Children starting school: Research-based advice for parents and whānau

Dr Katrina McChesney and Associate Professor Jenny Ritchie

With special thanks to the teachers of Greerton Early Childhood Centre, Tauranga, for their wise feedback and suggestions as we prepared these posts.

This week, 10,580 5-year-olds around New Zealand started school for the first time. Another 50,000 5-year-olds—including Katrina’s own daughter—will start school throughout the remainder of 2018. This can be an exciting and also nerve-wracking time for tamariki (children) and parents / whānau (families) alike!

By international standards, children in Aotearoa NZ start school fairly early. Most Kiwi tamariki start school the day they turn 5, even though schooling is not compulsory until children turn 6. Entitlements for 20 hours’ free ECE provision can continue until the day before a child’s sixth birthday, although (very inequitably) WINZ subsidies to support families with the cost of early childhood education stop when children are 5 years and 1 month.

International research shows that, in terms of when to start school, earlier is not better, and a less-than-ideal start to schooling can have long-term negative consequences. Therefore, it’s extremely important that—whenever our children do start school—they are well-supported by their teachers and parents/whānau.

The transition to school isn’t just a single day (the first day of school). There is a lead-up time, hopefully with a series of school visits, and then there’s an extended period once the child has actually started school as they gradually settle in, make sense of their new environment, and build relationships and their sense of belonging at school.

In these two blog posts, we’ve brought together a range of research findings to highlight ways that both parents/whānau (today’s post) and teachers (tomorrow’s post) can support children during this season of transition. We’ve summarised what we’ve read and learned, and provided a range of links (underlined within the text) to research and research-based resources for those who want to explore further.

First, though, we invite you to stop and think about what makes starting school such a big change for children.

The challenges of starting school

Children starting school for the first time have to deal with a lot that is new, such as:

  • New relationships (with both adults and other tamariki) – and, for some children, having to go into a new space where they don’t know anyone.
  • New daily routines, often dictated by bells and involving a reduction in the children’s autonomy and free choice.
  • New rules and norms that just ‘appear’ (often without explanation) but that are different from those at early childhood centres (at school, you don’t call the teachers by their first names; at school, boys and girls use different toilets; at school, you don’t play/eat/go outside whenever you feel like it …)
  • New physical spaces to learn about and navigate (How do I get from the gate to my classroom? Where are the toilets? Where do the big/little kids go at playtime? Why is school so BIG?)
  • New expectations for achievement and success, which may not eventuate as quickly as the children expect (“I’m a big school kid now so I’m going to learn to to read!”)

There can also be a sense of loss:

  • For the friends and teachers who remain at their early childhood centre.
  • For the familiar, safe spaces of their early childhood centre.
  • And even for their individual sense of identity and self-expression (one of our colleagues shared a story of her 5-year-old granddaughter who, on the first day of school, put on her new uniform—and immediately went in search of her pinkest, frilliest underwear to put on underneath in order to reassert her individuality and identity!)

Often children’s grieving for these losses is unrecognised—the children themselves may not even put it into words—but the disruption and loss can be reflected in their behaviour and their level of resilience during this transition. Thus, “the start of school is a time when mixed emotions need to be processed.”

How parents and whānau can support children’s transition to school

It’s important to keep in mind that all behaviour is communication. When tamariki start school, whānau may see a range of behavioural changes, including (for example) aggression, withdrawal, changes in sleeping and/or eating habits, clinginess/anxiety, defiance, restlessness, or regression in areas like thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. When we see these behaviours, it’s easy to assume that children are just being ‘naughty’, ‘difficult’ or ‘lazy’ but, in fact, children’s behaviours are closely linked to the experiences, feelings, and processing that they are trying to deal with on a daily basis.

