Guiding principles for early learning to primary transition

Issue: Volume 101, Number 3

Posted: 16 March 2022
Reference #: 1HATED

Throughout Aotearoa, various initiatives are supporting successful transitions between early learning and primary schools and kura.

Terri (left) and learning support coordinator Sherie work together to support easy transitions to school in Ngātea. Photo/Charlotte Hood.

Terri (left) and learning support coordinator Sherie work together to support easy transitions to school in Ngātea. Photo/Charlotte Hood.

In the small Hauraki settlement of Ngātea, two learning support coordinators (LSC) have built valuable bridges for children transitioning to school, says head teacher of Central Kids Ngātea Kindergarten, Terri Bjerring.

She says that LSC Sherie Hughes usually spends a morning a week in the kindergarten playing with, and getting to know, tamariki and talking to kaiako about extra support some of the children may need. Fellow LSC Keri Richardson, who has been visiting the kindergarten for a term, also spends time with the children, getting to know them. 

“For us, the learning support coordinators created an extra piece of the puzzle, which we always thought was missing. There’s a huge amount of anxiety for a little person who has left the centre and is now thrown in the deep end at school,” says Terri.

Supporting anxious children

The kindergarten is seeing a lot more children with extreme anxiety which needs to be carefully nurtured so positive brain pathways can be built, explains Terri.

“If they’re resorting to shut down, they’re not learning. Sherie has successfully managed to transition some very high anxiety children for us – that’s because she put the time in here, got to know the children.

“A year or so ago we had a child with extreme anxiety and I had been working very closely with her and her family, building up resilience. She was starting to blossom in this environment and then we started talking about school, you could see her starting to spiral down. 

“With Sherie being here and hanging out, they created a lovely friendship. The child can even go and touch base with her at school and if she’s worried about something and she sees Sherie in the playground, she can talk to her. I don’t think her transition would have gone so well otherwise,” she says.

Sherie and Keri are able to convey information about a child to new entrant teachers at up to eight primary schools which the kindergarten and other centres in the area contribute to.

“We’ve done a lot of work here on working with young children with anxiety to try and help them overcome that. With having Sherie and Keri here we can give them a heads up and say ‘this child has extreme anxiety, can you please make sure that this and this and this happens’. 

“I know they’re in really good hands and I know that the support we have provided here for the child and their family will be continued through at school.

“These learning support coordinators are worth their weight in gold and that’s all down to the Hauraki Kāhui Ako organising it,” says Terri.

The shift to play-based learning in new entrant classes also supports transitions from early learning to school, says Terri. 

“Children learn best through play. You can teach through a child’s interest in so many ways – all the mathematical and early literacy concepts can be woven through that child’s interests. They don’t need to be sitting at a desk, they need to be physically moving, developing all those core muscles, which are actually stimulating the brain to be ready for further academic learning,” says Terri.

Confident and ready for school, Elise and Leo step out with Nichola in Petone.

Confident and ready for school, Elise and Leo step out with Nichola in Petone.

Research project

A teacher-led innovation fund (TLIF) project conducted in Petone from 2015-2017 identified that during transitions to school, children experience a dramatic change in status. The Petone Basin project included six primary schools and 27 early learning services. 

The inquiry team included Jacqui Pennington of Sacred Heart Petone, Georgina Frater of Korokoro School, Shelley Robinson of Petone Beach Kindergarten, Jane Cox of Alicetown Playcentre, Nichola Kirkwood of Imagine Childcare, CORE education researcher and writer Dr Sarah Te One, and project administrator Helen Kneebone.

Nichola says that kaiako and teachers from both sectors were concerned about the wide range of transition-to-school approaches being used. They wanted to change outcomes for 25–35 percent of tamariki who entered school as priority learners and remained thus throughout the rest of their schooling.

Action research and teacher inquiry models were used to examine transition-to-school practices and focused on two questions:

  1. How can we ensure that each and every child has a smooth and consistent pathway between early learning and school in the Petone Basin?
  2. How can current practices in early learning services and schools within the Petone Basin be developed, adapted and shared to ensure successful, coherent transition practices for all children?

