Children starting school: Research-based advice for teachers

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.

Children starting school for the first time are undergoing a huge transition. In yesterday’s post, we reflected on all that the transition to school involves—the emotions, adjustments, questions, changes, and challenges—and summarised some research-based recommendations for parents supporting children during this transition. In this post, we summarise key transition-to-school research messages for teachers.

Some of the ideas in this post will be more relevant to early childhood teachers, and others will be more relevant to primary school teachers. In the context of transition to school, ECE and primary school teachers have sometimes been described as being on opposite sides of a bank or border. We think that moving away from this traditional separation and instead working towards all being ‘on the same side’ or ‘in the same waka’ is the best way to support our transitioning children.

Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi
With your resources and mine, the people will flourish

The importance of strengths-based approaches

In Aotearoa NZ, Māori and Pasifika learners and their whānau, along with those from other non-dominant cultures and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, have traditionally borne the brunt of deficit approaches that involve identifying a problem and then placing blame on the person or group who are thought to be somehow deficient. Our educational practices have been slow to change in order to better accommodate the diverse cultures and backgrounds of the different groups that make up our society, and instead children who don’t ‘fit’ the dominant mould have been marginalised, criticised, punished, or left to ‘learn the hard way’ that they needed to conform. Researching new entrants’ transitions to school in Aotearoa NZ, Associate Professor Sally Peters found:

“It was evident that, in practice, teachers had some implicit images of parents and children, which operated as norms against which both groups were judged. For the children who met these norms, this did not appear problematic. Those who exceeded expectations were acclaimed, and positive cycles of experience often resulted. Others, who fell below the teachers’ judgments of appropriate ‘five-year-old’ behaviour and skills, were problematised from the very beginning, which tended to overshadow their strengths, and positioned them in ways that could make initial reputations self-fulfilling, unless something happened to change the pattern. Similarly, families were positioned in particular ways, depending on how they conformed to expected norms for ‘good’ parenting.”

We can lay a foundation for effective transitions (and longer-term success and enjoyment of school) by deliberately choosing to hold strengths-based views of our learners—all of them. Every child is a taonga (treasure) and brings a kete (basket) of connections to their unique whānau (family), community, and culture. Every whānau, community, and culture has rich funds of knowledge to offer. As we all become increasingly self-reflective, and we learn more about the cultures and life experiences of others, our own assumptions about what is ‘normal’ can be disrupted, creating space for increasingly strengths-based views of those around us.

Our early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, is fundamentally built on a strengths-based (credit-based) perspective. In the school sector, professional development initiatives such as Te Kotahitanga, Poutama Pounamu and Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities (‘Bobbie maths’) have all emphasised strengths-based and culturally-responsive approaches. We also have resources such as these Pasifika dual-language books, these guides for supporting Māori and Pasifika learners, and this report that considers (among other things) what successful transitions look like for tamariki Māori.

The importance of rich transition processes

At farewell or ‘happy leaving day’ celebrations for children transitioning to school, many NZ early childhood centres place a korowai (traditional cloak) on the about-to-be-5-year-old, symbolising their status as a leader within the centre environment (since korowai are worn by chiefs) and the many learning experiences the child has engaged in during their time at the centre (the many feathers making up the korowai). How is it, then, that on the following day when they enter the school environment, this chiefly, richly-equipped, successful learner can be suddenly transformed into a lost, unsure, poorly-equipped, just-getting-started learner? The overarching aim of the New Zealand Curriculum is to create “confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners” – so how could our transition-to-school processes better preserve the confidence, connectedness, and active involvement our tamariki have already shown in their learning?

The Māngere Bridge project, which examined effective transitions to school in NZ contexts, provided the following suggestions:

  • Using children’s learning story portfolios as a tool to support transition from ECE to school;
  • Using shared projects, language, routines, and practices that span across the ECE and school settings;
  • Establishing tuakana/teina (older sibling/younger sibling) relationships for children transitioning to school; and
  • Building strong professional relationships between kaiako (teachers) across ECE and school settings, with a focus on recognising the continuity of children’s learning journeys.

We now have some beautiful case studies that provide examples and practical ideas for teachers interested in enriching their transition processes as well as reports providing guidance developed in our unique context. Many early childhood centres have also worked hard to create dedicated transition portfolios that give new entrant teachers key snapshots of children’s learning and show how the child’s ECE experiences connect with the school curriculum. These portfolios are also precious artefacts for the children themselves – they can be:

“A belonging and empowerment tool; a means for school teachers to access to children’s funds of knowledge; playing a role in constructing a positive self-image about learning; and … valuable literacy artefacts.”

