Supporting Transitions in the Early Years – A Parent’s Point of View

The transition to school or nursery can be a stressful time for children, parents and practitioners. Children will encounter new challenges such as being required to concentrate for longer, more structure to their day, new people and unfamiliar faces. The most daunting part for them is adjusting to a new routine and being separated from their parents for longer periods of time than they are used to. Helping children cope with these changes effectively and making the transition as smooth as possible will support their future resilience to change, improve emotional wellbeing and their potential for attainment throughout education and life. 

EYR industry expert Jen Kinsman offers an insight into her experience of transition with her two sons, one aged four and the other aged two. Based on her knowledge of key developmental areas such as attachment theory, she answers some of our questions about her first-hand experience of transition, offers advice and suggests resources she has found helpful during this time. Jen is not alone in her experience. We share a handful of extracts from other parents and early year’s practitioners as a further look into their observations and unique encounters supporting the transition of children.

For more from Jen, visit her Twitter or blog Raising2Children.

What are your expectations of this transition period and have they been met?

Expectations

Let’s face it, moving from nursery to primary school is a considerable change, for my son and our family. It is exciting and scary at the same time. I expect all the main areas of childhood development – physical, emotional, cognitive, social and pro-social to be considered so that my son feels supported as well as meeting his needs (I know – I don’t ask for much!)

Since my son started nursery at nine months old, I expected nursery staff to help me build foundation skills that prepared him for all the different transitions that he might experience. Instilling a love for learning through play and building friendships is vital at any age.

Reality

Nursery staff are doing an excellent job planning and delivering throughout the transition period. The nursery has prepared my son academically, physically, emotionally and socially for the move. Alongside the EYFS curriculum, my son has participated in activities like colouring in their new school uniform and completing “all about me” questionnaires.

My son has been able to visit his primary school for an hour to play, familiarise himself with the building and meet his teacher. There were lots of interesting toys and school activities. The school teachers and head teacher were welcoming and amazingly said each child’s name which gives a sense of recognition and belonging. As expected, the children mingled, interacting with their surroundings and it was the parents that looked nervous!

How do you think COVID has affected transition preparation?

For us, the transition period no longer exists due to COVID

Since COVID the lack of face-to-face contact has been a struggle, despite virtual events and videos, it is not the same

I think the biggest challenge of 2020’s transition was the global pandemic itself!

Sadly, and understandably, due to COVID restrictions, we did not see the schools or staff whilst applying for a school place. The schools made films and PowerPoint presentations to help parents decide which school would be suitable. For me, it isn’t the same as getting a tangible feel about a place and the people who work there.

The school did invite my son to have lunch at the school as part of the transition. However, due to the extension of COVID restrictions, the school had to cancel the lunch. Having to social distance, wear masks and reduce numbers will affect how my son experiences his new environment and people. Facial expressions, eye contact and proximity are all important factors when developing new relationships and I am nervous about how COVID restrictions will impact my son’s development if further extended into the autumn term.

Some of my friends have expressed concerns over how the lockdown has affected their child’s social skills with peers such as sharing, negotiating and conversation skills. Our family circumstances are different as my children are able to practice social skills amongst themselves but we have also tried to keep relationships current by using Skype. It is never a replacement for in-person eye contact, cuddles or play, but Skype offers the chance for facial recognition and sharing stories.

How has this transition affected your family?

“As a parent, the hardest part is sending my children off to an environment that will expect more than what they are used to, more structure and expectations”

My eldest son is excited at the prospect of school, he is always talking about the climbing wall, lunches and playing football on the massive field. He understands that his nursery friends will not be going to the same school and that makes him sad but I have not noticed any changes in his behaviour or patterns that indicate he is struggling.

My youngest son thinks he is going to school with his older brother so it will be interesting to see what happens in September. Dad is confident and has no worries about our son making friends and engaging with school.

I want my son to feel emotionally and physically safe, be happy and curious to learn, I am nervous that the “academic pressure” of “catching up” will transfer to children even as young as Reception age! I love the nursery he is at and sometimes I have a wobble; the nursery is homely and familiar, school is new and I am trying to not project any of my little worries and fears onto my son. I know the only way to deal with emotions is to first feel them – so why am I trying to protect my child from that emotion? It’s going against my mummy grain!

What helpful topics or themes have you explored that helped with school preparation?

