Transitions in the Lives of Young Children

Martin Woodhead
Peter Moss

Bernard van Leer Foundation and The Open University

Early Childhood in Focus is a developing toolkit for child rights advocates, which intends to set out clear messages emerging from academic research. Each issue is underpinned by the child rights perspective of General Comment 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): Implementing Child Rights in Early Childhood. This issue is the second publication in the series, a collaboration between the Bernard van Leer Foundation and the Child and Youth Studies Group at The Open University, United Kingdom.

This issue deals with the global challenges of 'education for all' children, looking at the implications of growth in early childhood education and care (ECEC), including a reappraisal of traditional concepts of school readiness, and a review of strategies required to ensure continuity in children's experiences of successful transitions. The issue is organised in three sections, each with an introduction and policy questions:

I. Early childhood and primary education includes "A right to education ... from birth"; "Why go to school? Some young children’s views"; "Progress towards universal primary education"; and "Early childhood and primary education."

II. Successful transitions: a question of readiness? includes "Readiness – multiple meanings and perspectives"; "Poverty, parents and children’s readiness for school"; "Children’s readiness for school ... and schools’ readiness for children?"; "Factors affecting schools’ readiness for children"; and "Readiness is a condition of families, of schools and of communities."

III. Early childhood and primary education – a global challenge includes "New evidence, new services, new transitions"; "Changing transitions"; "From preschool to primary: children’s perspectives"; and "Redefining the relationship between early childhood and schooling."

IV. Towards strong and equal partnerships includes "A strong and equal partnership"; "Successful transitions within a rights-based approach"; "The policy context: diversities and discontinuities"; "Curriculum continuity"; "Differences between preschool and primary: some children’s views"; "Pedagogical continuity"; "The experience of Norway"; "Linguistic continuity"; "Home-to-school continuity";"Professional continuity"; and "Achieving successful transitions."

The issue focuses on the continuity or discontinuity of transitions from ECEC to primary schools and whether a vision of partnership can provide appropriate solutions for young children. Though both early childhood and primary education are, in some places, marked by inequalities in enrolment opportunities and shortages of resources as described in the progress report in this issue, the UNCRC clarifies the child's right to education as beginning at birth and being closely tied to the right to maximum development. The authors suggest that using UNCRC General Comment 7 as a basis for community, family, and faculty discussion can help insure a successful transition for children.

The editors of this issue describe the ECEC experience in this way: "For most children, home is their ‘secure base’, from which they make the daily ‘border crossing’ to preschool or school, and return at the end of the day." They pose policy questions on how to make changes that will acheive early quality education, including all children, when the base of ECEC services is generally decentralised, and how to ensure successful transitions, accounting for the views of children, as well as parents.

"Readiness", described as the best match between children and institutions serving them, is, according to the document, readiness to learn, readiness for school, and maturational readiness. The latter now follows the theory that, through 'guided participation', those lagging in maturity can be placed in learning environments to be nurtured in development by peers and adults. The view that poverty undermines readiness for learning has been displaced, according to the authors, by a view of a more complex set of socioeconomic factors. Parents in poverty often lack the sense of agency in promoting their children's best interests, including their enthusiasm for learning, their language development, and their sense of self. Programmes designed for poverty alleviation do not necessarily benefit vulnerable children unless there is a focus on families and children's needs and rights.

"Readiness" of a school includes considerations of location, accessibility, admissions practices, language of instruction, and class size; teacher availability, preparation (including teaching methods and methods of keeping order without harsh discipline), and commitment (supported by professional training opportunities and sufficient salary); and teaching resources and sufficient record keeping to monitor progress. 'School readiness' of the child, the family, and the institution, can be monitored by government and communities and given public support (including funding and policy regulation) through a range of health, social, and educational services. Specific steps might include:

  • introduction of health and nutrition programmes within ECEC and primary schools;
  • provision of special classes and other additional resources and supports for children with language and learning difficulties;
  • training, recruitment, and adequate remuneration of the highest-quality teachers for first grade;
  • improving classroom resources, reducing class sizes, and improving child–teacher ratios; and
  • ensuring that curriculum and paedagogy is adapted to the interests, abilities, and prior experiences of children, including respect for their age, culture, and individuality.

The document briefly reviews major studies, including the Headstart system in the United States (US), the High/Scope Perry preschool project, Majority World Studies, and, more recently, twenty studies of parenting and parent child programmes in a number of countries. They show demonstrated benefits of ECEC, including lower drop-out rates and higher school achievement, lower referral rates to special education, lower dependency on welfare benefits, and lower incidence of crime. As ECEC becomes more available and accepted, it can establish a communication link between communities and parents and, as a 'hub' of children's rights, link to health care, nutrition, birth registration, child protection, and social services.

With strong documentation of the effectiveness of ECEC, the transition from this pre-schooling to school becomes a stronger consideration. The document cites the observations of children on the differences between ECEC and primary school: one is a place to develop through play, while the other is a place to work. The implication is that there are sharp differences: one environment perceived as nurturing the cognitive, physical, and social domains of learning, and the other as focused on subjects, productivity, and discipline.

Some countries, including Jamaica, Guyana, Sweden, Colombia, and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, interlink the pre-primary and primary school curricula, train teachers in the same paedagogic framework, try to include friendship groups in classes in the transition, and/or use ungraded and family-inclusive school policies. Use of mother tongue instruction in either monolingual or bilingual education has been found to enhance learning, self-esteem, gender equality, and social inclusion. When teachers are not prepared for mother tongue instruction, multilingual family and community members can be resources. The inclusion of families and community members - both in a consultative role and in active teaching and support of children - helps children adjust during transitions, as do peer friendships. Staff and teacher education bringing ECEC and primary teachers together and giving them tools to adapt curriculum for transition and inclusion has been a source of professional continuity when the rights of the child is their starting point.

Printed copies may be ordered here.


Bernard van Leer website on November 14 2007.