Helen MR Hann suggests strategies to help children transfer into the foundation stage.

The girl walks down the street holding her mother’s hand. She has a bubbly, excited feeling in her stomach; she wants to run home but does not want to miss what is ahead of her. She cannot speak because she is so scared and anxious. She walks through the gates with her mother and is met by a skirt, a tartan skirt. She hears her mother say ‘She’s a little bit nervous, will she be all right?’ The next thing the girl knows is that the skirt has become a face with a smile, whispering in her ear:

‘Don’t worry Helen, I’m a bit scared, it’s my first day too. Let’s look after each other.’

Make a connection.

The girl in the scenario above was of course, me. Those few very simple words transformed my start to school and I remember them clearly even after 35 years. She took just a moment to consider my feelings, put herself in my situation and was then able to put me at my ease by making it clear to me that she understood. She made a connection with me on a very real and humane level.

If at each stage of the process of transition from any pre-school setting to school, we keep the children and their emotions as the primary drive behind any decisions that we make, we should be able to support them in going through one of a young child’s rites of passage with the minimum of discomfort.

A shared vision

When considering the departure of children from your setting to school, start planning a long time in advance. It would not be at all inappropriate to begin reflecting upon and amending your current procedures now, for children departing next summer.

Even if you have a very well-established transition process, it can really help you and your team to crystallise and refresh your ideas by creating a mind map or web of the key emotions that may be experienced by the children in your care at this point of transition. This will then help you to map out the connections which you, your team, the children and their families need to make in the coming months, in order for the child to feel fully prepared for school.

Key questions.

Whilst not forming a comprehensive list, the following questions may help you and your team clarify the steps you take. The suggested responses are only a starting point to help your thinking, and are not a definitive way to proceed.

Which school is each of your children going to? Will each child have at least one friend to go to school with? Encourage them to work with this friend at times within your activities.

What levels of regular contact do or could you have  with the teachers and practitioners from those schools? Most foundation stage teachers are more than happy to set up a working relationship with the leaders of the pre-school settings who send their children to the school. If a lot of different settings feed into one school this can become time-consuming to set up at an individual level, but there are ways of building professional relationships as a group. Start by writing a letter to all those schools who you are sending to this year, and invite their foundation stage teachers to visit you – during one of your sessions or over coffee at the end of the day.

When was the last time that you or your staff spent a day in school? Could each of your team spend at least one morning or afternoon in school every year? once you have a established a working relationship with the schools most frequently used by your parents, then this would be simple for the school, and could be managed by your setting when staff numbers will permit.

Would a meeting to share successes and areas for development in the transition process between you and school staff be possible? This could be initially daunting but if handled courteously, very beneficial to all involved. Before the meeting make a list of all the concerns that children and their parents/careers may have raised with you. Raise these in a general meeting if they are stated broadly, but keep any sensitive issues or personal concerns, such as a child with particular problems or worries about a member of staff at the school for a more private conversation between you and the teacher or the headteacher. Find out from your parents about parts of the process that have helped them in the past with their older children and share these with the school staff, so that they can be repeated or enhanced.

When and how often do you invite staff from those schools to spend time in your setting? Remember that schools find it expensive to release staff from the classroom, but with prior knowledge and some planning most will be willing to do this. You can invite teaching assistants or the head, as well as teachers within the foundation stage.

How often will your children visit school with/without you before they begin? It is a good idea to take the ‘little and often’ approach of taking a few children into school several times a year. As a larger group they could watch a dress rehearsal of the Christmas production or the May dancing, or any other festival celebrated within the school. They could go across and have a story in the library with you, or play ring games in the big hall. These large spaces are often the ones that the children feel most daunted by, and getting to know them in the company of a familiar adult will be a bonus.

Have you ever had a joint parent/carers’ meeting with staff from both the school and your setting? Again this will probably only be feasible with those schools who take the majority of your children. By sharing the process you can help the parents/carers to see that you are all professionals who have the children’s welfare and development at heart.

