What is important when children start school? Ask your Granny

Several years ago I was interviewed for a research project investigating memories of starting school. This promoted my own thinking about what is remembered about school experiences and the implications that these memories have now for our work with young children.

I was reminded about this memories project last month when my grandmother, Brigitte, passed away at age 92. When she was 86, I asked her about when she started school. As people tend to remember important things and forget less-critical details:

What can we learn from Brigitte’s 80-year-old memories of starting school?

Brigitte started school several times, in a number of European countries, just prior to and during World War II. Her family was on the run from the Nazis, trying to avoid arrest. Given the trauma experienced through displacement, it’s even more remarkable that anything is remembered about starting school.

Yet, Brigitte did remember and her memories spanned the years before and after her initial start to school. This highlights that starting school isn’t a single point in time, but a process of transition that happens over time—something that transition to school researchers have emphasised.

Here are three of Brigitte’s memories that we can learn from:

  1. The schultüte (starting school cone)

When Brigitte started school in Germany she remembers being given a schultüte, a paper cone by her parents that was full of sweets and school supplies—‘Yay! You’ve started school!’

With the recent focus on completing transition statements and the neo-liberal push to develop children’s skills for success at school:

How do we celebrate children starting school?

  1. The teacher who was remembered

Brigitte fondly remembers one teacher who she described as ‘if you had trouble: he helped’ and that he made her ‘feel okay’.

Researchers emphasise that relationships are at the heart of positive transitions. Brigitte’s memory demonstrates that educator-child relationships are indeed worthy of our attention.

  1. Hitler’s portrait

Brigitte started school in 1932, just before Hitler came to power. She remembers being shocked when she walked past the headmaster’s study and saw a portrait of Hitler.

This memory has reminded me how much schools have changed since our grandparents, parents and even my generation went to school, but:

Do educators and parents prepare children for the school that they remember?

It is important to be aware of our own thoughts and actions related to memories (Miller, 2015). Research suggests that parents’ memories of starting school do impact on their actions and expectations of their children’s transitions (Turunen & Dockett, 2013).

Educators reflecting on their own memories of starting school and encouraging parents to share their recollections are two ways to explore the impact of memories.

Further, prior-to-school educators learning about what school is like today, through engaging in intersetting communication*, is a way to build vital intersetting knowledge* to support children’s positive transitions.

In many ways then, reflecting on our elder’s memories of starting school can enhance our work with young children.

Thanks Granny.

*Terms coined by Bronfenbenner (1979), to describe how children’s old and new settings can connect.

References

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miller, K. (2015). From past to present: How memories of school shape parental views of children’s schooling. International Journal of Early Years Education, 23(2), 153–171.

Turunen, T., & Dockett, S. (2013). Family members’ memories about starting school: Intergenerational aspects. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 38(2), 103–110.

Photos

  1. Carmen Huser holding her schultüte—starting school cone—in Germany in 1986. Photo source Carmen Huser, permission provided.
  2. Brigitte Hopps (nee Hofmann, deceased) standing next to her schultüte—starting school cone—in Germany in 1932. Photo supplied by the author, with permission also from Brigitte’s son and daughter.
  3. Schultüte—starting school cone—photo taken and supplied by the author
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Dr Kathryn Hopps-Wallis

Dr Kathryn Hopps-Wallis is an early childhood educator and researcher. She has a practitioner background working in a range of children’s services and schools including centre-based and mobile services, family day care and school age care. Kathryn’s research expertise is in transition to school, specifically communication between prior-to-school and school educators, which was the subject of her Doctoral thesis. Kathryn has travelled throughout Australia on various transition to school projects led by her PhD supervisors, Professor Bob Perry and Professor Sue Dockett. She is currently working as a Consultant, supporting early learning services with professional learning in relation to children’s mental health and wellbeing. Kathryn is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the School of Education, Charles Sturt University. Follow Kathryn on Twitter @khoppswallis

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