Transition (back) to school

Some children have started returning to education settings in some parts of Australia. The word ‘transition’ is being used in the COVID-19 context—but what do we already know about transitions and can this knowledge help support children, families, educators and communities at this time?

Successful transitions

Transitions aren’t one-off or sudden events. They happen over a long period of time. The use of the word ‘transition’, for example, in the context of the staggered return of children to education settings seems fitting.

Although the process of transition over time is being planned for in some respects, it may take children, families and educators an extended period of time before their transition has been successful—even once they are (back) in their setting.

As educators and families start to think about this transition, and systems consider resourcing an en masse transition, the likes of which we have never seen before—a key question worth asking is:

What does a successful transition (back) to school, school-age care, or early learning setting look like?

Seeking the views of children, families and educators about this will provide clues about what supports may be needed in your community. There is also a lot we already know from transitions research that may be useful at this time. The rest of this article addresses key transition supports to consider.

Belonging and identity

Transition to school researchers espouse that a successful transition is when a child and their family feel a sense of belonging to school (ETC Research Group, 2011). Belonging and connection are also protective factors for mental health and wellbeing. Planning for ways that belonging and connection can be facilitated, or re-established, is likely to be important in the current context.

In particular, some children and families were experiencing transitions to education settings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, hence why ‘back’ is used in brackets in this article. These children and their families may have only attended their new setting for a few weeks, and some were still developing their new identity, for example, as a school student.

Emotions and Adjustment

Whilst provisions for learning at home during the pandemic has been the main focus of attention of education systems—as children return to education settings, it is vital that transition plans are made that dedicate resources to support social and emotional wellbeing.

Separation anxiety in young children and school refusal in older children can happen after a prolonged period of absence from an education setting. Planning for how to support children experiencing anxiety and stress will be important.

A wide range of emotions may be felt about returning. Educators’ and families’ emotional literacy skills will be important. The provision of emotionally safe spaces for children to separate from caregivers, staffed by educators who know how to acknowledge children’s feelings and provide comfort, may be invaluable.

There will be children, families and educators who have experienced trauma during their absence from their education setting who will need educators who know what to do to support them.

For all children, the expectations and demands of formal education settings are different from their home learning environments, and children may need time and understanding adults to re-adjust to these.

Relationships and Continuity

Relationships are a vital support during times of transition. Some relationships may have strengthened during the pandemic, but others may be in need of repair. Children’s relationships with educators and peers are known to influence adjustment (Wang et al., 2016)—and relationships between families and educators act as important supports for children too (Dockett, 2017).

Transitions are about change but they are also about continuity (ETC Research Group, 2011). Building upon what children have been learning at home, including experiences that they have enjoyed, projects they have been working on, interests and strengths that have emerged over this time will provide some continuity.

Previous research about transitions tells us that engaging in meaningful, reciprocal communication and relationships with families and children will likely be central to successful transitions (back) to education settings.


Transition to school: Communication and relationships
by Kathryn Hopps

Communication is a key underlying process that supports positive relationships, and this book will introduce educators to the transactional model of communication. Each section of this book is supported by a sound evidence base, drawing upon current international and Australian transition-to-school research. It also provides reflective questions and practice examples to illustrate how educators can implement a communication- and relationship-based approach in their work. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.

Dr Kathryn Hopps

Dr Kathryn Hopps is an early childhood educator, researcher and Consultant. 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. She is currently working as a Be You Consultant, supporting early learning services and schools to support children’s social and emotional wellbeing and ultimately grow mentally healthy communities. Kathryn is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the School of Education, Charles Sturt University. Follow Kathryn on Twitter @drkhopps

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