Modern brain research offers powerful insights into what underpins children’s behaviour and how we can best respond. NZ neuroscience educator and speaker Nathan Mikaere Wallis describes how the brain is made of four components that form a hierarchy, from simplest to most advanced:

  • The brainstem, which manages basic survival functions like breathing and monitors our level of safety, triggering ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses through cortisol, the stress hormone, when we don’t feel safe (activated from birth);
  • The mid brain, which manages our movement (activated in infancy, as we gradually learn to control our bodies and their movements);
  • The limbic system, which manages our range of higher emotions (apart from the survival-related emotions like fear that sit in the brainstem; activated next); and
  • The cortex, which manages our cognitive abilities – thinking, language, logic, prediction, creativity, and more (activated last, as we first learn to speak and then continue moving onto progressively more complex activities).

Wallis tells us that this brain hierarchy:

“lends itself easily to the metaphor of building a house. That is; the concrete for the foundations needs to have set and the walls need to be securely in place before the roof can be added. Similarly, considerations of the brainstem, mid-brain and limbic system need to be in place if we are to hope for secure and robust cortical development.

What this means is that when we don’t feel safe—which can absolutely be the case for our tamariki during a big transition like starting school—our rational minds (cortex) and even our sophisticated emotions and emotional regulation (limbic system) go ‘off-stream’ and we are controlled by our primitive ‘reptilian brain’ (brainstem). We may not be able to regulate our behaviour or our emotions as well as we do at other times, and we are certainly not cognitively equipped to engage in learning our letters and numbers. So a core task for supporting children as they transition to school is to protect and nurture their feelings of safety and security.

Aspects of our physical wellbeing obviously contribute to our feelings of safety. Good nutrition, plenty of sleep, and predictable daily routines all help signal to children’s brainstems that their survival needs are being adequately met, so going ‘back to basics’ in these areas while tamariki are going through big transitions is really important.

In addition to our physical wellbeing, our relationships and interactions with others are a huge part of what help us feel safe (so that the brainstem can relax and we can reach our potential). Safe, supportive, trusting and open relationships with parents and whānau are critical anchors, and the home is a safe harbour, to support children’s wellbeing and educational success. Children need to be able to talk with their parents/whānau about their day without feeling pressure to ‘like school’ or to ‘be happy’ – and children equally need to be free to choose to remain quietly contemplative as they process or disconnect from their day. Parents should try to create family environments that are open to children’s feelings and experiences, rather than dismissing or objecting to what tamariki may share. No matter how school is going; no matter how they’ve been behaving—children need to know (at all times, but perhaps especially when they are coping with transitions or other major life events) that they are loved, valued, accepted and treasured for who they are—not for what they do, or how they behave. As parents, this unconditional love, acceptance, and non-judgemental openness is the best foundation we can offer our tamariki as they start school.

He tangata ākona ki te whare, tūnga ki te marae tau ana.

A person who is taught and nurtured well at home
will stand strong and secure on the marae [and elsewhere].

Cover image: CC0 public domain

Katrina_colour_squareKatrina McChesney completed her PhD in 2017 through Curtin University (Western Australia), researching teachers’ experiences of professional development in the context of an education reform project in Abu Dhabi. She has also worked on educational research in the areas of early childhood education, school climate, bullying/behaviour, and child/youth mental health and wellbeing. Katrina is a national council member for the NZ Association for Research in Education.

Jenny square.jpgJenny Ritchie is an Associate Professor at Victoria University of Wellington and the Co-President of the NZ Association for Research in Education. She has a background as a child-care educator and kindergarten teacher, followed by 25 years’ experience in early childhood teacher education. Her teaching, research, and writing has focused on supporting early childhood educators and teacher educators to enhance their praxis in terms of cultural, environmental and social justice issues. 


  1. This is an interesting and informative read; thank you!
    My experience with my own children is that they can have some of these same concerns each new school year as they return to school with new teachers, classrooms, and friends—even within the same school. Would you agree?


    • Absolutely! The children change somewhat as they grow and mature, but some of the challenges and re-adjustments are real each time they shift to a new class – or, eventually, when they shift to intermediate or secondary school. The changes are likely to be biggest when they first enter school, as it’s their first time in this new environment (and in future years they have their existing school experiences to draw on) – but, yes, there’s still readjustment with each subsequent change 🙂 Thanks for your comment!


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