class.
Visit the preschools: Most children attend a preschool setting and practitioners there will know them very well. One way to get to know the new children is to visit them in their preschool and see them operating in an environment that they know, with staff that they trust. In the summer term, the Reception teachers from Carterhatch Infant School spend much of their PPA time going to visit children in their preschools. Obviously the more settings that feed into a Reception class, the more complicated this becomes and it is easier if your school has a nursery attached.
If we cannot visit all the children, we ring the preschools to discuss the children, and if they say we would benefit from coming to see a particular child, then we make the effort to do so. At the visit, before the child knows who we are, we observe them to assess their social skills, independence, confidence, language and physical ability. After about 20 minutes, we have a good picture of the child and can then play with them for a while, having some fun so that they have a happy first impression of us. We take along a little booklet about school, with lots of photos to share and leave with the child – this can then be a focus for discussions and excitement in the weeks leading up to the transition. Finally we spend time talking to the key person and looking at any records or ‘special books’ and we leave a stamped, addressed envelope so that the preschool can send us a copy of the end of year report (with parents’ consent).
Play sessions in school: Not always straightforward to organise, but very important, are play sessions in the Reception class during the summer term. Again, if you have your own nursery, then this is easier to arrange – children can visit and play for an hour at a time, with a few of their friends. For children from outside the school, we invite three or four at a time (with a parent) to come and join in with a free-flow session in Reception. This allows the children a chance to explore their new class and to meet some of the staff and children who will be coming to school with them.
Home visits: We spend the first week of the autumn term carrying out home visits and making final preparations to the class environment. For Carterhatch staff, the home visit is the third time that they meet the children – the latter should recognise the teacher and hopefully like them! This visit is crucial as the starting point for building a relationship with the families, a time to exchange information and a further opportunity to gain a better understanding of the children.
Information gathered from the preschools, the families, the child and observations give Reception staff a good picture of the new group of children. They can then prepare the environment to ensure that every child will have a wide choice of activities, and also that routines and expectations are established from day one. For example, coat pegs, self-registration, resource storage and labels must all be ready so that routines can be taught on the first day.
At Carterhatch, photos of families are on display when the children come to school for the first day. This is just one more way to help them feel welcome and valued.
No matter how well the teachers know the children, the actual induction period must be carefully planned to ensure children remain happy and confident. Once we have some knowledge of the children, we decide which children would benefit from starting school in the first sessions. These are the quieter and least-confident children, possibly the youngest, and we also bring some good role models into this group. We have morning and afternoon sessions. The table below shows how, with just three start dates, all the children are on roll and attending school.
This model also means that in the vital first few days, we have a maximum of 15 children in each class with all the staff, meaning the children get quality adult attention and that routines and expectations are established immediately. It also means that staff get to know the children well enough that initial assessments are completed with confidence. Parents also play a crucial part during the induction period. We encourage them to stay with their child for as long as necessary and they help teach the routines too. This is especially valuable for children with English as an additional language as the parent can translate the messages from the staff.
As described, by the time the children arrive for their first day at school, we already have a relationship with them and their families, and the children are already familiar with the school. Therefore, many settle immediately and the parents are able to leave them within minutes. A few children may need a parent with them for several weeks and we accommodate this for as long as necessary. Eventually, we will make the decision, along with the parent, that they should leave. The most important aspect of this decision is that it is made jointly with the parents and also that the child is aware of what is happening.
The final aspect of transition is to decide when the children should stay full time. Rather than have a set timetable for this, we treat each child as an individual and decide what is appropriate for that child. We have devised a list of criteria that we would like the children to meet before they stay at school full time. This is discussed at the home visit and we explain to parents how much the children will benefit during the year, if we get the induction right.
Get transition right and you will reap the benefits for the whole year. You will have a group of children who are deeply engaged in their learning because they are with adults who know and understand them in an enabling environment that meets their needs and interests. It is definitely worth investing time and energy in this
vital aspect of our work.
Anna Ephgrave was assistant headteacher for early years at Carterhatch Infant School. Her latest book, Year One in Action, is available now. To find out more, search “Year One Happy” on YouTube.