In this series we’ll explore how to improve schools in Australia. Some of the most prominent experts in the sector tackle key questions, including why we are not seeing much progress; whether we are assessing children in the most effective way; why parents need to listen to what the evidence tells us, and much more.
The next cohort of five-year-olds are just starting school. While parents will be proud and excited about this important step in their child’s life, some will also have concerns.
Will my child be happy at school? Will they make friends? Will they do well? And is my child even ready for school?
What is school readiness?
This question may sound simple, but school readiness is a complex construct with varying definitions across cultures. Some emphasise children’s skills, others the family, school and community relationships around the child.
For Indigenous families, culturally responsive practices are especially important during the transition to school.
But regardless of background, the transition to school life is more likely to be a smooth process when a child:
is supported by a favourable home learning environment, which includes reading with a child, playing games that support numeracy skills, counting, and visiting libraries
has experienced high-quality early education
is able to manage their emotions and be attentive, understand and follow directions, and play and learn together with other children
enters a school that is prepared to provide for the particular needs and interests of the individual child, such as learning or behavioural difficulties.
A child might not experience all of these, but even some of these things can help.
Early interventions by teachers or parents that build confidence and skills can also be effective.
This can include promoting a child’s language skill by reading to the child often, and using opportunities to encourage the child to think about and regulate their own behaviour. This can be done through taking turns, taking part in conversations, asking questions, and giving children time to be heard.
Learning how to interact with others and seek help when it is needed supports smooth transitions.
How parents can help
A child’s cognitive competencies, especially vocabulary, letter and number knowledge, phonological awareness and counting skills, are key for being ready to start school.
And parents can help support children in this area and strengthen their understandings.
Children who know and use more words, letters, shapes and numbers, and who enjoy and are good at counting or rhyming, often do better later in school.
Families – who are the primary influence on children’s learning – can help by drawing a child’s attention to words, letters, shapes and numbers in the everyday environment, and giving time for the child to express what they notice.
Importance of attending early years education
Attending good early childhood programs can help get children ready to start school.
In early education, children have the chance to expand their vocabulary and conceptual understandings through listening to others. They can also learn social practices that are useful at school.
This is especially true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This may be for many reasons. It could be because too few places are available; the fees are out of reach for families; or the quality of teaching is not strong enough to deliver greater learning gains than if the children had not attended at all.
Providers and government can do more to ensure early educators are well equipped to promote children’s learning during these important years of development.
Supporting a child’s transition to school
Successful transitions rely on families and teachers working together, promoting the learning and development of young children.
Policymakers, practitioners, researchers and communities together build the ecosystems that influence and support children’s long-term development.
Progress in meeting early learning and development challenges requires:
families to realise the value of excellent early childhood programs
teachers and families who work together to ensure smooth transitions to school
teachers who make sure each child’s program reflects their interests and enhances their learning
professional learning for early childhood and school teachers to help them boost and support children’s attention, motivation, emotional and cognitive abilities – and to design programs to strengthen these
government programs that target and reduce the causes of disadvantage for children who do not encounter positive starts to school learning
sufficient government investment to ensure all children can participate in excellent early childhood programs.
• The authors explore this theme further in a new book called Educating Australia: Challenges for the Decade Ahead.
Authors: Frank Niklas, Developmental and educational psychologist, University of Melbourne