Aligning competencies

Nichola trained as a primary school teacher and has been working in early learning for almost 20 years, with 10 years at Imagine Childcare Centre in Petone. As part of the research project, she focused on aligning Te Whāriki strands and The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) key competencies.

“As part of the project, we were tasked to come up with a different innovation. While I was already writing a farewell letter for the child, I didn’t make that visible to the primary setting, because of privacy. 

“The biggest change for me has been more overtly sharing the information and changing it to be more about the key competencies. While Te Whāriki is valued in our setting, it’s important to recognise that the primary sector is more familiar with NZC and, therefore I was thinking about what would be most helpful for them in terms of what their child looks like in a learning setting.

“It’s quite useful to see where that child has come from and what kind of setting has been involved,” explains Nichola.

Annabel and Marcus investigating Jellyear Fungus at the ngahere.

Annabel and Marcus investigating Jellyear Fungus at the ngahere.

Key findings

Key findings from the research include: 

  • transitions are a journey and an event
  • relationships and communication matter
  • there’s a need to overcome barriers to collegial cross-sector communication and developing understanding of the two curricula
  • ‘finding the familiar’ at school helps to develop a child’s sense of belonging and wellbeing.

Nichola says there are benefits for everybody if kaiako can support transitions to schools. She says a ‘lightbulb moment’ for her, was learning more about the struggles that each sector faces.

“The research was done during the time of National Standards, and we were saying to schools, ‘we need to come in and visit’. Meanwhile they’re grappling with trying to get across all that assessment. It’s good to have that understanding that everyone has different priorities they have to be responsible for – there’s always something going on and the sectors are quite different.

“Schools are amazing the way they welcome us when they have so many other things going on. We had a group of four children who had been together from infant to five and being able to go to their schools with them enhanced their mana. 

“They will go with their parent and possibly be a bit more reluctant to engage, whereas with me and their friends, the child just goes and gets engaged and has their friend alongside them and just has that extra boost of confidence,” she says.

While Covid restrictions have put a spanner in the works regarding putting many of the project’s findings into practice, it resulted in eight innovations using inquiry-based action research methods:

  • Te Kōhanga: A whānau-focused transition-to-school programme.
  • The Puriri Club: A transition-to-school programme.
  • The Farewell Letter: Links between Te Whāriki and the NZC.
  • Planning for Success: Support for priority learners.
  • The Korowai Project: Embedding a ritual for transition.
  • How Visits Help: Finding the familiar at school.
  • Moving to Learn: The physicality of learning to read and write. 
  • Kia Kaha: Learning through play at school.

See the full inquiry team(external link) and read more about the Petone Basin Transitions to School project(external link).

Supporting transitions

A huge amount of data was collected by the project and resulted in the development of six guiding principles.

Recommendations for teachers:

Transitions are a journey and an event
Take a long-term view of transitions. Start the process early, especially for priority learners.Incorporate flexible approaches to transitions as a ‘to and fro’ process.

Relationships matter
Support relationships between all combinations of adult, early learning services, school, child and whānau during the extended time of transition. Include community health and social service professionals in discussions about transitions.

Communication matters
Communicate in ways that allow all involved to express a point of view about their experiences of transitioning.

Traditions of learning
Means of learning and assessment. Acknowledge the different traditions and means of learning in early learning services and schools. Recognise the influence of policy on assessment shared between early learning services and schools during transitions.

Cultural context matters
Respect the cultural contexts and values that the child and his or her whānau bring with them when entering school.

Structural organisation matters
Recognise that early learning services and schools are structured differently, and that this affects their social organisation and impacts on transition experiences.

Ngātea Kindergarten's Kaeleigh and Briana measure themselves against the giant sunflowers.

Ngātea Kindergarten's Kaeleigh and Briana measure themselves against the giant sunflowers.