Lots of gentle prep, school uniforms in dressing up play, school visits, teachers visiting us, books and pictures of the schools in our area

I tried to make each experience fun and positive, using lots of positive language, engaging children in planning of said things like snack/circle time and so on

Having a transition object or toy has helped, this can lessen stress for the child during transition as the familiar toy can make the experience feel more comfortable for the child

The theory of attachment tells me that if my child feels safe and comforted and has proximity and predictability, then their nervous system feels calm and they will naturally be curious and want to learn through play. Stories, attachment parenting and linking feelings to behaviours have been key in preparing my son for school.

Validating and being my son’s advocate generates trust. Stories and play can explore transition safely, it can be child-led building opportunities for exploration, preparation and practice.

Reading books that explore feelings and social skills has been useful (we started 12 months before he was starting school so that this didn’t feel rushed or like another task to do), for example, “The Worrysaurus”, “Stuck” and “Jabari Jumps”. We did activities alongside each book to create an anchor or memory for example “Stuck” is a fantastic book about problem-solving so we began playing a game where my son thinks of 3 different ideas for a situation to try and not get “stuck”. In “Jabari Jumps” we role played climbing up the diving board, imitating Jabari feeling nervous. When my son feels nervous, I ask what Jabari did when he felt the same. It’s a great way to reference how or what we can do to recognise and deal with our emotions.

With your knowledge of attachment theory and transition, what can you recommend for other parents?

Attachment theory was a lightbulb moment for me, it explains how we become and feel secure in ourselves…

Transitioning to school is a big step for children, they will face challenges such as being asked to concentrate for longer and continue to try within a task. They will also have to do this alongside others. There will be times children will feel frustrated, scared, nervous, excited, happy, angry, determined and even helpless.

Our nervous system will assess situations and decide to fight, flight, freeze, flop or flock. By preparing the nervous system to identify what is actual danger and what is an emotional response to a task, I can help my son to make a conscious decision to respond appropriately in that moment.

Our task is figuring out how we can achieve a pace that stretches our coping skills without it becoming too stressful or overwhelming.

Can you pick out a handful of products that you think may be beneficial for children and parents during transition?

  1. Free Downloadable Pencil Mazes

Our school sent a list of things to consider supporting the transition period and one thing was pencil control. My son goes to nursery, so he can already write most letters and his name. However, he still needs lots of encouragement to control his markings. His E looks like a circle and a tail and each marking rarely joins together.

2. Super Sorting Pie

I want my son to be curious but not feel overwhelmed when it comes to his learning in reception class. Fine motor skills are key in many aspects of life, from eating with utensils to holding a pen and getting dressed. The Super Sorting Pie is great for practising fine motor skills as well as counting and recognising volume. Another idea is using the game as a scoreboard when playing catch or jumping games.

3. Target Maths Board

Have you noticed how toddlers make friends? My sons rarely start with talking, it usually begins with eye contact and a common interest like a toy. A good game that interests both children can spark a friendship. Playing a target game can stimulate conversation and camaraderie through encouragement, fetching the ball and sharing.

4. Superpower Superhero Figures

As you can see from a previous post, there are many benefits to role play and character exploration. My son loves superheroes so I use this to explore feelings and practice new situations like transition. Through role play, we can ask how a character may feel about starting a new school and what they can do to help with those feelings.

5. Writing Prompt Cubes

On many occasions, I make a cuppa and sit with my 4 year old and 2 year old (who dangles from the sofa’s armrest) and we take it in turns to tell a story. There is often a jungle, dinosaur, hero, ice cream and my sons within the stories. My 2 year old’s stories are 3 sentences long, my 4 year old’s stories are 3 paragraphs long and can last about 3 minutes. For some people, it can be daunting to make up stories so these prompting cubes are a wonderful idea to spark imaginations.

Laying the foundation for successful transitions

There’s no doubt that change can be tough, even for the most adaptable person. Entering a new environment often means there are new or different expectations and rules we must adhere to. It can leave us feeling overwhelmed or even unprepared and even more so if there is a lack of planning or clear guidance. It might even take a few weeks to adjust to a new environment. Now put yourself in the shoes of a small child who is entirely dependent on a parent or adult to make them feel safe and secure and are still in the pivotal stages of development. Smooth transitions will positively impact children’s education, so as parents and practitioners, we must try to identify, address and diminish any barriers they may face.

The perspective of a parent and practitioner may differ, but ultimately the goal should remain the same – ensuring children have an exciting and pleasurable experience during transition. Preparation, collaboration, open dialogue and interpersonal communication is key to create reassurance for all parties involved. Working together as parent and practitioner to create an effective partnership will ensure children are supported in the best possible way during transition.

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