For most children, starting school is their first real independent encounter of the wider world; being exposed to an unfamiliar environment, new faces and learning to make sense of new territory without the safety net of nursery or family members to hold their hand. Embarking on this adventure to ‘big school’ is a huge leap of uncertainty, but also of excitement and anticipation of what lies ahead for a child. For the school starters of 2020 however, this transitional phase proved to be more challenging than educators could have ever predicted.
During the Spring/Summer of 2020, England was in lockdown as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Schools and nurseries were open for vulnerable and Key Worker children only, with many educators furloughed or working from home to provide remote learning. Such restrictions had significant implications on the transitional processes for children aged 3 and 4 years. During my years working as a Primary School teacher, I have been fortunate enough to witness first-hand the positive impact effective transition has on a child starting school; the connections they form with peers, adults and the environment, the way in which they approach and manage challenge and conflict, problem solve with confidence and empathy, their attitudes towards new learning experiences and finally, and most importantly, their happiness and ability to be themselves in these new surroundings.
How should transition be?
Pre pandemic, scheduled visits allowed children to spend time in their new school, to interact with their new teachers and explore their classroom, finding out what school had to offer and discovering which parts excited or interested them the most. Teachers would typically visit the nursery setting and learn all about the child from the Key Person who knows them so well. Home visits offered opportunities for children to talk and play with their new teacher in their own surroundings, parents could ask questions and feel reassured by the person who would be spending more time with their child during the week than they would as a parent. Sadly, these usual events could not, and did not happen in the same way last year and it leaves me questioning – How were our children affected by these changes in transition and what can we learn from this?
The lockdown restrictions raised awareness of just how crucial communication between Early Years settings and schools is for transition, more so now more than ever before. Telephone conversations and email correspondence are just not the same as that face-to-face sharing of information about a child. Nursery educators have sound knowledge and understanding of their children and without doubt, this should always be shared with schools. A nursery educators’ knowledge of their key children goes deeper than a summary report or tick list outlining whether a child is able to write their name or can recall their numbers to ten. They are able to talk in depth about the ways in which a child expresses their feelings and the behaviours they exhibit if they are feeling worried or nervous for example. They know how a child copes with stress or challenge, their preferred learning styles, interests and fascinations, their successes and frustrations. They know how they are without their families, when they are their own self surrounded by other children of differing personalities. Communication between nurseries and schools was almost certainly impacted by the lockdown and it is imperative that lessons are learned. So, from here we move forward to the school starters of 2021 and we are optimistically hopeful that lockdown restrictions will be behind us and that educators will be able to meet freely again; free to meet to ensure our children’s first school experiences are as enjoyable as our children rightly deserve.
How were children affected by this?
At this stage, it is impossible to fully understand how and if the transition of 2020 impacted our children. After diving a little deeper into this thought, some reflections from parents and educators highlighted once more just how resilient our four year olds are.
Parent 1: “He found it hard to leave me at first as parents had to wave goodbye at the gate, so there were tears for the first few weeks. I could see through the window though that he stopped as soon as I had gone and seemed to be fine playing with the other children. He always came out happy at the end of the day, right from the start”.
Parent 2: “I still feel sad for him that he didn’t get the normal transition like his sisters did when they started school, but I think I feel like I missed out on all those nice things but was he really that bothered? He doesn’t know any different I guess and has settled in fine. He still met his teachers on a zoom call and had a couple of friends in his class. I think the friendships have been the most important thing, as long as they had a familiar face they weren’t as worried about starting somewhere new.”
Reception Teacher 1: “Most of the children settled in really well. We knew we had to spend more time allowing them to become familiar with the environment as they hadn’t been able to actually come into school for visits like they usual would. We allowed lots of time for the children to just play, to interact with each other, to get to know us. Other than slowing down the initial introduction of group teaching for phonics and maths there were very few changes. There are, of course some children who took longer to settle than others, but that is not unusual for the Autumn Term.”
Reception Teacher 2: “The main area we identified as being a priority was Personal, Social and Emotional Development. It was clear that boundaries and expectations were important too as many of the children had been at home for so long without pre-school or nursery routines. September and October are always the hardest times in Year R in terms of settling into school so we were prepared for it to be a challenge. We think that this may take longer than in previous years as the start of school has been so different for them, but so far, we have been really impressed by how well they have managed to adapt to school life.”
Although a small sample, such viewpoints as these do offer reassurance for us adults that our children did indeed, still embark on their journey to ‘big school’ with some positivity despite a pandemic.
What have we learnt from this?
From tragedy and trauma there can be light, and in this case, there were rainbows. Rainbows everywhere represented hope, gratitude and love. Covid-19 forced us to change the way we look at things and this includes the way we see our children and their capabilities to adapt, accept, cope and even thrive when the world around them is in crisis. Children have an optimism and resilience beyond anything we could have imagined. Did they get the transition they deserve? Absolutely not. Do educators and parents feel guilty for this? Almost certainly. But how do we move forward without regretting what could have been done differently? Just like our children, we must learn to adapt, accept, cope and ultimately thrive from our experiences as educators in 2020. We must be ready for any eventualities the future holds and recognise that maybe, just maybe, the transition of 2020 gave our children experiences and opportunities to grow and learn from in ways that they may not have had otherwise.
Jude (4) – “I’m going to school soon. I think it’s going to be up there in the clouds because mummy said it’s called big school.”