Reciprocal visits from ECE teachers to the school setting, and from school teachers to the ECE setting (as staffing, teacher release, teacher only days and ECE opening hours permit), are also an enormously worthwhile investment. These visits support collegial relationships between teachers across the two settings and allow the ECE teachers, who have often known the transitioning child for several years, to share their knowledge of the child’s interest, strengths, and learning dispositions with the new entrant teacher. These visits also contribute a great deal to children’s feelings of safety and security during the transition period, as they spend time with their new school teacher supported by the presence of adults they already trust (the ECE teachers) and in spaces they already find safe (the ECE settings).

The importance of play

There is overwhelming research evidence supporting the importance of play for children’s learning, development and wellbeing (for example, see here, here, and here), and the UN has even recognised play as a fundamental right of every child. Peter Gray teaches us that:

Free play is the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills essential for success and learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and, generally, take control of their lives.”

This isn’t just true when children are in early childhood education – it’s true when they reach school age as well. It’s only been in recent decades (perhaps linked to the rise in competition related to international assessments like TIMSS and PIRLS) that schools in NZ and overseas have moved away from play in primary schools. However, NZ educational researcher Keryn Davis emphasises that:

“Play isn’t some sort of soft approach before the ‘real’ learning begins.”

while child development expert Rae Pica says that:

“I shouldn’t have to defend play for children any more than I should have to defend their eating, sleeping, and breathing.”

There is an increasing interest in returning to play-based practice in primary school classrooms in NZ and internationally. Embedding play-based learning in new entrant classes, in particular, is an ideal way to help smooth the transition that children have to navigate when they move from early childhood to school settings. Our ECE and school-level curriculum documents are designed to weave together seamlessly (see also the detailed mapping here), particularly given the 21st century NZ Curriculum’s shift in focus away from content-based outcomes and towards overarching key competencies, and play-based learning allows these links to be further explored and enacted.

The importance of relationships

All of the points raised above need to be underpinned by teacher–child and teacher–whānau relationships that are safe, supportive, trusting, nurturing, inviting, and accepting. The quality of these relationships forms the context that surrounds tamariki and creates possibilities for their growth, learning, and belonging. Te Whāriki tells us that:

“[Young children’s] capacity to cope with unpredictability and change is … increasing, especially when anchored by the support, respect and acceptance of kaiako [teachers].”

and the positioning of relationships / ngā hononga as one of the foundational principles of Te Whāriki reminds us that it is through relationships that children learn.

Children’s first experiences at school set the tone for their schooling career, so it is critical that all children and their whānau feel welcomed and know that they belong in the classroom and school environments. As newcomers, however, both children and whānau will be looking for cues in the new environment as to ‘what goes on here’ – so it is critical for teachers to be proactive in moving towards children and their whānau, initiating conversations, offering welcomes, and inviting children and whānau to enter and enjoy the school and classroom spaces. Sharing the child’s ECE learning story portfolio can be a good starting point for conversations about the child’s interests, strengths, prior knowledge, and learning dispositions. Teachers can encourage whānau to visit the school after hours, to give the new entrant child time to navigate the grounds at their own pace, enjoy the playground, and practice finding their classroom, toilets, assembly hall, office, and other key areas. Teachers can also offer an ‘open door policy’ during children’s transition to school, inviting whānau to be present in the classroom for as long as they and the transitioning child choose. 

To close, the NZ Curriculum tells us that the transition from early childhood education to school is supported when the school:

  • Fosters a child’s relationships with teachers and other children and affirms their identity;
  • Builds on the learning experiences that the child brings with them;
  • Considers the child’s whole experience of school; and
  • Is welcoming of family and whānau.

We hope that the ideas in this post help teachers in their ongoing inquiries into how to ‘live out’ this vision.

Ko te tamaiti te pūtake o te kaupapa
The child is the heart of the matter


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. 

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2 comments

  1. A wonderful blog. Thank you Katrina and Jenny for pulling together such a compelling and comprehensive argument and resource for ECE and primary practitioners. This is the kind of good fuel we need to drive the transformation so urgently needed for our tamariki.

    I know this blog will go a long way to help validate the work of many out there who have made remarkable shifts in their practice, environments and mindsets over the past few years towards more inclusive and responsive play based approaches to teaching and learning and more collaborative approaches to support continuity in learning between ECE and school. It will also go a long way towards giving confidence to those who are just beginning to explore the possibilities.

    Kia ora!

    Liked by 1 person

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