Do you plan in enough time for each of your team to talk with the school team about the children currently in your care? How do you share the wealth of informal, day-to-day knowledge that you have of the children, their needs and circumstances with the school’s team? This can be the most useful of all processes in the transition. You can talk about the children with warmth and affection, as well as handing on information about their development and their needs. If each key worker talks to the receiving teacher about the children, this should be a manageable process. It helps the school to group the children wisely, thinking about friends or about those who annoy each other and are better apart, and it can help the school to be prepared for any additional support some children might need.

How do you go about transferring written records? The information you hold about each child is used by the foundation stage teacher as she completes the foundation stage profile for the child. If you can familiarise yourself with this record, and see what information is needed, then it can be a great help to the teacher in school. You can get free copies of this from http://orderline.qca.org.uk/ quoting reference:QCA/03/1006 or by telephoning QCA Publications on 01787 884444. In your meetings with the teachers find out what information is useful to them. You could hand this over at the meeting when you talk with the teacher about the children. If you have any confidential information – perhaps you have a child who is deemed to be in need of protection, or have a court order preventing one of the parents from accessing the child – then this should be handed directly from the manager of your setting to the headteacher of the receiving school.

Do you plan in enough time/activities that will allow the children to share their feelings about starting school? Some ideas could include:

  • Have a set of books about school that you can share with the children. These can start the discussion of what the children are feeling about the change.
  • Set up the play area as a school following one of the visits there so that the children can act out what happened to them. If an adult is present when they play she can help them to make sense of anything which puzzled them or made them feel anxious.
  • Ask the school if it’s possible to make a photo story of a day at school that the children can look at with you. [We gave details of a similar book in the last issue when we considered transition from home.]

The responses that these questions generate should help you to focus and fine tune your setting’s approach to transition. If at any point you become unsure of where to go next, it can be very helpful to return to your original mind map/web or to think about the child that you have the most concerns about and consider what would help them. Whether you are undertaking a complete overhaul of your system or adjusting it slightly, try to be very clear as a team why and what you are changing and what things you are keeping the same.

Special needs children

These children will have additional records, may have had input from your special needs coordinator or may have a statement of special educational needs. It is a good idea to set up a special meeting with the school when you can talk with the school’s SENCO and the class teacher together. The parents of the child may value being present at that meeting.

If the child has a designated support worker it is good practice to include her, and any support worker the school may be providing in the meeting. Make time for additional visits to and from the school, for the child and the personnel involved.

Goodbye and hello

As the time draws nearer for the children’s departure, you will need to balance out activities that support the children in preparing for school whilst retaining those that are familiar and closely linked to your setting. This is very difficult to achieve but crucial to the children’s wellbeing.

They need to feel that they are still important to you and that you will miss them, but that they are ready to move on to school and that you are ready to let them go. It needs a very sensitive approach to each individual child to help them to manage their emotions.

For each child the separation from the familiarity and security of your setting and the adventure of starting school will feel very different and will generate very different responses. If you have access to a persona doll – or a large doll that you use for PSE – use this to open up the discussion. ‘Molly (or whoever the doll is in your setting) is about to start school…

Make sure that you build into your planning meetings, time to discuss this with your team. It can help to imagine saying goodbye to a close friend or family member and how that makes you feel. Then consider how exciting and terrifying it can be to make new friends. This will help you to formulate individual or small group plans for helping each child to say goodbye to you properly and hello to the adults in school. They will need more time than we do to fully assimilate these feelings and we should not rush
over them.

By working closely with the school team, the parents/ carers and most importantly of all the children, helping them to know what to expect at each stage of the transition to school on a practical and an emotional level, we should help the transition to school dovetail as smoothly as possible with the departure from pre-school. It is worth investing a lot of time and thought into this process.

Finally

Just a reminder, remember your first day of school… exactly.

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