Supporting tamariki post lockdowns

Clair Edgeler, national education leader at BestStart Educare discusses ways to support children to return to onsite early learning.

Throughout the pandemic, children may have experienced changes to their daily lives such as their physical activity, increased screen time along with changes to eating and sleeping patterns. These shifts in life may influence how they return to their early learning centres. Some children may feel excited to get back and reconnect with their friends and teachers, while others may be more hesitant. 

Kaiako can be proactive to understand what changes have occurred in a child’s capabilities and interests while they have been at home. Using this insight will be important when developing a responsive ‘back to centre’ plan.

Some things to consider in planning could be:

  • Not all children will have had extensive access to playgrounds or outside spaces. So how might you support them in building up their physical skills again?
  • Centres are often busy, dynamic places and this may be a change for children from their home environments which may be quieter with fewer people. It may be useful for kaiako to consider how they can provide spaces and place where children can have quiet times to rest and relax. 
  • How can we offer reassurance to children by communicating what will happen next in centre rituals/programme? This will support a child’s wellbeing through building trust with their kaiako, lessening anxiety and building learner agency. 
  • Some children will have had limited opportunities to play with children of a similar age and may need kaiako to help them navigate shared play environments.  

By reflecting on our teaching practice and talking together with whānau to make a plan, we can ensure the best interests of tamariki are held at the forefront and support our parents to feel confident in their return to work and centre.

Are schools ready for tamariki?

A two-year research project involving new entrant teachers in Christchurch asks: What if it isn’t so much a case of are tamariki ready for school – but is school ready for them? 

Titiksha plants her sunflower seeds.

Titiksha plants her sunflower seeds.

The project was funded by Christchurch-based philanthropic funder Rātā Foundation and conducted by CORE Education, with 18 teachers from six Christchurch primary schools taking part in the research.      

“We went into this project wanting to find out what it takes to get all tamariki off to a good start in school, to equip their teachers with the knowledge and the confidence to make changes, and to give both whānau and tamariki a real connection to their school,” says Rātā Foundation chief executive Leighton Evans.

“It has opened our eyes to changes needed in our systems if we are to ensure all New Zealanders get the best possible start at school,” he adds.

Teachers found that new entrants got off to a much better start when they were happy and familiar with their new setting, when whānau were involved as they got to know their school, when there were familiar toys or activities, and when they had friends or siblings with them.

“Supporting hauora/wellbeing and equitable access to learning for tamariki is important at any stage, but particularly when they start school,” says Dr Hana O’Regan, chief executive of CORE Education. 

Some of the learnings and new initiatives:

  • The importance of familiar and friendly faces – providing a buddy system where a new entrant is paired with an older tamariki who will look out for them.
  • The importance of play in helping new entrants to settle into school, and as a basis for play-based learning.
  • Understanding that if whānau don’t come to school information evenings – it’s more likely because of other things happening at home or work, than lack of interest in what’s happening at school.
  • Avoiding information overload in new entrant information packs.
  • Monthly open mornings at school give whānau an opportunity to get to know the school and also make it more likely that tamariki will attend school visits before starting school, which makes them more connected.
  • Whānau will become much more engaged when they have the opportunity for one-on-one chats with teachers. 
  • Whānau are influenced by their own school experience –
    if their own experience wasn’t good or if the whānau are from a different culture or national background, there will be uncertainty and potentially separation anxiety – both for tamariki and whānau.
  • Sharing a school’s cultural narrative and waiata with local early learning centres means this is familiar territory for tamariki when they get to school, creating a sense of belonging from the outset.
  • The importance of putting the child at the centre of everything rather than making it all about the school.
  • The importance of teachers taking more time thinking about what’s happening in the classroom, rather than moving straight into problem-solving mode.

Already, the 18 kaiako  in this research have directly shared their experiences with 150 kaiako and over 125 educators via conferences and webinars.

The schools taking part were Kaiapoi Borough School, Kaiapoi North School, Ilam School, Addington School, Haeata Community Campus and Rāwhiti School.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:20 AM, 16 March 2022

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts