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.


Child Habits and Rituals: The Curious Story of HABIT the RABBIT

by BRAVE BEL with Sylvia Ruocco from Alpha Psychology

Brave Bel is 11 years old. About two years ago she caught the ‘vomiting bug’. She vomited so much that she had to go to hospital. Brave Bel said that going to hospital was almost worse than getting the bug! After leaving the hospital, fears about getting the vomiting bug stayed with her. This was when some curious HABITS arrived. Brave Bel tried her best to resist, but the HABITS and the thoughts about them just multiplied. The HABITS began to dominate her life and she became very distressed and frightened.

Brave Bel was experiencing symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is a type of anxiety problem that consists of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, images or urges that are unrelenting, unstoppable and distressing. Children often know that the obsessions are ‘weird’ or ‘not right’. Compulsions, also known as rituals, are the deliberate actions that are used to relieve the fears or discomfort that are caused by the obsessions.

Brave Bel called her HABIT problem Habit the Rabbit and this is her story.

“You need some HABITS to protect you”, said Habit the Rabbit. Here’s what you can do if you think you are going to catch the vomiting bug:
1. DON’T BREATHE IN! Breathe out and then look at the sky
2. Flick your fingers
3. Step on specific spots on the floor
4. Avoid walking on lines

When Brave Bel did the HABITS she felt safe for a little while, but it did not last long. Brave Bel began to realise that Habit the Rabbit was a trickster. It did not matter how many times she did the HABITS, her fears of getting sick kept coming back. Brave Bel decided to give Habit the Rabbit some ATTITUDE! But first she needed to conduct a scientific study. She wanted to learn what makes Habit the Rabbit APPEAR and what makes him DISAPPEAR.

This is what Brave Bel learnt:

1. The tricky Habit the Rabbit thoughts appeared when Brave Bel was bored or tired.

2. The Habit the Rabbit thoughts did not appear when she was busy.
The HABITS did not appear when she was:

– Talking to her friends
– Reading a book
– Dancing
– Swimming
– Watching her favourite TV shows
– Busy with school work

3. Habit the Rabbit hates it when Brave Bel is strong, and particularly hates bossy comments like:

– I am BIG, you are SMALL
– You are just a TRICKSTER
– I know the facts: when I breathe in I take in oxygen not bad things

Brave Bel learnt that she is big, smart and strong and she knows how to make Habit the Rabbit small and powerless. She remembers what to do by using the RIDE* steps.

Rename the thought: That’s the trickster talking not me!
Insist that I am the BOSS: I can do what I want (read, talk to friends).
Do the OPPOSITE: If Habit the Rabbit says step over the crack, I step on it!
Enjoy the victory! I did it! I am the BOSS!

* Adapted from Aureen Pinto Wagner (2005), Worried no more. Help and hope for anxious children.

When is a HABIT a problem?

Many children have habits or ritual patterns that do not become a serious problem. Some ritual patterns are needed for healthy growth and confidence, example checking her hair in the mirror before going to school. A ritual is only a problem if it becomes excessive and time consuming, interferes with a child’s ability to perform everyday activities, and creates distress, dread, or frustration. For example, spending hours combing her hair and feeling anxious because she cannot get it ‘just right’.


Below are some references to some interesting resources if you would like to learn more about child anxiety and child OCD:

Chansky, T.E. (2004). Freeing your child from anxiety. Powerful, practical solutions to overcome your child’s fears, worries, and phobias. New York: Broadway Books.

Chansky, T.E. (2004). Freeing your child from obsessive-compulsive disorder. A powerful, practical program for parents of children and adolescents. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Rapee, R.M., Spence. S. H., Hudson, J., Cobham, V.C., & Wignall, A. (2008). Helping your anxious child. A step-by-step guide for parents. Canada: New Harbinger.

Wagner, A.P. (2005). Worried no more. Help and hope for anxious children. Second Edition. Rochester, New York: Lighthouse Press Inc.