As George’s fifth birthday approached, in March, his mum Megan assumed he would be pretty relaxed about starting school. The third child, he’d spent a lot of time there already, accompanying his two older siblings on drop-offs and pick-ups. His kindergarten had helped him prepare by encouraging independence and talking about school.

So she was surprised when George became “very nervous”, she says. “He displayed a fair bit of anxiety leading up to it, lots of tears and trouble getting to sleep at night.”

Things resolved after the second of two school visits – “interestingly, the one where I didn’t stay!”

George’s teacher put him at ease with a calm and positive classroom environment. He could now enjoy his last week of kindy, including his ‘happy last day’ ceremony, and looked forward to starting school.

This year, George’s 12-year-old brother Max also started senior school, in Year 7. Although Max was not going to a completely new school, the transition is definitely seen as a big step, Megan says.

“The kids step up to a much larger position of responsibility in the school community. It’s a notable transition with homework expectations and leadership opportunities.”

While very different, starting primary school and moving on to intermediate (or secondary school, if primary goes up to Year 8) are two massive milestones in a child’s life. As Kahli Oliveira, a Year 1 team leader at Mt Albert’s Gladstone Primary School, who has also taught intermediate children for eight years in Gisborne, puts it: new entrants’ classes are “the beginning of it all” while intermediate is “a time of transformation, when children tend to grow up”.

The New Zealand Curriculum describes those middle school years as “a time of great change for learners as they move from childhood to adolescence”. Most of these children also transition between different school settings.

What does ‘school ready’ mean?

For five-year-olds turning up on their first day of school, there is no expectation to know how to read or write. ‘School ready’ children can manage themselves and their belongings, says Nicky Edwards, a new entrants’ teacher at Halswell School in Christchurch.

This includes being able to go to the toilet on their own, blow their own noses and follow a simple routine, like getting their reading book and water bottle out at the start of the day, or packing their bag at the end. Social skills, like knowing how to share, take turns and ask an adult for help, are also useful, she adds.

Gladstone Primary School fosters a ‘can-do’ attitude among its new entrants, says Oliveira.

“It’s the ability to try something new without it being too scary, or overwhelming or thinking that it’s not the right way to do things. Just knowing that teachers and parents have got your back; we’re there to help them but we’re not going to do it for them.”

Basic literacy and numeracy skills are useful but not essential, says Edwards. “We test early in a fun environment and teach from where the children are at.”

But, she adds, if a child is developmentally ready to learn, “then they really take off when they are exposed to this learning when they start school”.

A significant Australian study, Starting School, observes that schools need to be ready for children, not the other way around. Gladstone, which has a diverse ethnic community and wide-ranging learning needs, follows a similar philosophy, says Oliveira.

“Some children are really ready to start school; some would rather be playing with the blocks and in the sandpit. As Year 0 and 1 teachers, we have to be responsive and tailor our programmes to meet those needs. Each child makes individual progress, no matter where they start.”

It’s worth remembering you can choose to start a child any time up to a year later, when they turn six. “Children who are ‘not school ready’ tend to need a lot of support to manage their day,” says Edwards. But, she adds, “they can really enjoy being in the school environment, particularly if it has a play-based environment”.

Getting ready to start school

Families can help a child before they start school by visiting outside school hours to have a play and get familiar with the environment, says Edwards. Having positive conversations about starting school and encouraging self-management skills, such as packing and carrying their own bags, all help too.

“Our contributing ECEs [early childhood education centres] are brilliant and prepare the children well,” she adds.

Both teachers agree that pre-school visits are crucial. Halswell offers three visits while Gladstone provides between four and six. Parents stay initially with the child, but there are children-only visits too, as well as information sessions for the adults.

If new entrants feel a strong connection between home and school, they feel safe and they’re going to learn, says Oliveira. “We want those little people to believe in themselves. Enjoying school is paramount.”

Starting intermediate or secondary school

Adolescents starting at intermediate have different challenges. They’re no longer the self-assured, Year 6 ‘big kids’ at primary, but Year 7 newbies. Along with the sheer number of new students all starting at the same time, the other major difference, says Glenfield Intermediate principal Mark Whitford, is “the social, emotional and physiological changes that young adolescents experience during this time”.

A successful transition is essential to ensure there is no negative impact on learning, he says. The key is “building a positive rapport and relationship with the learner and family as soon as possible, and providing a variety of opportunities to visit the intermediate”. Connections with local primary schools are also crucial, he adds.

As early as Term 2, Year 6 students from the local primaries spend a day at Glenfield meeting teachers and trying out different classes. There are open evenings, an outing to see Glenfield’s school production, and other special events.

Whitfield urges families to take up any chances they can to visit the intermediate.

“Parents can also help by celebrating the transition as an important stepping-stone into the next phase of education. The more positive parents are, the more likely the children are to be positive about the move.”


How can parents help their child with starting school?

  • Attend school visits prior to starting.
  • Visit school after school hours for a play to get familiar with the environment.
  • Have positive chats about starting school.
  • Encourage self-management, like looking after belongings.
  • Don’t stress too much about literacy and numeracy at this stage.

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