Helping your child transition to school

By Kristen Bayliss
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre

At this point in the year the minds of many parents of preschool aged children
turn to the challenges and excitement of starting school for the first time.
We know that there are many transitions coming up for these children- from the
identity transition of ‘becoming a big school kid’ to the context transitions of
negotiating greater independence for tasks such as independent toileting, lunch
box balancing and lost hat finding.

While much emphasis can be placed on trying to accelerate classroom skills
teachers and researchers agree that children being ‘ready to learn’ at school has
a lot more to do with the socio-emotional skills and attitude to learning that a
child brings.

Being able to concentrate at a task for longer than 10 minutes and then switch
tasks successfully is an important foundation for a kindergarten child who has to
remain engaged and responsive to numerous different activities in a day- each
one important for their overall learning development.

At this stage children who are able to generate social solutions and negotiate
compromises amongst their peers are well placed for building stable and varied
friendships. These skills also form the foundation of logical problem solving and
the emergence of emotional intelligence. Families can enhance these skills by
asking their child to reflect on fairness and inviting them to solve common family
problems and disagreements with fairness and empathy. Co-operative board
games provide a fun opportunity for kids to experience working together for a
common goal, while traditional board games such as Ludo or checkers are a
useful education in winning graciously and losing well.

Starting school is also an important time to make sure your child’s emotional
literacy is developing well. School-ready children should be moving beyond the
basic ‘mad, bad, sad’ labels for their feelings and are ready to grapple with the
complexity involved in identifying emotions such as frustrated, lonely, left out,
disappointed, nervous, excited and proud. Being able to describe their
experience and feelings in these specific ways makes it more likely that a teacher
will be able to quickly get to the bottom of ‘tricky’ feelings and help your child
find solutions to problems in the classroom and playground.

Much can be made of the newfound independence and identity transition of
school starters and parents often feel the temptation to expect alot more from
their child’s behavior. Supporting independence at this stage often means
accepting some level of regression in behavior and self-regulation. Children who
are putting their all into adjustment to new routines, expectations and
relationships often have nothing left in the tank when it comes to managing
sibling squabbles, completing regular chores and maintaining an even emotional
keel through the week. Knowing your child’s weak points (tiredness,
possessiveness or wanting to throw off the shackles of conformity) can allow you to prepare to provide after-school experiences that refresh and rejuvenate them-
and you!

Approaching transition to school: Some tips

Transition is more than the first day.

Transition to school is a modern buzz phrase that gets used a lot. Often transition gets used interchangeably with school orientation but actually transition is a much bigger concept. I think we have a sense of transition to school being a big deal- but its not always easy to explain why. Researchers and Educators agree that starting school is “one of the major challenges children have to face in their early childhood years.  Another says that the transition to school “sets the tone and direction of a child’s school career” (Dockett & Perry). Sounds like pretty big stuff hey!

A good summary of the importance of the transition to school says “Kindergarten is a context in which children make important conclusions about school as a place where they want to be and about themselves as learners vis-à-vis schools. If no other objectives, are accomplished, it is essential that the transition to school occur in such a way that children and families have a positive view of the school and that children have a feeling of perceived competence as learners” (Bailey in Pianeta).  This is why a difficult start in kindergarten is seen as such a concern. A child who learns in kindergarten that they can’t manage what’s expected of them, can’t keep up or participate positively is at risk of concluding that they and learning just don’t get on.

Australian research of parents, teachers and school starters indicated that while kids thought that they needed certain skills such as writing their name or counting to ten before starting school- generally the teachers say ‘we can teach them to write their name, but it’s more important to have kids who can function in the classroom. ’

Transition extends over weeks and months until a stage is reached of ‘belonging’. When school is somewhere that a child belongs and feels accepted. When a family feels that they have a place and a voice. “Transition is a process that happens over time from when children are beginning to get ready for school until the time when they have adjusted to school, as opposed to a single point in time such as the day or week they commence ” (Kids Matter Transition to Primary School Review of the Literature). It’s important that families have some awareness of their own role in transition and actively participate in creating effective transition experiences for their child.

Culturally we focus a lot on the first day. The first day is important- but it’s worth noting that a lot of children have different concepts of when they become a school kid. For some, its once they go to kindy orientation, for others it’s in the uniform shop, for others it’s with farewells at preschool and new school shoes in January. Kids with siblings at school identify with the school environment from a very early stage. The first day marks a new reality day in day out- but good transitions start much earlier. It’s important that we embrace this changing identity rather than insist on a fixed start date.

Any identity transition involves trying on the new identity and decisions to actively put off the old identity. It’s emotionally helpful if this can occur gradually and naturally. It’s also helpful if we allow this identity transition to occur in the context of our communities and families. For some families it looks like letting their child wear their school uniform to the library or the fruit shop in the holidays- to be recognised by people they know and have their new identity acknowledged. For others a ‘uniform dress-up’ to show the relatives on Christmas Day becomes a rite of passage for kids starting school.

