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How to transition children successfully in the early years

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

7 min read

Child throwing a tantrum in his cot before the first day of school

Why is successful transition so important and how can practitioners do it well? We share insights from nursery teacher Katty Knight and other best practice.

Any life is a life of change - particularly for small children, whose inner and outer world is in an accelerated change chapter. Every day is full of new experiences and the brain is undergoing more change than at any other time in life. What children do with these experiences, and therefore how they learn, is dependent on emotional stability which a child requires adults to provide.

Laughing child sitting on a bench in the school yard

A successful transition means children settle quickly into school, learning and developing from the get-go.

When transitions are not a high priority for schools and settings, children tend to experience change as a confusing and anxiety-provoking time. They don’t engage properly with learning opportunities in the next stage which naturally has a knock-on impact for their life outcomes. 

Transitions are important for children to practice building up new coping skills. Resilience goes hand in hand with a type of growth caused by 'positive stress'. These are healthy stressors and challenges, like starting school and meeting new people, which give a child the opportunity to grow. Change is uncomfortable and children need to be helped to go through an acceptable window of tolerance - which expands their capacity for handling change.

Because each child’s temperament, resiliency and home life vary, transition affects them in different ways. While one child may manage transition smoothly, another may struggle. A strong predictor of a child's adjustment success will be the capacity to which she or he can build good relationships with new adults and other children.

Children manage transition best when adults establish predictable routines and set clear expectations. They need to help children learn how to manage and express their emotions and teach them strategies to handle stress and manage their actions and behavior. 

Nursery teacher Katty Knight is a big advocate for transitioning children. We asked her what she feels is important about this stage of a child's development. 

"Parents and carers are key - if they feel informed and relaxed then the children usually follow. It is important for teachers and support staff to gain a friendly and informal relationship with parents from the beginning - with a 'no such thing as a stupid question' culture. This reduces parental anxiety and opens up easier channels of communication during transition management."

We also asked Katty to share an example of best practice.

"When I was working in London the support staff were involved in 'looping'. This involved nursery officers moving to Reception and the Reception teaching assistants moving into nursery at set points. This meant nursery children entered Reception with at least one familiar adult around, who the parent recognised too. This appeared to put the children and families at ease."

Transitions should help a child to learn that they can manage, even when things are difficult. Figuring out a way to handle a change at a young age, and adapt, is the foundation for applying those same skills later on in life - through school, exams, a first job and beyond. 

Children learn these skills by doing, not by being told. They need support while they stretch and grow their capabilities, but ultimately won’t learn if they are either overwhelmed or overly protected. 

What is the role of the practitioner during a transition?

Adults model change to children, because we are able to take on information about the future in a way children cannot, and so prepare ourselves. Children, who live in the present moment, rely on adults to communicate with them on how to approach and adapt to new environments and people.

Practitioners have enormous significance in a child’s life during transition. As they move on from formative relationships with one setting to another, they either take up the challenge of building new connections with other children and staff, or don't.

Katty believes managing and alleviating normal fears is key.

"I think the most important thing about transition is to release anxiety for parents and carers and most importantly, the children. For example, letting the children know where to hang their coat, where to put their water bottle and how to find the toilet. Lots of children don't want to ask such questions during their first day, particularly when they are at 'big school' and might think they should do it all on their own. " 

Parent and child looking up preschools on a laptop

Transition has been described as an ongoing journey rather than a destination - a process rather than an event. It is one which requires children, parents and practitioners communicating well with one another. 

According to research commissioned by the National Education Research Foundation, the best adaptation takes place where conditions are similar, communication is encouraged, and the process of change takes place gradually over time.

This places particular emphasis on home and preschool visits. Most children attend a preschool setting and practitioners there will know them very well. One way to get to know the new children is to visit them in their preschool and see them operating in an environment that they know, with staff that they trust. 

Katty believes timing is important for this to work and having realistic expectations of what is possible for each child's situation.

"Smooth transitions are easily achieved with time. Headteachers need to be on board to allow for this and support sufficient cover requirements so that practitioners can leave their normal class.  The typical 'transition day' doesn't always cut it and while it's important to have the formalised new parents information evening, I believe the magic happens in the little and often informal opportunities.

Our nursery holds 45 children which can be overwhelming for all of them when they first start. Home visits to new nursery children, alongside some 'pop in and play' sessions work really well, as long as they don't all happen in the summer term. When you're three years old, six weeks is an awfully long time! For nursery children moving up to Reception, it is important for their new  teachers to become familiar with them as soon as possible. Popping in to read stories, play games and join in with child-initiated learning will help to build those relationships early on."

Toddler looking at a colourful book after returning home from the nursery

Successful transition management requires a process of planning and identifying the key steps to take. Because this is such a broad topic, we have put together a list of seven resources covering key aspects of transition planning - this will enable any practitioner to dip in and out depending on where their setting is at in the process.

  1. Nursery World have set out ten helpful check points to go through as practitioners review their practice and approach. 

  2. The Key for School Leaders (registration required for five free articles) has put together excellent guidance on when and how to conduct home visits in the early years.

  3. Tower Hamlets have produced an publication to help practitioners further develop their knowledge and understanding of the impact that transitions have on children’s wellbeing. Their case studies (pages 25 - 60) cover a range of transition stages from which best practice is evident. 

  4. The Key for School Leaders have also published examples of transition policies and procedures for the move from nursery provision to reception from a number of schools and early years settings.

  5. Norfolk County Service (in partnership with Every Child Matters) have produced a handy one-pager which is a helpful and accessible  snapshot of steps to take in transitioning children from home to preschool.

  6. Oxfordshire Council has published a helpful good practice transition guide, designed to support their Early Years practitioners to prepare children for transition. This is an excellent compilation which can be used to develop a guide for your own setting.

  7. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education include helpful "transition in practice" advice in their article on achieving success for children. 

Remember - transitions do not always have to be a challenge! They can be fun, exciting and enjoyable for educators and children if managed well. Once an approach has been planned and adopted, things flow much more easily for everyone.

Carer with a toddler on his first day at preschool playing on a log

“The process of transition may be viewed as one of adaptation. The best adaptation [drawn from a study on transition] takes place where conditions are similar, communication is encouraged, and the process of change takes place gradually over time.” 

- NfER, 2005: A Study of the Transition from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1

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