Putting off the old preschooler identity is equally a critical one. Goodbye cards and gifts of drawings of favourite preschool things are emotionally helpful to allow our kids to reflect on their early childhood years and significant teacher connections. These practices also provide the trigger for conversations about change and transitions. Other transitions and ‘first times’ such as starting swimming, soccer, moving house or changing class at preschool are also useful discussion starters. Telling a child about when they started preschool and they didn’t know their teachers and weren’t sure what to make of it- provides a powerful resource for thinking about successful changes. Most school starters don’t actively remember starting preschool and are very interested to hear that there was a process of them becoming familiar and confident in their environment. Conversations that refer to ‘we’ve done change before and we can do it again’ instil confidence in children that transition is not unknown or unique only to them.


Bailey, Don (1999). Foreward. In R.C. Pianeta & M.J. Cox (Eds, The transition to kindergarten. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes 63.

Dockett, Sue & Perry, Bob. (2001). Starting School Effective Transitions. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 3 (2).

Hirst, M; Jervis, N; Visagie, K; Sojo, V & Cavanagh, S (2011). Transition to primary school: a review of the literature. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Sayers, Mary; West, Sue; Lorains, Jen; Laidlaw, Bella; Moore, Tim G & Robinson, Rachel (2012) Starting School: A pivotal life transition for children and their families. Family Matters No. 90.


A Problem with Praise

Praise has become the most commonly cited tool in the toolbox for Parenting 101. From toilet training accessories that chime “you’re so great, you’re a star” to monogrammed reward charts modern parents are pretty creative when it comes to finding ways to praise and reward their kids for just about anything.

Concerned about your child’s confidence, motivation, self-esteem, or NAPLAN performance? Our culture sees praise is seen as the sure-fire way to increase kids motivation to do just about any worthwhile activity. And if the praise doesn’t work- parents can rest in the belief that because it’s nice- it surely can’t do any harm? Right?

While its true that carefully applied praise and encouragement can make the world of difference to a child facing a difficult challenge- the type of praise we give our kids matters immensely.

Carol Dweck, an American psychologist has been researching praise and educational outcomes for over 45 years. Her research identifies two types of praise and explores the links with persistence, perseverance and creative problem solving.

She says praise that focuses on traits such as intelligence and talent creates hidden obstacles to life long learning. “Praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride,” says Dweck, “followed by a long string of negative consequences.”

When kids are praised with classic ‘smart kid praise’ such as “I knew you could do it, aren’t you clever” they don’t go on to face challenges with more confidence, perseverance or motivation. Instead the ‘smart’ identity creates an obstacle to persistence and creative problem solving.

When kids are praised for qualities they see as fairly fixed- such as intelligence, sporting prowess, or musicality they also internalise the understanding that being smart means you should expect to do things easily. If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not. While these kids might perform ok when things are comfortable- when they are faced with something new, or competition they aren’t used to- the smart label comes back to bite them.

Instead of bringing confidence and creativity to new challenges, kids praised for being smart were more likely to avoid learning situations that they fear could be hard for them. Dweck found that kids in this situation put more of their energy into keeping up the appearance of being smart- and less energy into persevering, applying creative strategies or problem solving. As a group, the kids who had been praised for being smart lost confidence and enjoyment as a task became challenging. In fact, when kids had recently received praise for their intelligence they feared being found out so much that they were more likely to lie about their results.

So what’s the alternative? How can we use praise to be a helpful and effective motivator for kids?

Dweck identifies a second type of praise that is much more effective at enhancing learning and motivation. Process praise tells students what they’ve done to be successful and helps them draw the links with what they need to do to be successful again in the future.

Process praise focuses in on the particular strategies or qualities the child applied to succeed at a problem. It might sound like “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it” or “You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!”

Kids in Dweck’s research who were praised for their process of learning developed a ‘growth mindset’ instead of a ‘fixed mindset. This shift allowed them to see challenges as things that could be overcome with effort and utilising a range of strategies. In this mindset kids aren’t satisfied with just ‘learning in order to get good results’ but experience learning as a life-long process and improvement as something they can always attain if they are willing to participate in the struggle.

Two tips for praise with a growth mindset:

  1. Demonstrate a growth mindset by talking to your kids about your own history of learning and improvement. Tell your kids about the skills or competencies you have had to work to improve and how you did. Identify with them as they experience the struggle involved in deliberate learning.
  1. Praise the process not just the result. Reflect back to your child that you noticed them using special perseverance, creativity, problem solving or planning to achieve a goal.

Here are two web resources for considering effective praise.

Good material for thinking through helpful praise at different developmental stages.

A wider perspective on praise and motivation.!-Is-Praising-Young-Children-a-Good-idea.aspx

by Kristen Bayliss
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre